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Present Tense Narration

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Having established the three categories of Point of View—first-, second-, and third-person—we move on to types of narration. These are variables that can occur within a Point of View, some overlapping and others mutually exclusive. We begin with Present Tense.

Poetry in prose

Present Tense Narration recounts story events as they occur instead of after the fact. The narrator speaks predominately in the Simple Present, sometimes called the Lyric Present because of its common use in ballads and song lyrics.

As a result, this lends the story a subtly poetic style.

Present Tense quote example from THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins: When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

This type of narration can feel unnatural to read on first encounter. In the real world, when we narrate our lives, we typically use the progressive aspect instead of the simple present1

So, where we would naturally tell someone, “I’m running to the store” or “She’s singing at the top of her lungs,” the Present Tense Narrator tells the Reader, “I run to the store” or “She sings at the top of her lungs.”

This small but potent distinction makes this type of narration more labor-intensive to write. Authors have to guard against slipping in unnecessary progressive aspects—and especially against reverting into the more standard Past Tense mode of storytelling.

And, because of its not-quite-natural cadence, some readers have trouble connecting with this narrative style as well.

Present Tense across categories

While we generally associate Present Tense Narration with First Person Point of View, it appears in the other POV categories as well. It’s almost standard in Second Person, thanks to its in-the-moment effect.

Third-person Present has a number of notable works too. For example, A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman:

quote from A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman: Ove is fifty-nine.
He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight. He stands at the counter of a shop where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium-sized white box at him.
“So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?” he demands.

Because Present Tense immerses the Reader directly into events as they happen, it fosters a sense of urgency in the narrative. This lends it well to high-stakes, high-action conflicts—such as THE HUNGER GAMES or THE BROKEN EARTH trilogy—as well as plots with strong introspective or emotional arcs.

It is a compelling rhetorical approach, but also, perhaps, a trendy one. I won’t lay odds, but I foresee it becoming a hallmark of this era’s literature when future generations look back to study our work.

  • What are your favorite Present Tense stories?
  • Why might you choose Present over Past Tense Narration?

Up next: Objective Narration
Previous: Third Person Point of View
Index Page: Point of View

  1. Grammar aside: the progressive aspect specifies actions in progress, things that are continuing rather than complete. Its counterpart is the perfect aspect, and both of these can combine with past, present, or future tense. ↩︎