Rhetorical device: writing in present tense

I’ve noticed a certain rhetorical device, and I’m wondering if there’s a specific name for it. It involves using the present tense to talk about something that is not actually happening at that time. I think that we do this almost automatically in discussion, sometimes, without really realizing what we’re doing.

It’s often used in the discussion of hypothetical situations. If you want to make a point of some kind, you might start out by saying something like “I walk outside and start crossing the street.” When what you really mean by that is more like “If YOU walk outside. . . .” (Meaning the person with whom you are having the discussion.)

This doesn’t seem to be as common in books, but I’ve seen it in a few places. Another way it’s used, although I think much less commonly, is to describe something that happened in the past. I suspect that it may be easier to make certain points if the action is shifted to the present, and thus given more immediacy.

I’ve been having an argument with people on another messageboard over this. I don’t want to give any details, for fear of accidentally biasing somebody. They believe that a certain passage in a book (written in the first-person present tense) describes something that the writer was going through at the time of writing. I believe, based on other passages in the same book, that either (A) the writer was describing something that had been true of him in the past, but was no longer true at the time of writing; or (B) he was describing in dramatic terms something that he knew somebody else was going through, but was not true for him personally. (Possibly both.)

Narrative in the present tense? Often used in jokes and anecdotes: “Three nuns and a priest walk into a bar. The bartender says ‘This is a surprise; you don’t usually come in until after four o’clock!’”

When talking about hypothetical situations, you use the subjunctive mood: “If I knew, I would tell you.”

Sentences like “If you heat water, it boils” are examples of the zero conditional.

Some people teach lawyers to use this, especially in court but also in briefs.

“Mary and her brother are walking to school. It’s early. It’s still dark. They take the same route they always do. They are not in a hurry. They see a man approaching, he’s a few blocks away.”

It’s supposed to invoke a better mental picture than using the past tense. I personally don’t like it. Seems like a gimmick.

A person can use a strict present tense to deny something which is generally true.

“Are you cheating on your wife?”
“No, I am not cheating on my wife.”
“Well, I have this video of you having sex with your secretary yesterday.”
“I stand by what I said. Sure, I was cheating on my wife then but as you can see I’m not cheating on her right now.”

A friend (okay, I hate his guts) wrote a story, conventional third-person past-tense construction. John did this; John said that. The story is set in a dystopia, with a scary Gestapo-like secret police everyone is afraid of. At one point in the story, there is a knock at the door. A few seconds later, the knock is repeated.

The story’s narration, echoing the protagonist’s thoughts, says, “They never knock twice.”

That little jump from past to present was, imo, very effective.

The novel Finn, by Jon Clinch, is about Huck Finn’s papa. Pretty good, and written entirely in present tense. This works, because it disguises which scenes are “now” and which scenes are flashbacks. It keeps the reader from knowing the outcome of certain scenes, increasing tension.

I don’t know any way to figure out if this writing-tool indicates a writer’s actual personal experience. That part is way out of my reach.

“So I says to the guy, I says…”

Historic present, made famous by Damon Runyon of Guys and Dolls fame. It was said of him that he only used the past tense once, by accident.

There is a variant of police speak that uses a sort of historic present perfect that seems to be creeping into police beat journalism. “The suspect has broken into the house and has set fire to it before fleeing the neighbours, who have rushed to the scene…” You get the idea. I think police think it sounds fancier to use the $10 perfect form when the 5c past tense is cromulent.

Stand ups are taught to use a very stripped down version of the historic present, ditching all unnecessary words. “Guy goes into a bar. Orders a drink. Says to the bartender…” (continue joke to taste).

It creates a sense of immediacy for comics, and a timing baseline they can play with later for the delivery of jokes. Lawyers using it sounds naff to me. Sort of cheap and classless.

I think it’s fine, depending on how it’s used. Off the top of my head, I could think of “Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike, and some of Chuck Palahuniuk’s novels being written in this way. It’s there to suggest, as the OP noted, immediacy when used as a narrative device. It can also be used in the hypothetical for similar reasons. Its use, alone, does not necessarily suggest the hypothetical. I would just use the term “present tense narration” for it, but the “historical present” is probably the more technical term for it (although I’m not sure whether it covers all uses of the present that the OP has in mind.)

There were many reasons I could never get into the Hunger Games books, but the fact that it was written in the present tense is probably the biggest reason I could never make any headway.

It’s a very distracting writing style, that can be used for great effect if used in small doses, I seem to remember a few ray bradbury excerpts that used it, but to write the entire narrative in such a fashion? :confused:

Thanks. I thought it must have a name, but I had no idea how to search for it.