Thursday, 3 March 2011

Writing in the present tense

There has been a recent spate (well, a trickle) of readers who have asked me why some of my work is written in the present tense. (I think the usual implication behind the question is that I should stop this weird and irritating practice). I have also heard it said that writing in the present tense is the ‘in’ thing to do these days. I don’t buy that at all; I believe that tense is one of the key tools in the toolbox (person is another) which are available to help the writer tell the story in the best possible way, and the good writer will vary it according to the needs of that story.

Only this morning, for example, I was reading David Nicholl’s excellent novel One Day, and I noted a sudden shift of tense from the prevailing past to present. It was done to relate a key incident in the novel (I won’t spoil the story by telling you what it is) which needed to be sudden, immediate and urgent. The switch in tense acted like a gear change in the story.

Let me briefly justify my own choice of tense with two examples from my work.

The stories collected in We Never Had It So Good are set in the past, in the late 1950s, but apart from an introductory paragraph or so to each story, written in the past tense, I have used the present tense throughout. The main reason is that the stories are heard through the ‘voice’ of a boy going through his junior school years in a northern mining community. The shift from introductory past to default present is the signal that takes us from the author reflecting on his past to the boy he was then – the present tense puts the reader into the action with the boy while he is having these experiences. Also, when the boy takes up the story, his style is informal-colloquial in the narrative, matching the dialogue. In a working class community, when someone tells a joke or a story, it is more often than not told in the present tense: (I’m waiting my turn and this guy comes up to me, and he says...) The style I have used echoes that tradition.

If you’d like an example,click the button for a typical passage from one of the stories in We Never Had It So Good.

My novel 11:59 is also written largely in the present tense, and again in the first person. We see through the eyes and hear the voice of Marc Niven, the central character, who is a late-night DJ and phone-in presenter on local radio in the North of England. 11:59 is a contemporary thriller. It’s very important to convey a sense of immediacy. I want the reader to feel that Marc is experiencing the action in the here and now, not as reflected upon later. Also, the present tense allows me to leave the end of the story hanging on a number of possible resolutions for the reader to conjure with, particularly in relation to a closing event that will affect the fate of Marc and his friend Oliver. The present tense helps to offer the idea that the characters in this story have a future that the reader can speculate upon, and perhaps that the writer may return to.

If you’d like an example of writing from 11:59, please click the button.



  1. As someone who also writes in present tense from time to time, I've gotten a lot of notes along the lines of "please stop this weird and irritating practice." :) But I don't pick a tense just because I want to be trendy (or irritating!), I just roll with what makes the most sense for the story. I think that's the smartest thing you can do as a writer!

  2. Couldn't agree more, Writing Runner

  3. David,

    I doubt you remember me, but I read and reviewed your excerpt on Amazon during the ABNA 2010 contest.

    I have been wondering if you'd like to write an author interview on my blog, as a guest? I could email you some questions I'd love to ask, and you could email your responses, and I could blog the interview, if you were interested. I'm very interested in promoting new authors, and I found your excerpt to be very interesting.

    I also notice that you have a Kindle self-published version of your novel, but I couldn't find your eBook on B&N? Have you considered self-publishing with them as well? A lot of my friends - and myself included - have Nooks rather than Kindles, I'm afraid. :)

    Do contact me if you like; I'd love to hear from you.

  4. Hi Ana

    I've responded privately to let you know I'll be glad to guest on your blog.

    On a point of information, the Kindle version of '11:59' is not self-published, but published by my paperback publisher Wild Wolf. I didn't about the B&N omission but have mentioned it to them, so hopefully the book will be available there soon.

    Thanks for your kind review of my book on

  5. This has now become an active topic of discussion on the Writers Dock site. For the latest go to