How (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense?
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Literary works, paintings, films, and other artistic creations are assumed to exist in an eternal present. Therefore, when you write about writers or artists as they express themselves in their work, use the present tense.
Past or Present Tense? A Basic Guideline
You should use the past tense when discussing historical events, and you should use the literary present when discussing fictional events.
Context matters, though, so take a look through the more granular guidelines below and keep in mind that expectations and conventions around the tense we use to write about textual sources we are engaging or analyzing may differ between disciplines (for instance, in a history class you might be told to write about texts using past tense that you would be expected to discuss in the ‘literary present’ in an English class.).
Taking a Closer Look: Context-Based Guidelines
1. When commenting on what a writer says, use the present tense.
- Example: “Dunn begins his work with a view into the lives and motivations of the very first settlers.”
- Example: “Through this anecdote, Richter illustrates common misconceptions about native religion and shows why missionary attempts were less than successful.”
2. When describing an author’s work, however, use the past tense.
- Example: “In 1966, Driss Chraïbi published La Civilisation, ma Mère!“
3. When you are writing about a certain historical event (even the creation of a literary or artistic work), use the past tense.
- Example: “Henry Fielding wrote in the eighteenth century.”
- Example: “Picasso produced a series of sculptures.”
4. When discussing events in a literary work (novel, story, play, or poem) always use the present tense, unless there is a shift in the time frame within the world of the text.
- Example: “Evelyn then rips into the carefully wrapped package and finds the greatest gift she has ever received. Her eyes fill with tears as she gazes at the jewel, but Philip does not know that these tears are the results of more than surprised joy. Evelyn is suffering from guilt as she compares this present to the shoddy gift that she bought* for her beau.”
*“Bought” is in past tense because the buying of the present occurred before the described set of events.
- Example: “In Michelangelo’s painting, Christ judges the world.”
- Example: “Johnson’s characters journey to Cairo.”
- Example: “Plato argues without much conviction.”
- Example: “Paul writes about the hardships he has endured.”
5. Sometimes a sentence must employ both present and past tense.
- Example: “The first part of the poem, which she completed in 1804, describes the effects of isolation from society.”
- Example: “Aeschylus’ drama is concerned with what happens to Orestes after he has killed his mother.”
Final Tips and Reminders
Remember: It is important to stay consistent.
Moving between verb tenses can be confusing for your reader. Examine your changes of tense very carefully and make sure there is a logical reason for them.
Style Tip: Keeping Sentence-Level Tense Shifts Manageable
If you need to shift tense more than three times in a single sentence, consider breaking up the sentence into a couple of shorter sentences to maintain reading ease.
Last revised: 8/10/2007 | Adapted for web delivery: 07/2021
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