Conventions of Composition Rule 155

Rule: The characters in fictional books exist only in the present, so you must always use the present tense to write about what they’re up to.

Note: If something happened to a character before the story you’re reading begins, you may use the past tense to refer to that event.


Wrong: McMurphy was faking being crazy. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)

Better: McMurphy fakes being crazy.

Wrong: Jane went from place to place making documentaries about meat. (My Year of Meats)

Better: Jane travels from place to place making documentaries about meat.

Wrong: Jay Gatsby discovered a beautiful dream. (The Great Gatsby)

Better: Jay Gatsby discovers a beautiful dream.


  1. Holden met up with his sister and told her what was going on in his life after he left Pencey. (The Catcher in the Rye)
  2. Humperdinck loved hunting more than anything else he did. (The Princess Bride)
  3. Elizabeth's mother and father gave her opposite ultimatums about whether or not to accept Mr. Collins' proposal; her mother didn't abide by her own threat after Elizabeth sided with her father. (Pride and Prejudice)

Resources for further explanation of the fictional present:

Texas State's Verb Tense for Analysis of Literature

Collect Cengage's Present Tense