Tense Narration: Present
Follows: Past Narration
Present tense is a way of delivering a story that is occurring at the time; the narrator, whether first, second, or third-person, is sharing a tale with you in the moment. It is becoming increasingly popular in fiction as it imparts an immediacy that allows the reader to live in the narrative as it is being delivered.
By following a character as they narrate what is happening to them as it occurs, the reader becomes a kind of voyeur and is swept into the story. Tension feels more imminent with present tense—whether it actually is or not—and the insights and emotions a protagonist shares in their live stream-of-consciousness can build a closer and more unique bond between them and the reader.
The next week, I start writing things down, the details, so I won’t forget who I’m supposed to be from one week to the next. The Hastings always drive up to Robson Lake for our vacation, I write. We fish for steelhead. We want the Packers to win. We never eat oysters. We were buying land. Each Saturday, I first sit in the dayroom and study my notes while the nurse goes to see if my mom is awake.
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk is well-known for using first-person present in his writing, and the style suits him well. In this extract he almost jumps from past to future, yet maintains present tense overall as the story is unfolding whilst he writes it. The character’s current awareness allows him to experience events with no foresight, just as the reader does.
The biggest danger with second-person is that you are telling the reader what to think and do, and if they argue with you, the suspension of disbelief can vanish in seconds. Often this is overcome, or at least subdued, by using a first-person narrator alongside the reader surrogate, yet writing it in present tense is still a risk.
You prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall? Very well, although you will benefit less from the intermittent breeze, which, when it does blow, makes these warm afternoons more pleasant. And will you not remove your jacket? So formal! Now that is not typical of Americans, at least not in my experience. And my experience is substantial: I spent four and a half years in your country.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
The brilliance of Hamid’s narrative is choosing to have it all as an almost one-sided monologue from the protagonist, placing the reader as a direct observer within the tale. This increases the present tense voyeurism of first-person and makes for a more immersive experience. Although it could be regarded as gimmicky, the elegance in which Hamid delivers the tale means his prose escapes that trap.
The detachment of third-person allows the reader to step back and witness the whole narrative, even if the characters are only living it moment to moment, and that makes it an interesting prism through which to frame a story. The sense of increased tension and closeness, combined with the objective and distant viewpoint, strike a good balance.
Autumn comes. Gregory goes back to his tutor; his reluctance is clear enough, though little about Gregory is clear to him. ‘What is it,’ he asks him, ‘what’s wrong?’ The boy won’t say. With other people, he is sunny and lively, but with his father guarded and polite, as if to keep a formal distance between them. He says to Johane, ‘Is Gregory frightened of me?’
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Mantel utilises the constant now of present tense, even when time is passing, to keep the reader engaged and ploughing forward through the story. Although there is a slight risk of alienating the more traditionally-minded amongst the potential audience, the intrigue factor of the style is a positive that brings in others. The way Mantel tells Wolf Hall, however, shows she is the master of present tense, as she recreates history in a compelling and here-and-now fashion that makes it effortlessly readable and thoroughly immersive.
Present tense brings an immediacy, as the story is unfolding at this very moment. The reader can experience—or be part of—the tale as it happens, and that can be immersive and intriguing. The popularity of present tense is clear in this regard, and used well it can be a wonderful style of delivery.
Next: Future Narration
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.