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Remain in the Present

Today, I’d like to talk about something that can really make or break your creative pose in terms of walking your reader through any given scene. It’s a common correction I make in manuscripts, and I hope that, upon reading this blog post, you’ll be able to spot it in your own work and move toward improvement!

An important thing to do is always stay in the present. Now, this doesn’t necessarily pertain to tense or conditional tense, rather it’s to do with making sure you are walking side by side with your main character in the narrative. This is often easier said than done, but it will make a world of difference when it comes to reader engagement.

What do you mean by “stay in the present?”

Whether you’re writing past tense or present tense, it’s important that you give your audience a solid sense of what is going on. Outside of visual and olfactory ques, what this means is to never make your reader feel like they are catching up. For instance, if you are narrating a scene, and, in order to explain something happening in said scene, you must jump “back in time” and explain an event that took place prior, you are failing to remain in the present. It sort of calls back to all I’ve ever said about the word “had,” and how this word can kill your writing.

John set down the cup, which he had just brought from the kitchen, on the coffee table.

This is a very simple example of one way you might be compelled to catch a reader up. In order to explain how John got the cup, you have to jump backward a few moments. A very easy fix for something like this would be to simply narrative events in the order they occur.

John retrieved his cup from the kitchen and set it on the coffee table.

In this manner, we follow John all the way from A to B, rather than explaining where he has been and how we got to now. We walk beside the main character.

A lot of the time, I see this type of narration happen in a way that indicates to me the information has been tossed in as an afterthought.

Adam looked at the paper in his hand, on which he’d written the address for his destination before leaving his house.

In this example, again, we are going backward to explain something that could have happened in a previous sentence, paragraph, or even chapter. I would be willing to bet that your work in progress is littered with tiny instances like this – information tacked on in the moment you remember it, rather than the order it happened. In this case, we can actually touch on our order of operations. It’s perfectly okay to write in this fashion during your first draft! You’ve just recalled something. Therefore, you can reasonably add it to your writing at the time you remember it. However, during your first set of revisions, things like this should be cleaned up. At the point during which this event happened (in the case of our example, Adam writing down the address), travel to the point in your book where this would logically have happened. Insert the information there. This both serves to improve your flow, and it can often give your reader a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction upon recalling that detail.

I remember reading a while back that readers like to be rewarded for paying attention. Unfortunately, despite an extensive web search, I was unable to call up the post I read it in! If you have seen or remember the article, please link it in the comments so I can share here, as well. When you give information and call back on it, though not necessarily in direct reference, readers can feel more linked to or invested in the story you’re creating.

An easy way to help keep these events straight is to keep a solid, cohesive story outline. If you need to, you can always write out events in the form of a simple list, and cross them off as you tell the story/narrate them. This is especially useful if you’re afraid you’ll forget a detail, and you can always insert items into a higher point in the list if you remember them later.

During your revision process, walk through each step and ask yourself if things are happening in the intended order. If you ever catch yourself calling back to the past, like an “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you,” make sure you rearrange the information in your book so that it flows!

A quick reminder that I’m booking new clients starting in June. If you are looking for someone to help you make the corrections in this or other blog posts, or just a critical set of eyes upon your work, please reach out and I would be happy to perform a sample edit for you!

My book is coming out July 1st. Order before it’s full price! Email me to ask about signed paperback copies.

Thanks as always for reading. Have a great week; see you next time!


Steven Brust has announced his work on a writer’s conference project in Minneapolis, Minnesota! The event will be from July 12-14, and you can register at Early registration ends on June 21st. I’ll be there with several copies of my book to sign and hand out, and I’d love to see you all there!

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