Writing in present tense is the reality TV of literature. You can tune into Big Brother at any time and begin watching the action. People like action, so why not tell a reader what is happening, as it is happening? You see it real time, you are in the thick of the action. But what happens if this is the first time you have watched Big Brother and its half way through a series? Who are these people? What are they arguing about? What was the big event yesterday that has resulted in two people trying to escape from the Big Brother house? This is precisely the reason why so few books written in the present tense and why the ones at do, rarely succeed in achieving what they set out to achieve.
The challenges to the author when writing in the present tense are numerous. How do you introduce prior events, maintain perspective and filter the stream of consciousness? I’m not trying to say that any fiction written in present tense cannot have its merits. I am just concerned about the growing trend of “trash” literature which uses the present tense and by doing so, seems to feel like it was written with half an eye on something other than writing.
I will detail some of the problems that someone might and people often do, encounter when writing in the present tense.
If a scene is well written it should have only one perspective. Readers focus on one character and the scene is described through that characters experience in the novel. By definition the focus is often on the protagonist. Through the protagonist we experience the scene. In the past tense, if the author wishes, that same scene can be depicted again from a different characters perspective. The author can do this because the scene is written in the past tense. We know what has happened.
Present tense writing has an immediacy which makes writing about events very difficult. We read about what is happening as it is happening, not about what has happened. Therefore there are obvious limits to the author showing a scene from multiple perspectives. The author can “lose” the reader by shifting focus into a different perspective as the scene becomes disjointed and less believable. When it has been achieved, this is a powerful tool, but it is rarely achieved. Some Science Fiction novelists, who often write in the present tense, have mastered this art.
As I mentioned, introducing prior events is always going to be tricky in the present tense. There will always be an experience before the current experience, but in order to describe them in a present day story, the author must shift to the past tense. If the author did that, it would no longer be a present tense narration. A character can look entirely without motive in their actions if the author hasn’t adequately described something in the past, motivating them to perform in the present. It is very difficult to accomplish as the reader can begin to wonder when the previous event being described actually happened. The author must separate the present and past, without it becoming disjointed, losing flow and therefore affecting the readers’ engagement with the present events.
The human brain is always thinking. If the author tells us everything a character is thinking it could very repetitious and boring very quickly. The challenge to a writer is filtering the narrators’ stream of consciousness to include only the details necessary to the plot. Shifting between thoughts and actual action will be the biggest challenge to a writer as they have to weigh up the inner and outer at the same time, as it is happening. Once the narrator has finished thinking about something, they then can’t relate the action that was happening whilst that was going on. To make the prose flow, the writer needs to make it clear that the narrator doesn’t think something important, be involved in an important event, in a repetition of thought then action. It won’t feel very believable to the reader and therefore won’t hold any appeal.
Good examples of present tense writing can be found in the Science Fiction genre. My advice is to go to any book stop, find the darkest deepest corner. Look at the science fiction section, which will no doubt be found there, and spend some time looking at a couple of chapters from some different novels. There will definitely be an author using the present tense. It is a difficult skill, but those that have mastered it, grip the reader through the journey of the novel.