You’re Living in the Present Tense*

Stories In the Present TenseHave you noticed that there seems to be a trend in crime fiction towards telling stories in the present tense? Using the present tense is not a brand-new phenomenon in the genre. Still, it seems that many modern crime writers make that choice. Some writers claim that using the present tense conveys more immediacy, and allows a certain character depth. Other writers choose it for other reasons.

Use of the present tense is by no means universally popular though. Traditionally, publishers have frowned on that choice, requesting instead the use of the past tense. And lots of readers dislike reading books told in the present tense. It’s certainly not a settled question.

That said though, there are a lot of writers who’ve used that option. For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is told in the present tense. It’s the story of the Anderson family, whose lives are changed forever when four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic one terrible day. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is ever found – not even a body. The Andersons try to move on as best they can, but they are left shattered. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is a fledgling psychologist who lives and works in Dunedin. She begins working with a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, only to learn that she, too, had a younger sister who disappeared at a young age. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who is responsible for the abductions. Her journey takes her back to her home town of Wanaka; and as she finds out the truth, she also slowly begins the healing process.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin/Vincent Ruiz series is also told in the present tense. It begins with The Suspect. In that novel, the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of London’s Grand Union Canal. DI Vincent Ruiz discovers that she was a patient of psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, and wants his help in the matter. Then there’s another murder; this time O’Loughlin is clearly implicated. Ruiz already had questions about O’Loughlin, and now it seems that those suspicions are confirmed. Since the story is told from O’Loughlin’s point of view, I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he is innocent and is being cleverly set up. The question, of course, is by whom and why. It’s an interesting pairing of these two protagonists, and as fans will know, it’s a fruitful partnership.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, which takes place in 1981, is the story of Houston area lawyer Jay Porter. One night, he takes his pregnant wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. During the trip, they hear a woman’s screams and then gunfire. Then they see a woman tumble into the water. Almost by instinct, Jay rescues her and they return to the boat dock. The woman says very little about herself, and claims that she’ll be fine. But she does consent to be taken to the nearest police station. After she’s dropped off there, the Porters return home. The next morning. Porter learns of a fatal shooting in the area where they rescued the young woman. He doesn’t want to be involved, but ends up drawn into the case, which turns out to be a complicated web of corruption and greed at high levels. This story is told in the present tense; but, interestingly, its follow-up, Pleasantville, is not. That novel takes up Porter’s story fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising.

Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are also told in the present tense, from Boyle’s point of view. Beginning with Tilt a Whirl, this series takes place in fictional Sea Haven, New Jersey, and features Boyle, who starts out as an extra ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the tourists. As the series goes on, he becomes a full-time member of the Police Department, and works under the supervision of John Ceepak. These novels are told in the way that you might tell a friend about something that happened to you (e.g. ‘So there I am, sitting at the café, when these two guys come in. They go up to the counter and order…’).

Another author who uses present tense is John Burdett, whose Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes place in modern Bangkok. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also an observant Buddhist who tries to live his life according to those principles. Beginning with Bangkok 8, the series chronicles some of Sonchai’s cases as well as his own personal development. The novels are told in the first person, so we see the events clearly from his point of view. Burdett also uses the present tense/first person as a tool to convey interesting information to the reader. More than once in the series, Sonchai figuratively turns to the reader and offers ‘asides’ on Buddhism, Thai society and philosophy.

And then there’s Ernesto Mallo. His Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series takes place in late 1970’s Argentina. Lescano is a police officer at a very dangerous time. The far-right military government does not hesitate to silence any opposition, however illusory. And since everyone is trying to stay alive, very few people can be trusted not to ‘sell out’ others. Against this backdrop, Lescano is just trying to do his job and solve cases.  The series begins with Needle in a Haystack, in which Lescano investigates the death of a successful moneylender and pawn broker, Elías Biterman. Every effort is made to make his death look like an Army hit so that the police will leave the case alone, as they so often do. But enough things are different about this case that Lescano stars asking very risky questions.

There are many other novels and series, too, that are written in the present tense (I know, I know, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels). Some people enjoy the use of that tense; some people really dislike it. Others don’t really notice, or care, one way or the other.

What do you think about this? I’ve put a little poll here so that you can speak up, and I’d love your input. After a week or two, I’ll do a follow-up post on your answers.


Writers, do you use present tense? Why or why not?

ps. A special thanks goes out to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, for the inspiration for this post.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Geddy Lee’s The Present Tense.


