Friday, April 1, 2011

PAST TENSE OR PRESENT TENSE?



Hi folks,

I’ve been reading some interesting blogs and newsletters on the pros and cons of casting novels in either present or past tense so I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts of my own.

PRESENT OR PAST TENSE: To be… or I have been…

I have a strong instinct against present tense. Maybe it’s not an instinct so much as it is a feeling (or maybe a bias?) garnered from sixty-plus years of reading fiction and experiencing the vast majority of that canon as work cast in past tense. I try not to get set in my ways—it’s a decided curse if you teach writing not to be aware that writing tastes, usages and customs change all the time, and if I plan to remain au courant, I had best be aware of the cutting edge of all of that. However, I suspect my dislike and distrust of present tense stems from deeper roots than just the fact that most of the novels I’ve experienced were written that way.

I have a suspicion that my bias may have a more rational cause. That it might be that just as basic story structure—that “beginning, middle and end” thingy—is ingrained in us as writers for a simple reason—it’s the “natural” way of telling stories. That, as storytellers we know that the story we are telling has already happened and the listener or reader knows that as well, makes it logical to acknowledge that fact and tell our stories as they happened… sometime before the telling. So why not tell it that way? As something that’s already taken place. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean—everybody gathered around the campfire listening knows the tale isn’t taking place at that moment, right?

Another factor that enters into my own prejudice against present tense is that we almost never saw it until about 15-20 years ago. And, then, it began to spring up. Almost exclusively with beginning writers. It became obvious that it was a ploy intended to show the writer’s “originality.” Unfortunately, in most cases, it was the only thing on the page that was original. The story itself usually wasn’t. In talking to students who submitted present tense stories, most admitted they used it to “stand out” or “look different.” To which I replied, “Perhaps if you wrote an original story and used original language, that might work better. That’s kind of what most gatekeepers are looking for instead of tricks or variances from the customary.” Most accepted that advice. Some didn’t.

A fact that many who employ present tense with the idea that it will make their manuscript stand out and look “different” is that folks have been doing so for at least a couple of decades now. It’s no longer “different” in the eyes of most gatekeepers. To some—if not many—instead of looking unique, it looks more like an act of pretentiousness and from one who doesn’t know the history of novels. Present tense isn’t new at all. Fairly old stuff.

And, while there are of course, successful books written in present tense, there aren’t a lot. The percentage of published present tense novels in relationship to past tense novels is fairly small. Actually, infintestimal. There might be a reason for that…

The thing is, after untold thousands of novels, most written in past tense, past tense is now considered the “present tense” of a story. It’s how we perceive it when we encounter it. It has to do with that “suspension of disbelief” we talk about. We just “feel” like we’re in the story as it’s occurring.

The reason given by most who write in present tense is that it’s more immediate. On the surface, that seems to make sense. However, if you look at that concept a bit more closely, it falls apart. As readers, we’re logical people for the most part. That means that when we open a novel, we at least subconsciously observe a few things. For one, it’s in print. That means it isn’t happening at the present moment. To a logical person that kind of says that the author must think we’re kind of slow not to notice that. That indicates that perhaps the author is trying to trick or manipulate us into thinking it’s happening now. Which, is the crux of the problem, I think. A halfway astute reader knows the story isn’t happening in present time, so seeing one written as if it was kind of forcefully tells us the writer wants us to think that it is. Which, if this is the writer’s motivation, is a form of authorial manipulation. I think that the demographics of the majority of readers of present tense books that are successful will prove to be younger readers. Readers who haven’t read a great number of books yet in their lifetimes. I know this to be the case of a great many of the writers in my classes who attempt present tense. Usually, they turn out to be the least well-read of the students in the class. Please know that I’m not stating this as an absolute—I’m not. Once in awhile, an older person or even a younger person who has read a respectable number of quality books attempts present tense. But, more often than not, it’s the less well-read person who does so. If this is true, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a less intelligent readership at all. It may just be that the reader who doesn’t object to present tense narratives just hasn’t developed a bias against them. Perhaps it’s just that they’re more open-minded.

Or not…

I’d love to hear how others view present-tense novels.

Blue skies,
Les

15 comments:

mooderino said...

