Some people say it’s a fad, some look down on it, but I reckon writing in the present tense has lots of benefits.
I’ve just completed the Curtis Brown Creative online course, Writing A Psychological Thriller. The course convenor, novelist Erin Kelly, says writing in the present tense can make a thriller breathless and more immediate.
And so, I’ve decided to rewrite my manuscript, a psychological thriller, in present tense.
I know, I know. Some time ago now, I talked about how I was thinking of rewriting my manuscript from third person into first person. Now here I am again, talking about yet another rewrite, this time changing it from past tense into present tense.
It just goes to show how many rewrites it takes before you even get close to completing a manuscript. But it’s important to get it right.
Here are some of the reasons I’ve decided that writing in the present tense is the right thing to do for my story.
Immediacy. Present tense makes everything more current. It’s all happening right now, rather than in the past. This gives a heightened sense of excitement and a feeling of ‘what’s going to happen next?’
Dramatic. Screenplays are written in present tense so it can give a novel a dramatic, cinematic feel.
Familiarity with the narrator. The reader is right there with the POV character as everything unfolds, seeing everything as the character sees it. Present tense helps the reader feel like they’re on the same journey as the character.
Short, snappy sentences. I’ve deleted so many uses of the word “had”, which has made my sentences look much cleaner and flow more smoothly. This means less words for the reader to trip over when they’re trying to get to the action of the story.
There are some drawbacks to writing in the present tense. It makes flashback scenes a little confusing and clunky. Shifting into simple past when a flashback starts is easier said than done.
And while writing in present tense has been a good way to make my sentences shorter and snappier, it does mean I have to include more of the trivial events the characters perform, simply because they would actually happen in the natural course of events.
Not every reader will like reading a story in present tense, just as some readers prefer third person narration to first person narration. There are a few people who’ll get a bit snooty about their preferences. However, there’s shifts from past tense to present tense in Jane Eyre, not to mention Cat’s Eye, so if it’s good enough for Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood…
As always, it’s up to the writer to decide which tense suits their story. It might also depend on the genre you’re writing in. For example, I think present tense works well for a thriller. The best way to find out which tense works best for you is by writing your story in both past and present tenses. Try them on for size and see which feels the most natural.
I first started using present tense when I wrote my short story The Sound the Sea Makes, which is published this month in Lighthouse – An Anthology. For a short story with suspenseful elements, the present tense worked well as it propelled the narrative forward and kept the pace moving.
My story sits alongside several other short stories, some written in past tense and some in present tense.
Lighthouse – An Anthology is a unique multi-genre collection of short stories that celebrate lighthouses. From sci-fi and fantasy to romance and crime – and everything in between – Lighthouse features exciting voices from emerging and established Australian writers.
You can secure your copy right now by visiting the Lorikeet Ink site.