What is the literary present tense? When do we use it? Why do we use it?
The simplest rule for when to use the literary present: Use it when writing about fiction.
The literary present tense is present tense that we employ when writing or speaking about certain types of literature. The simplest rule for when to use the literary present: Use it when writing about fiction.
If you’re describing (true) historical events, use the past tense. This applies to anything outside of an event happening within a story. For example: Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Or: I ate an apple yesterday.
When you are writing about a work of fiction, use the literary present when referring to a specific event within the story.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice falls down a rabbit hole.
You may use the past tense if it refers to something that happened before the current event you are describing.
Alice falls down a rabbit hole because she followed the white rabbit.
You may also talk about the future.
Later, Alice will realise that she had been dreaming the entire time.
You can use the literary present with speculation as well—you can describe how characters might be thinking or feeling at a given time even if it is not explicitly described in the story.
Alice thinks the March Hare is an absolute loon, but she is too polite to say so and goes on with his shenanigans for quite some time.
There are a few cases where you can use the literary present outside the events of the text. One of them is referring to what the author says or does in relation to the book.
Lewis Carroll portrays Alice as a young, naïve, polite girl who learns a lot throughout her adventures in Wonderland.
Note that when you are talking about Lewis Carroll as a person (i.e. historically), you should use past tense. It is only when referring to his orchestration of the story’s events that you use the literary present.
You can also use it when referring to what the story itself does, in a sort of personification.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begins with Alice falling asleep.
Now that you know what the literary present tense is and when to use it, the question remains: Why?
We use it because fiction exists in a realm that isn’t governed by rules of time and space.
I hope you found this as fascinating as I did. If I left anything out, or you have additional examples, please comment below!
For further reading:
- Verb Tense for Analysis of Literature and History
- How (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense?
- Writing About Literature: Using the Literary Present