How (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense?
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. The Basic Rule: You should use the past tense when discussing historical events, and you should use the literary present when discussing fictional events.
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.
Henry Fielding wrote in the eighteenth century.
Picasso produced a series of sculptures.
4. When discussing events in a book or story, 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.
Here are some additional examples of literary present tense: In Michelangelo's painting, Christ judges the world.
Johnson's characters journey to Cairo.
Plato argues without much conviction.
Paul writes about the hardships he has endured.
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