Robert Smythe

Present or Past Tense?

I do a lot of editing of beginning writers' works. Many are written in present tense. Today I am reading a novel by bestselling author Scott Turow written in present tense. In the past I advised beginners to stay away from present tense. Increasing number of today's books are appearing written in present. 

I surveyed books at Chapters, the huge bookstore in my town. I picked thirty books at random by different authors from the science fiction aisle, and thirty from the fantasy shelves. Only one was in present tense. (FYI: Almost all were written in 3rd person. In sci-fi, eight were in 1st, and in fantasy, six.) I find that a story written in present tense (e.g. I turn the corner and see a swarthy looking bloke striding toward me. He stops and stares at me.) reminds me of teen-talk. I'll bet you have heard young people speak like this:

Yesterday was a disaster. I go into the school and guess what. I see my ex-boyfriend talking to Sharon. I'm like, "Whoa!" I try to go the other way but he sees me. He comes to me and says he want's us to get back together. I'm like, "No way, dude." I tell him to get lost.

​Have you heard people talk that way, using present tense to relate what happened yesterday? That's the way many people talk today (and not just teens.) I don't think it's worth the risk to write in present tense and have an editor wince at what he or she might consider to be the mark of an amateur writer.

Many people who do try to write in present tense think that it's more immediate, that the reader feels that the protagonist's experiences are happening right now, rather than happened some time ago, which past tense seems to imply. This is not good reasoning. Even though written in the past tense, a vivid story is accepted by the reader as taking place in real time, whether placed in the distant past, today, or the future. A reader will suspend disbelief and walk with your characters if you make them come alive.

Here's what a professional editor, Ellen Brock, says about present tense on her website:

There are many agents and editors who have a written or unwritten policy not to accept fiction in the present tense (this seems especially common in adult science fiction and fantasy). Aside from maybe second person, it's one of the most widely hated styles.

Why take the risk that an agent or publisher will shy away from a manuscript written in present tense? Write in past tense. Save present tense for your second bestselling novel.