Present Tense vs. Past Tense: The Great Verb Debate

A blog post in which I find myself defending a trend I didn’t think I liked

After I finished reading Natalie Cox’s Mutts and Mistletoe, which I picked up on a lark at a big box store as a treat for myself while grocery shopping, I started contemplating what drew me into the book (spoiler: the mutts) and what had me initially hesitant about the book. Since I came to the book with no prior knowledge, my experience of opening to the first page was one of real discovery. And there it was on the third page, glaring at me, mocking me for trusting that first page, daring me to abandon the book after two seconds of reading: a verb in present tense.

Page one of Mutts and Mistletoe begins with the narrator telling us something she’s already done, luring readers like me into believing it’s a past tense novel until this line on page two or three.

I won’t lie. I nearly put the book down, puppies or no. I avoid present tense books at great lengths, including many of the recent award-winning ones. (Nope, I’ve never read Wolf Hall or The Hunger Games, and don’t regret it.) But I really, really hate spending money on romance novels and not reading them, and also puppies! So I soldiered on. Very quickly, I was laughing out loud and so taken by the story (and puppies) that it didn’t matter. And a few pages after that, I was accustomed to the present tense, which took me on the main character Charlie’s journey with her.

This summer, the world seemed abuzz about Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, which is also in present tense. A couple of years ago, Writer’s Digest did a spread on the trend for novels in present tense, especially when they’re in first person POV. According to the article’s author, even as early as 1987, present tense was being hailed as the cliché of our modern literature. Thirty years later, it’s grown even more popular.

When I first started writing, I was taught that books must be in past tense, period. The writer is telling the story of something that happened, channeling the grandmothers of yore who would tell fables from a rocking chair to the children gathered around their feet. Hearkening back to the ancient orators and storytellers who chronicled the myths of gods, the feats of heroes, the quotidian affairs of ancestors.

In fan fiction, present tense writing is quite common. Although many stories are written in prose, the present tense mimics the style of the screenplays for the films and television series – the origins of much fan fiction in the first place.

Excerpt from the Silver Linings Playbook screenplay showing how scripts use present tense to describe action.

In present tense writing, we’re invited to experience the world with the characters. We’re the invisible sidekicks. Or the camera. I think a lot of present tense writing in romance especially probably comes from it being a convention in fan fiction, since so many fan fiction authors transition to commercial romance. But I also think the prevalence of present tense speaks to the growing trend of books-into-media (feature films, television series, and TV movies). The transmedia world is a lucrative one; writing a book that becomes a series, which becomes a television series, or a book that becomes adapted into a movie on a cable channel – how many writers dream of this transition?

There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to writing in present tense, which Brian Klems chronicles in the Writer’s Digest article I mentioned. I won’t duplicate that list, which is quite thoughtful, or the lengthier piece on Salon a few years earlier that traced a richer history of the trend, but instead concentrate on those aspects of verb tense that are especially important to romance writing.

Even in sweet romance, we’re supposed to believe two characters are passionate for each other, right? And in other forms of romance, we might read that passion translated into sexual encounters of all sorts, from kissing and fade to black to full-on descriptions of who does what to whom.

When these scenes are written in present tense, it can allow the reader to experience the moment with the characters. Instead of someone – hotly – recalling what happened, we’re right there, watching, reading, consuming every intimate act. Let me give you an example from my forthcoming novel, which is written in past tense:

I learned a lot about Charlie that night. It was the most fun, least nerve-wracking sex I had ever had. We guided each other’s hands to places that wanted to be touched, we kissed and held each other at times, and at other times we threw our bodies against each other in frenetic rhythm.

In this moment, the narrator, Dana, is describing what happened the night before. Past tense makes sense here because the action has already happened. As readers, we were not “present” during the scene to experience it with Dana. She had politely excused us from the action, the chapter concluded with the promise that Dana and Charlie were going to have sex, and now, the morning after, Dana tells us about it. Since I don’t write explicit sex in my romance novels, the morning-after recollection is a strategy I use to give the character a chance to reflect on what happened and share the highlights reel with the reader.

But now let’s imagine the chapter didn’t fade to black as Dana and Charlie grew more passionate. If the reader hadn’t been excused from the scene, we would need a lot more details. “We guide each other’s hands,” “we kiss and hold each other,” and “we throw our bodies together” are pretty quick, vague descriptions of what’s going on. In a present tense novel, in which the reader is sitting on the corner of the bed watching Dana and Charlie, this isn’t really enough information to convey the scene. Unless the moment lasted all of three seconds, which is about how long it takes me to read those sparse sentences. Considering that iDana calls it the best sex of her life, I hope it lasted longer than that!

So where does that leave me, the staunch defender of the past tense at a time when the trend is toward present tense novels? What have I learned from reading books in present tense in recent years and from thinking about the craft of romance writing so much? Although for the foreseeable future, my books will remain in past tense, I can see a real advantage in romance writing for the use of present to take readers on the emotional journey of the initial attraction, the doubt and fear, the shivery exhilaration of acknowledging one is falling in love. And for sex scenes, present tense demands details. It promises the reader they get to be a voyeur to every juicy thing that happens. For romance readers, that’s a pretty exciting prospect.

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