I had heard of them, but it wasn’t until recently — running through the Brewed Awakenings anthology slush pile — that I encountered a few in the wild. Writing experts caution us against such beasts, although the retrograde savages inhabiting DoWhateverYouWant Island embrace them.

I refer, of course, to the use of present tense in fiction narration.

The use of present tense, at least until the contemporary moment in modern fiction, worked mostly to outline action occurring now. Use of present-tense verbs in novels usually worked best in dialogue; for narration, it tended to find favor in flash-length stories — mostly to economize on word count.

Admittedly, the present tense has its charms. It offers an immediacy that other verb tenses can’t effect. It speeds through action at a stream-of-consciousness pace. For some exploratory fiction, the reliance on present-tense constructions may serve as a useful creative tool. In a memoir or personal essay, the tense helps drop the reader into the middle of a scene.

But defaulting to present-tense verbs for ordinary novel-length fiction? Think twice. And if you still think it’s a good idea, think twice again. And again, until you come to your senses.

It’s very hard to read a long passage of present-tense verbs. As an author, you lose control over your ability to manipulate the sequence of time; the timeline is locked to the main character’s point of view only, and in a sense, you’re stuck with this artifice throughout the entire work.

Understand, too, that present-tense narration really only works for a first- or second-person POV. Novels in a third-person POV with present-tense narration aren’t just challenging, they’re subliterate. I have yet to encounter a third-person POV story with present-tense narration that didn’t sound like it was written by someone who struggled with middle-school English.

So literary construction is a point. A second, deeper point, and one hinted at by writing experts but only really fully grasped by philosophers, is the nature of time in fictional universe. There’s been some interesting — but, unfortunately, not widely published — work in academic metaphysics that suggests that playing tricks with narrative time in a fictional universe can confuse a reader. Humans command an instinctive grasp of linear time. A story that does not clearly delineate temporal touch points so the reader can retain his bearings isn’t just bad writing — it’s bad metaphysics. Philosophers call it “C-series” (or unordered) time; it’s a sequence of unordered/unanchored moments of time, and humans are intellectually incapable of parsing it. So when authors pen novels that jump from place to place, but the narration is all in the present tense, a reader is genuinely unable to grasp the entire unfolding of the story.

Earlier, I used the word subliterate. I didn’t do so lightly, or as a gratuitous insult. Most authors who experiment with present-tense narration in third-person POV don’t do so because they’re excellent artisans of the printed word. Rather, they do it because they’re inexperienced apprentices and don’t know any better.

Pulling off the creative use of present-tense stories requires an above-average amount of skill. Most authors early in their writing careers probably haven’t hit that milestone yet. Until you do, focus on the basics of getting grammar, syntax and style right — and save the master-class work for a later date.

Writing in the Present Tense
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