Filed under Attica Locke, Elly Griffiths, Ernesto Mallo, John Burdett, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson

31 responses to “You’re Living in the Present Tense*

  1. Uncanny – we were just commenting about that over on FictionFan’s blog and boom! Here you come with a brilliant addition to it! There does seem to be a bit of a trend lately – the book I am currently reading is in present tense, although it’s a translation from French, so I’m wondering if it’s a way of handling that pesky ‘simple past tense’ (I’ll have to check, but it’s true that a lot of French authors use it too).
    The Richard Yates novel I just finished recently (though not crime) was also written in present tense, but I really had to go back and check, as it just felt so natural and immediate. When done well, it really works. When done badly, it can be very distracting!

    • The fact is, Marina Sofia, it was FictionFan’s post that inspired this one. I’m not sure whether the translator in the book you’re reading chose present tense as a way of handling that translation, or whether it’s in present tense for another reason, but it’s really interesting that you’d bring that up. I’m sure the translation aspect does play a role. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Hi Margot. I’m at the edit stage of a novel at the moment, written in the present tense. In this case, I’m using it for immediacy and to emphasize that the narrator has no idea what will happen at the end.

    • Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on this, Mick. There are some good reasons for which authors choose present tense, and as Marina Sofia mentions below, when it’s done well, the use of present tense can be very effective. It’s really informative to have your perspective on this.

  3. It does annoy me sometimes, but I’m willing to forgive it if I really love the author – eg Ellie Griffiths. In a recent book (can’t remember which) it was used quite usefully to distinguish between two different time periods, and I thought it was clever. In general I could do without it, but have to grudgingly accept that it seems to be here to stay….

    • I know what you mean about Elly Griffiths, Moira. She does use the present tense so effectively, doesn’t she? And there are other authors who do as well. I’ll be frank and say it’s not my first choice. But as you say, it seems to be here, and it can work.

  4. Kathy D.

    I’m on the fence here and could have voted that “sometimes it’s OK, sometimes not.” Elly Griffiths’ present tense writing is fine with me.
    But in other books it doesn’t always work.
    What is a problem for me is first person present tense, so one is reading about awful things happening to the protagonist as they happen; this is difficult at times.
    Paddy Richardson’s use of present tense in Hunting Blind was fine. That is an excellently written book.
    And Attica Locke’s use of the tense is done well.
    Gillian Flynn’s use of the present tense irks me and I won’t read anything further of hers after having read her first book.
    So it’s particular to the book and writer.

    • I think you’ve nailed it exactly, Kathy. So much depends on the writer and on the story s/he is telling. Some writers and stories are effective matches with the present tense. Others….aren’t.

  5. Thanks for the kind mention, Margot! Haha! I’m guessing you know what I’m likely to say! At the absolute best, the most I could say is that I can bear it, but most of the time I think it’s faddy and badly done. Just to disagree with everyone else ( 😉 ), I hate it in Elly Griffith’s books and it puts me off reading them now. The last book took place over something like six months, very slowly – I fear the ‘immediacy’ argument doesn’t hold water in a story like that. In fact I’d say ‘immediacy’ could only ever be claimed for a high-speed thriller taking place over a couple of days. And the only other excuse for present tense is in short bursts when describing something that was then and still is now – the eternal. “The roofs of Glasgow shine with ever-present rain as autumn runs into winter, and this day was no exception…” as a (bad) example. As for first-person present tense – gah! Why? “I am slowly sinking, drowning, fighting for air… but fortunately I am still able to write in my waterproof notebook.” 😉 For a real horrible example, the respected author Robert Harris, whom I both like and admire, used FPPT for his otherwise excellent book “An Officer and a Spy” – a story that took place over a decade and was clearly written in a retrospective viewpoint, so an entirely inappropriate use of tense. Especially since being a fictionalised history of real events there was no suspense to create – the reader knows the outcome before it begins. No immediacy there! And many times he gets himself tied up in awkwardnesses – here’s a real quote: “The following morning, I eat an early lunch…” Er… I suspect he means “This morning…” or possibly “Today” since in present tense it is always today…

    Haha! Sorry! I shall descend from my hobby-horse and shuffle off into the past where I belong… 😉

    • It’s my sincere pleasure, FictionFan, to mention your excellent blog and give you credit where it’s due. And you may spend as much time as you want on your hobby-horse. Present tense (especially FPPT) is very, very tricky, and doesn’t work for everyone. And although I don’t dislike it as much as you do, I agree that there are many, many cases where it’s just plain misused. When it doesn’t add to the story, I agree with you. That said though, you are right that some things (such as your example) can be in present tense, since they are descriptive. It’s a tough call, really, for an author, and you’re completely within your rights to read nothing in FPPT or even just PT if you don’t want to.

