Jennifer's Journal


Friday, October 09, 2009

Present Tense Plague

I recently picked up a couple of contemporary romance novels, both of which, unknown to me until I began to read, were written in present tense--"She smiles" instead of "She smiled", "He says" instead of "He said." The first book began with a prologue, which I read because I assumed it would change to normal past tense for the remainder of the book. Being hooked by the premise, I continued to read to the bitter end, but was constantly distracted by the tense in which the story was told, constantly looking for, and finding, errors in the method. When I opened the second book and discovered it was written in present tense as well, I immediately tossed it.

Most books are written in past tense because this is the traditional method of telling a story, as if the events have already happened and a raconteur is entertaining an audience with them. It feels "right" to readers. A story written in present tense, as though taking place in real time with the author as observer, is usually a tour de force, an exhibition of writing skill that may be clever but serves no particular purpose except, possibly, to be "different." It's okay in short fiction but awkward in book length, particularly when including past events. For the majority of books, anything that distracts the reader from the story is automatically wrong, no matter how correct or incorrect it might be as a literary device. Why an author would shoot themselves in the foot by using present tense is beyond me. Don't do it, please, or I may toss your book, too.

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