By Mignon Fogarty

Should you write your novel in present tense?
I usually deal with topics that can be widely applied to fiction and non-fiction writing, but recently I was on a plane reading Seth Harwood’s crime novel Jack Wakes Up, and I was struck by the fact that it was written in the present tense. That present tense writing really stood out the whole time I was reading the book and got me thinking about how people use tense in writing.

Fiction writing is outside my area of expertise, but very much worth discussing, and I welcome your comments if you want to add to the discussion.

What Are the Basic Tenses?

Back to tense.

First here are some examples of simple tense so we’re all on the same page:

Present tense is when you write as if things are happening right now. For example, the first sentence of Jack Wakes Up is Jack walks into a diner just south of Japantown.

Past tense is when you write as if things happened in the past. If you rewrite that first sentence in the past tense, you get Jack WALKED into a diner just south of Japantown.

Those are the basics, but there are many other tenses such as progressive, perfect, and perfect progressive.

Major English Verb Tenses


Simple present
Jack walks
verb (+ s/es for third person)
Present progressive
Jack is walking
am/is/are + present participle
Present perfect
Jack has walked (doesn’t sound like present to me?)
has/have + past participle
Present perfect progressive
Jack has been walking
has/have been + present participle
Simple past
Jack walked
verb + d/ed/t (except for irregular verbs)
Past progressive
Jack was walking
was/were + past participle
Past perfect
Jack had walked
had + past participle
Past perfect progressive
Jack had been walking
had been + present participle
Simple future
Jack will walk
Jack is going to walk
will + verb
am/is/are going to + verb
Future progressive
Jack will be walking
Jack is going to be walking
will be + present participle
am/is/are going to be + present participle
Future perfect
Jack will have walked
Jack is going to have walked
will have + past participle
am/is/are going to have + past participle
Future perfect progressive
Jack will have been walking
Jack is going to have been walking
will have been + present participle
am/is/are going to have been + present participle

Why Use Present Tense?

Now, in my experience, most books are written in past tense, as if the story has already happened and the narrator is telling you about it after the fact. John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, published in 1959, is sometimes thought to be the first novel written in the present tense (2), but Updike credits two other writers as coming before him: Damon Runyon and Joyce Cary. Nevertheless, I found Updike’s comments about his state of mind when he was choosing the present tense to be illuminating. . .

Continue reading about use of the present tense in fiction on QuickAndDirtyTips.com

avatar-faceMignon Fogarty is the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips.

Covering the grammar rules and word choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers, Grammar Girl makes complex grammar questions simple with memory tricks to help you recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules.

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