Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

In a writing class, my teacher said we should always use present tense when talking about the action in a novel. Is this right?

Yes, when discussing the events in a work of literature—or other form of art—use present tense. This is called literary present tense. The work of art exists in a sort of eternal present. Every time you open the book and read, the events are unfolding.

In discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, for example, you might say this:

When Gatsby meets Daisy at Nick’s house, the tension is high.

You would use past tense if you went on to discuss something that happened before this event. For example:

When Gatsby meets Daisy at Nick’s house, the tension is high. He is at a loss as to how to behave. Earlier that day, his preparations were rigorous. He even had Nick’s yard mowed.

Past tense is appropriate here because you shift to an earlier time within the world of the story.

You should also use present tense when bringing the author into the discussion:

Fitzgerald lingers on Gatsby’s discomfort.

Literary present tense might take some getting used to, but it’s the right thing to do.