On Being Tense about Tense: Present Tense Narratives in Novels
In our last article about verb tense in stories, we wrote about the things you need to consider while writing a past tense narrative. In this one, we will tell you about how to construct a present tense narrative.
One common reason that writers use the present tense in narrative fiction (anchor their narratives in the present tense) is to make the reader believe that a story is happening as they are reading it. There is a certain sense of immediacy and urgency, and an air of suspense. Your reader literally does not know what is about to happen next.
Many contemporary young adult novels, like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, are written in the present tense.
Look at this example from The Hunger Games.
Gale spreads the bread slices with the soft goat cheese, carefully placing a basil leaf on each while I strip the bushes of their berries. We settle back in a nook in the rocks. From this place, we are invisible but have a clear view of the valley, which is teeming with summer life, greens to gather, roots to dig, fish iridescent in the sunlight. The day is glorious, with a blue sky and soft breeze.
Look at the verbs in the paragraph:
“Gale spreads the bread slices with the soft goat cheese…”
“The day is glorious, with a blue sky and soft breeze.”
All these verbs are in the present tense: the prose is written as if Katniss is narrating these events as she and Gale are preparing for their meal.
Just like this example, all narratives anchored in the present tense are written in the simple present tense.
What is Historic Present?
Historic present (also known as dramatic present or narrative present) is the usage of the present tense to describe things of the past.
It is a stylistic device that is used in literature to make the story more vivid, immediate and exciting. It is often used to draw the reader into the experience of the story itself, making it more dramatic. The idea is to remove the story out of its original time period to bring it to the present. In a way, this brings the story much closer to the reader.
For example, to if I were to describe the story of how I got delayed for work in the historical present, this is how I would do it:
So, I walk out of my house at about 8:45 AM and try to book an Uber to go to work. After 10 minutes of trying in vain, I abandon the app and just start walking along my street to hail a taxi. That doesn’t work either. Half another later, after I realize that no one is willing to go to our locality, I just give up and start walking to work.
And, that’s why I am late today.
Writing a Flashback in a Present Tense Narrative
In our previous article, we defined a flashback as any piece of writing, within a story, that refers to or describes anything that happened before the story’s timeline. Since literature always involves a person narrating, a flashback is generally the narrator recollecting an event of the past.
What tense do you use to write a flashback? This one’s pretty simple. If your narrative is anchored in the present tense, then your flashback is in the past tense.
Let us try to deconstruct this example from The Hunger Games.
On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space. Most businesses are closed by this time on reaping day, but the black market’s still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good bread, the other two for salt.
Did you spot when the tense changed to the simple past tense? Cool!
If you didn’t, though, let’s look again closely:
On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal.
When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space.
Most businesses are closed by this time on reaping day, but the black market’s still fairly busy. We easily trade six of the fish for good bread, the other two for salt.
When we split the paragraph into three parts, it is much easier to spot the tense change. In the first sentence, Katniss tells us that she passed the Hob when she and Gale were returning home. In the second sentence, she tells us a bit about how the Hob came about. That is history, right? She’s only telling us about it. Collins has switched to the past tense for this. She continues the paragraph in the present tense since that’s her dominant narrative style.
Some things to think about
The interesting thing about present tense narratives is that they are a fairly new literary trend. It was initially thought of as an experimental way of approaching narrative styles, and is only beginning to gain prominence. However, there is a lot of debate as to when they should be used, and whether they work at all. That’s something for you, the author, to think about because a lot of your story also hinges on the tense you choose to narrate your story in.
Present tense narratives or past tense narratives? There’s a lot to be considered when you make that decision. But don’t worry, because we’ll be back very soon to help you navigate that decision.
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