The Literary Present Tense

Posted 16 October, 2017 by Alicia in Literature, Writing / 0 Comments  



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.

These questions did not occur to me for many years. When I had to write papers for school, my teachers told me to use the literary present, and I did so without question. It was just one of those rules you followed blindly, because you trusted the judgment and credibility of your teachers. At least, I did! But recently I heard someone talk about why we use it, and it inspired me to do some research. So if you’ve never questioned why we use literary present, read on to find out!

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.

The reasoning is kind of romantic. We use it because fiction exists in a realm that isn’t governed by rules of time and space. The character Alice (as presented in the story) isn’t a real person who fell down a rabbit hole and met the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen at a specific (historical, provable) point in time. But every time we open the book, she does exactly that. She’ll do it over and over, as long as people keep reading her story. Events in the story aren’t pinned down by time, even if they exist on a timeline. Alice wakes up at the end, but if you turn back a few pages, she’ll be asleep again. If she had died (subjunctive mood, allows for past perfect) at the end of her story, she’d still be alive if you started from the beginning. The world of fiction may be subject to laws about time and space within the stories themselves, but when we write about them, those laws no longer apply. This is because we, the readers, can jump around in time easily (by flipping around to different pages in the book), and therefore it does not follow any sort of chronology if we don’t read it normally. We can start with Alice waking up, go back to the mad tea party, and then fast forward to her entering the looking-glass in the next book.

I hope you found this as fascinating as I did. If I left anything out, or you have additional examples, please comment below!

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