While most fiction is written in the past tense, screenwriting is all about the present tense — including the present progressive, a topic I’ve blogged about.
But not all prose fiction is written in the past tense. Robert Jackson Bennett looks at the benefits and drawbacks of writing in the present tense:
The past tense actually separates the audience from what’s happening in the work they’re reading by making it so that the story has already happened. While you might not think about it, the past tense actually sets works in the past – there is a division of time between the audience and the work, in the same manner that there is a division in time between me and World War II. If I read about World War II, I am not experiencing World War II, I am merely hearing about it. I will never experience World War II: I will only have someone tell me what it was like.
The present tense, to a certain extent, bypasses this division, or it simulates the feeling of bypassing it: you are witnessing something happening right now. Everything is immediate.
[…] It bypasses the fixed, static feeling of an event that has already happened, being told from a fixed narrator’s voice, and instead feeds you an experience that is currently ongoing.
That’s exactly why screenplays are written in the present tense. It’s not about what did happen; it’s what’s right in front of the audience.
Still, for traditional fiction, the present tense often feels wrong — too insistent, to in-your-face.
Bennett compares it to shaky-cam, but to me closer analogies would include the 48 frames version of The Hobbit or the sniffily live-sung close-ups of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. The hyper-reality either works for you or it doesn’t.