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Present Tense Narrative

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The present tense is, as any graduate of middle school grammar knows, used to describe events as they occur. As such, it's ubiquitous in the news, magazines, websites, advertisements, nonfiction of all sorts. Most of the articles on TV Tropes are in Present Tense. But when it comes to fiction...

Traditionally, storytelling is done in the past tense. This makes sense, since it generally describes events taking place in the past.

However, there are many tenses available in any really developed language, and though it may be awkward to write mainly in the future or imperfect or pluperfect tenses, there's no technical reason not to do so. Far more common, however, is to write in the present tense. This seems to be a growing trend in modern literature, and is most popular in short stories.

The present tense tends to give a work a sense of urgency and immediacy, and as such is often used to increase tension in the story. The narration may switch from past to present — with or without explanation — to fulfill this end.

Stories which use the present tense sometimes take the form of a journal or Apocalyptic Log, but when not, and written entirely in First Person Narrative, a Present Tense story can feel whiplash fast, with the sometimes jarring feeling of the reader being right there, seeing through the main character's eyes and knowing their thoughts and opinions. It also leaves the reader with the question of whether the narrating character will even survive, whereas if the story was implied to be the recollections of the character written after the fact, we could reasonably assume they did.

When used with Second-Person Narration, the reader has more distance from the narrator, but now the story can legitimately trample all over the Fourth Wall, and the story still maintains a distinct sense of urgency and the question of actual survival. A writer may occasionally make a brief transition from third to second person to advise the reader personally in a friendly or joking way on how they might feel.

However, Third Person Narrative can also be written in the Present Tense; the story is still fast but the reader gets the sensation of being right there, following the characters in their adventure. Done badly it evokes frustration and a sense of helplessness, done well the reader cares deeply and fears for the characters' lives.

Not to be confused with Narrating the Present, a generally comedic trope where a character narrates current events in-universe to other people.

Genre Examples:

Work Examples:

