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On a literary website like Book Riot, we usually describe events in fiction in the present tense, as if they’re happening now. This is called the literary present tense and is used regardless of the tense in which the text is written. Pride and Prejudice is written in the past tense, but to describe the novel I would say “Elizabeth Bennet lives in Hertfordshire.” The literary present tense may seem confusing as many of the books take place over a long period of time. Many novels are written primarily in the past tense or alternate between tenses. The literary present tense makes discussions about books less confusing and keeps them fresh and relevant.
Why use the literary present tense? This guide from Vanderbilt University explains, “Works of literature, paintings, films, and other artistic creations are supposed to exist in an eternal present.” Except for annotated editions, most books don’t change much – if at all – after they’re published. People can re-read passages or watch TV or movie scenes again at any time. Even if it doesn’t change over time, the action is treated as continuous because it’s not dead or static. It’s a reminder that for us, the text is still relevant and dynamic to the characters. Even when I study nonfiction, I write, “The author argues that…” A book may have been published a long time ago, but we can still analyze it and have new perspectives on it. Reviewers relate what happens in a book, TV show, or film, not what happened, which makes it seem more immediate.
The Vanderbilt site also notes that historical events, such as release dates, should be given in the past tense, while fictional events should be given in the present tense. As long as it is clear which events are real and which are fictional, both tenses can even appear in the same sentence. For example: Janie Crawford is the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937.
When quoting entire sentences and paragraphs, it is customary to keep the original tense. Most authors only change the tense with brackets when they include a citation in their own sentence. This keeps the entire sentence in the same tense.
The literary present tense is common in English faculties but varies in other disciplines. My high school English teachers taught me to use it and my English professors endorsed it. So I’m writing from my own experience as a writer with a BA in English. The Modern Language Association Style Guide contains many helpful examples of present tense literary expression. Most academic essays in English courses are written in the MLA style, so this is stylistically consistent. Historians, on the other hand, often prefer to describe all historical texts in the past tense.
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The literary present tense simplifies the task of describing fiction. This may sound counterintuitive as conventions can be difficult to remember and follow. When I wrote a short introduction to the literary perspective for BR in May 2022, I focused on perspective. Tension is another important aspect of literary POV, but it was too complicated for me to address in such a short essay.
Many books have complicated timelines and change tenses frequently. Many novels are written primarily in the past tense but use the past tense to describe what happened earlier or the past tense to describe what usually happened. The literary present tense removes the need to keep track of all these changes when describing fiction. Sentences like “The protagonist is stranded after a shipwreck” summarize a chronology of events without changing the tense.
Language in fiction, including time shifts, can be layered and nuanced. The present tense description of the entire plot in fiction should make it easier to follow, especially when the text or criticism contains complex ideas. Ideally, this should allow readers and writers to focus on analysis rather than worrying about juggling relative timelines.
Like many other conventions, the literary present tense is primarily a stylistic preference, not an inviolable rule. Internal consistency is most important, especially within the same sentence or paragraph. The MLA style guide page advises editors not to change authors’ tenses unless they know whether the authors are using literary present tense and why. The purpose of the literary present tense is ease and clarity for readers and writers.
If you want to read more about literary tenses, read here why some readers prefer novels written in a certain tense.