  6. Col

    I think the only time I notice is when it isn’t working for me.The rest of the time I’m probably oblivious.

    • That’s an interesting point, Col. I think an important key is whether the author can make it work well. If so, then it goes seamlessly. If not, it’s jarring.

  7. Margot: I am in the indifferent category. It was fun to read FictionFan’s rant. I have not seen one as good since Bernadette last went off in Australia.

  8. I voted that I didn’t really notice which isn’t quite true, I notice when the tense seems to be inappropriate to the story being told but it doesn’t irk me the way it does some other readers – As long as the storyline is good and I have got immersed in it, what tense it is written in is entirely irrelevant to me.

    • There are times, aren’t there, Cleo, when the tense the author uses just doesn’t work well for a story. When that happens you do notice it and it pulls you out of the story. Even for people who don’t mind use of the present tense otherwise, that can be annoying. And yes, the real key is whether the story is well written and the characters are worth following.

  9. I agree with a couple of others here that I don’t really notice it unless it isn’t working. When the author makes it work, then the story flows smoothly and you just get into the action without thinking about past or present.

    • That’s a great way to put it, Mason. It’s all about how well the story flows. If it flows smoothly and the story is well-crafted, then the reader can get lost in that story, and you don’t think so much about what tense is used to tell it.

  10. I’m not fond of present tense in any genre, so the writing and the characters have to grab me from the first page to keep me reading. I tried writing in present tense just to see how it felt, but always drifted back to past tense without even thinking about it.

    • I know what you mean, Pat. I’ve read some present-tense stories and series that worked for me, but most really do not. I’ve tried scribbling in present tense just to see what it felt like – can’t get myself to go with it, though.

  11. I’ve never read a book that uses present tense. As you say, it’s a fairly new trend in contemporary novels. I have, however, read excerpts, and really enjoyed them. So I’m basing my poll answer on that, just so you know. I’ll be interested in seeing the results.

    • I’ll be interested in them, too, Sue. And I think that a well-chosen excerpt can certainly one a good sense of whether the present tense will work in the story. Thanks for your vote!

  12. Kathy D.

    Yes, and I remembered that I wasn’t particularly thrilled at the present tense in that best-seller about a young woman seeing a murder from a train. It pulled me in right away as a quick-paced novel of suspense so I was hooked from the start. But whether it was worth a weekend of my time I haven’t decided.
    But, yes, it’s in present tense. It works for the novel’s style, but not for me so much. I guess readers like it. It’s still on the NY Times best-sellers’ list.
    The characters all annoyed me, none to like.
    It’s being made into a movie so we can all decide whether or not to see it or if we like it.

    • It will be interesting to see how that film does, Kathy. And as for present tense in that novel, you’re not the only one to say it works in that story. I’ll be frank; I’ve not read it. Not to say I won’t; I’m just waiting until the hype dies down and I really think about whether I want to. I’ve heard good things and quite negative things about it too. Interesting.

  13. Interesting topic Margot. I remember reading something which was in the present tense. Liked it initially since it imparted an immediacy to the narrative but later on it began to jar and I stopped reading the text..Perhaps I should give it another chance and see how i find it now.

    • That would be interesting, Neeru, to see whether time has changed your point of view about the present tense. I’ve had that happen to me, too, actually, where an author’s strategy seemed find at first, but then was jarring. It can be disappointing, especially if you were really hoping to get drawn into the story.

  14. I don’t much like the present tense. In my own novels I write almost without fail in the past tense. Maybe I just don’t read the good – or recent – novels, but for me when I read a story written in the present tense it strikes me as self-conscious and arty.

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it, Bryan, how the use of one tense or another really has different impacts on different people. Some people like it, or at least don’t mind it. Others don’t like it at all. As for writing, I’m with you; I write almost always in the past tense. I find it helps to focus me and tell the story as best I can.

  15. I have spoken up more than once about not liking present tense writing, so I think Fiction Fan and I have a lot in common. A lot of the books you mentioned here I have been planning to read and am dismayed to hear that they are present tense. (I am sure I will read them anyway. Maybe I will get used to it.) I can only think of one series where I barely noticed it: The Last Policeman Series.

    • And that’s a good example, too, Tracy, of how the present tense can work. But as you know, you are not at all the only one who doesn’t care for it. If you do read some of the books you had in mind, I’ll be interested in knowing whether you mind their use of the present tense.

  16. Pingback: And Talk in the Past and Not the Present Tense* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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