  • An Officer and a Spy, a Historical Fiction novel about the Dreyfus Affair, is told this way. This proves effective as Col. Picquart, the narrator, investigates the Affair and discovers to his horror that Dreyfus is innocent and the real spy is still free.
  • Terry Pratchett does this a lot, particularly to create a cinematic vibe when describing a scene. He also occasionally uses the future tense during such descriptions.
  • The second half of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin.
  • The Kadingir series is written in the present tense, which makes the two-chapter-long flashback in The Queen of Kígal stand out by contrast.
  • Parts of The Tomorrow Series are written in the present tense; the whole thing is Ellie's diary of what's happened, which she's writing in big chunks at a time, so most of the action is past tense but a lot of the reflective passages describe what's going on amongst the group in the present tense.
  • In the Labyrinth of Reflections novels by Sergey Lukyanenko, all scenes taking place in Real Life are narrated in the past tense, while all scenes inside the local Cyberspace are in the present tense. This is also the first clue that the ending of the first novel never happened in reality.
  • Halting State by Charles Stross is written in present tense and second person. As in "You turn on your computer and check your email". With multiple viewpoint characters all referred to as 'you'. Since it's all about video games, the effect is to create the feel of a text adventure or RPG.
  • If on a winterís night a traveler by Italo Calvino is written in present tense, and second person in the chapters where the reader is the main character.
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon is written in present tense.
  • Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, the "End of the World" parts are written in present tense in the English translation.
  • Neal Stephenson mainly writes using this.
  • Katharine Kerr's novel Polar City Blues was written in present tense.
  • Played with in the Warchild Series. Parts of the narrative are written in second person and past tense, parts in first person and past tense, and parts in first person with the present tense. The shifts come as a result of the narrator's psyche. The parts in second person recount traumatic abuse that he's trying to disassociate from himself. Those in first person/past tense are events he's lived through and largely coped with. When the narrative switches to present tense, it's to emphasize the immediacy of the situation and the uncertainty of the future.
  • Damon Runyon notoriously wrote most of his stories in a style where every line (whether of narrative or of dialogue, and whether of past or present events) is in the present tense.
    "Yes," she says. "It is about him. He is a pig," she says. "I shoot him, and I am glad of it. He is not satisfied with what he does to me two years ago, but he tries his deviltry on my baby sister."
  • Bleak House switches back between a first-person, past tense narrator and a third-person omniscient narrator in present tense.
  • Rabbit, Run is one of the first major novels written entirely in present-tense.
  • A trope often found in Chuck Palahniuk's work, such as Haunted (2005), Rant, or Fight Club.
  • The novel Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin is entirely written in the present tense. YMMV as to whether or not it works well, or makes the book sound stilted and awkward.
  • Comic Books using Thought Captions naturally have Present Tense Narrative, since the "narration" is the character's thoughts. Spider-Girl combines it with Second-Person Narration: "You are Spider-Girl!"
  • The Hunger Games is written in present tense.
  • L.E. Modesitt is fond of this narrative style, and uses it throughout The Saga of Recluce.
  • Played with in the novelization of Crysis 2 (called Crysis: Legion). The novel is told in the first person by the normally silent protagonist, Alcatraz; it's presented as if Alcatraz is being debriefed, and he's recounting the events of the game, but oddly, he describes them in the present tense. This is lampshaded in the when the unheard interviewer doing the debriefing asks Alcatraz why he's talking like that (and so eloquently), and Alactraz just shrugs and says that he sometimes gets caught up in the story himself, and feels as if he's reliving it.
  • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel Tomb of Valdemar is framed as a tavern story, told by someone who met the Fourth Doctor.
  • The German novel Das Boot is written in the present tense.
  • Curveball is written in third person present tense to more closely simulate the feel of comic book narration.
  • Gene Wolfe frequently uses this technique, often requiring the reader to piece together the real story from fragments of a journal. In the Book of the Short Sun, the narrator switches between present and past tense depending on whether he is describing his past adventures, or the ones occurring as he is writing. Even the Book of the New Sun, which is almost entirely written in the past tense, pauses occasionally to describe what is occurring as the narrator is writing.
  • Hyperion Cantos, in particular The Fall of Hyperion, uses this during John's dreams of the pilgrims.
  • Matthew Stover sometimes uses the present tense in his Novelization of Revenge of the Sith, often accompanied by Second-Person Narration.
    "This is how it feels to be Anakin Skywalker..."
  • Stephen King frequently employs present tense narration in flashbacks instigated by protagonists in the moment (such as the personal memories of the officers in From a Buick 8) or to establish a parallel narrative (Norman's sections in Rose Madder and the 1985 segues leading into the 1958 sequences in It).
  • All Quiet on the Western Front is written entirely in present tense first person, with the exception of the very last lines.
  • Some of the work by Sam Hughes, including Fine Structure and Ra.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, a novel that follows a French and a German teenager through World War II, is told in present tense, even when the story skips backwards ten years after the first chapter.
  • Second Apocalypse: Some chapters are written in present tense, but others are written in past tense.
  • Three Dark Crowns is written wholly in third person (from the PoV of three young queens) in present tense.
  • Some chapters of Iain Banks's Complicity are written in Second-Person Narration in present tense. These describe the actions of a murderer. It really helps to hide the identity of the killer (even their gender) but is also very creepy.
  • Race to the Sun is written in present tense in First-Person Perspective.
  • This is often used in documentary films and television programs, to make the narrative feel more immediate.
    • Four Days in November, a documentary about the Kennedy assassination, uses present tense narration from beginning to end while describing the events of Nov. 21-24, 1963.
    • Dogfights narrates the battles in present tense with Super-Detailed Fight Narration while CGI recreations of said battles play out. This includes comparisons of the planes that are fighting each other and explanations of how their maneuvers work.
  • Zigzagged in Project Hail Mary: The astronaut protagonist is an Amnesiac Hero, working on his mission while his memories slowly return to detail the exact circumstances of his departure. Most of the story is in present tense, with his memories/flashbacks shown in past tense.
  • Empire Falls is a novel set in a Dying Town in Maine that makes extensive use of Switching P.O.V.. Protagonist Miles Roby has the most POV time, but other characters that get in on the POV action include Miles's ex-wife, Miles's daughter, a mean-spirited cop, the cop's bully of a son, and others. All of the action is told in standard past tense style...except for one character, Miles's daughter Christina "Tick" Roby. For Tick, a 16-year-old navigating the pressures of high school social life as well as her parents' impending divorce, the story is told in present tense.
  • Divergent is written in the present tense. The advantage of not knowing whether the narrator survives or not is used in the third book, where the main protagonist dies, and the final chapters are narrated from the perspective of her boyfriend.

Alternative Title(s): Present Tense