The Benefits and Drawbacks of Present Tense

A series looking at the advantages and disadvantages of writing in different tenses. This essay covers the pros and cons of present tense.

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© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Past Tense

When you write, there are numerous things that you need to decide. The tense you use in is one of those things, and choosing the right one for your story will set the tone and pace perfectly. This essay looks at present tense; what it is and the positives and negatives of using it.

Present tense is writing your piece with the view that these events are happening as you describe them. You are literally writing about the here and now. There are four different types of present tense: simple present, present continuous, present perfect, and present perfect continuous.

Simple Present

Simple present tense is used to describe an action or event that is usual or repetitive, happening now, for scheduled events in the near future or for facts or generalisations.

I write books. I am writing a book. My book is published tomorrow. My book is awesome.

Present Continuous

Present continuous tense is used to describe something that is happening now. This includes longer actions that are in progress.

I am learning how to write a book.

Present Perfect

Present perfect tense is used to describe an action that happened at an unspecified time prior to now. This cannot be used with specified times such as ‘yesterday’ or ‘when I was a child.’

I have read my book.

Alternatively, it can be used to show an event that had a duration in the past and has ended now.

I have had my book for three weeks.

Present Perfect Continuous

Present perfect continuous tense is used to describe an event or action that something started in the past and has continued up until now. This can include vague durations, or without durations entirely.

I have been writing a book lately.

Each different iteration of present tense can and should be used in your work if you are writing about the present. They should all culminate together.

I smoke. I’m smoking right now. I’m giving up tomorrow. It’s really bad for me. I’ve had friends die to these little sticks. I’m trying to give up. I gave up once for two days. I’ve been coughing a lot recently.

You don’t need to worry about the nitty gritty details of which type of present tense you are using for a particular sentence at one time, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind the differences between each and use them to convey the message that you are trying to convey. But is present tense the right one for your story?

The Benefits

The immediacy of present tense really allows you, the writer, to connect to the reader. The here and now of events, describing them as they happen is very reminiscent of real life. As such, you are in a greater position to connect these events with the reader.

Present tense can do wonders to add traits to your characters. It can show a character that only lives in the here and now, completely ignoring the past or future. You can very easily show how past events play on their minds and impact the current series of events. It can also be quite a good tool when you have a character that has a disorientated state of mind, as present tense is one of the easiest of the tenses to show something like this convincingly.

The Drawbacks

The here and now of present tense means that hopping around time is much more challenging to do in a way that isn’t jarring. It is doable but if it’s done wrong, it’s terrible and it’s quite hard to get right. Because of this, you’ll also be tempted to include a lot of the boring details that nobody really wants to read about or pull people out of the story, such as the day to day activities of real life.

It is a lot harder to show a bit of backstory or exposition. Flashbacks tend to break up the story and they tend to be put in there just to explain something. With this, it’s harder to build your character and your stories.

Because of very nature of present tense, it is much harder for narration that looks at the whole picture. When you’re in the events, it is often unclear as to why they came about and there’s much less opportunity for reflection.

I’m not a huge fan of present tense when I’m writing. I’m fine reading it; it’s just not something that I enjoy working with as much as I do past tense. Having said that, much like past tense, the drawbacks can largely be overcome with good writing. I have read many books in present tense that have created engaging stories and characters that I connect with. You can do that too.


Next: Future Tense

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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