Hey Les,

Very interesting. I think present tense is a bit of a gimmick, but if you do pull it off (and I think some writers have managed that) it can be quite effective in making someone feel they are there as it happens. Most don't manage it though.

As I was reading your post it occurred to me that the place where present tense storytelling has been strongly established is in screenplays (and maybe also plays) and as that side of the movie business became more well known, and people bought screenplays of their favourite movies (which often read fantastically well), or tried writing their own scripts, maybe it felt more acceptable to write fiction that way. What do you think?

thanks for a great read,
Mood

Les Edgerton said...

Mooderino, I think you're right on the money. I agree that writing screenplays can indeed, influence writers. Perhaps because they may think it makes it more cinematic and therefore more attractive to a producer... Very interesting thought and makes a lot of sense! Thank you.

nopennies said...

As you've often said, Les, readers are generally pretty smart cookies. I agree with you that present tense is often a ploy to "stand apart", and it comes across that way to me even if that's not the intent.

Personally, something written in the present tense has the opposite effect of the author's stated intent to make things more immediate. The way present tense is written throws me off so much that I start looking at the way it's written instead of the story being told. It's comparable for me to a film director who strictly uses handheld camera work to show a story: I focus on the camera shaking and nuances, rather than the story.

euclid said...

Hi Les, I believe most writers who use the present tense are trying to inject excitement into the narrative. It sorta works sometimes when I'm reading these books, but after a few pages it usually starts to get on my nerves.

Les Edgerton said...

Great observation, Nopennies! That's an apt comparison. One of the most important (if not the most important) requirements of a quality story is that it does everything in its power to persuade the reader to suspend his/her disbelief and enter into the fiction. Present tense immediately destroys that and the reader has to work hard to overcome that. I always ask my students who want to use present tense: What is the advantage? To a person, they say it's more immediate. Well... it's not. It's simply contrived and sticks out, imo.

Euclid, I agree. You're more generous than I am in your assessment. I find it gets on my nerves immediately!

Good comments, folks. I'm waiting for someone to make a case for it that makes sense.

I know there are books that were written in present tense that were successful, but I always wonder about those books how well they would have done if written in past? Perhaps even better?

Tiffany said...

Present tense makes me angry. I will put a book down or stop reading when I see it. It interrupts the flow of the story. How am I supposed to focus on characters and what they're doing when I have to deal with that garbage? Sorry. That just hits a nerve of mine.

euclid said...

One other thought I had on this subject, Les: You say a story in the present tense tries to suggest the action is happening now. All stories should be told in the past tense, like a narrator at a camp fire. But what if the story is set 200 years in the future (as my current WIP is)? I can hardly tell it in the future tense, can I?

Les Edgerton said...

Tiffany, I kind of feel the same way! It's just kind of irritating like you're watching a one-trick pony and after you've seen the trick you just want to go buy some popcorn and see the bronc busters...

Euclid, I agree--you can't tell it in the future tense--well, you could, but I suspect it would be just as irritating, if not more, than present tense. If you think about it, even if a story is set in the future, it's still fine to use past tense because... you're telling it, meaning you had to witness it to report back. Does that make sense? Past tense is so ingrained into our reading psyche that it simply "feels" like it's happening now. Think about the gal sitting around the campfire, beginning, "Once upon a time, two hundred years from now, a woman met another space traveler... " See? The storyteller (or narrator or pov telling the story is reporting a past experience, even though it took place in the future. The storyteller had to have been there, or they wouldn't be able to tell it. Does that make sense?

Great question!

Cindy Bauer said...

Hi Les,

I totally agree with you. I'm in the middle of cowriting a fiction story with another author who uses present tense. I keep changing it to past tense and it's causing friction. It just does NOT read right in the present tense! It sounds more like telling than showing when using the present tense.

Chris said...

I know I'm a little late to the party but I found this in the blogroll and it popped out at me. With teeth snapping. Why? because right now I'm working on changing a big chunk in one of my books from past tense to present tense, because it makes more sense in the context of the story I'm telling.

Let me say this, too: Les, I think you could be overanalyzing this, at least given the sorta convoluted explanation you gave us for why you hate present tense novels so very much. And it seems as if everybody's already made up their minds too, so I'm risking a lot in asserting myself--but that's okay by me. I dig rubbing people's fur the wrong way. I don't have to be right, I just have to be heard.

Here's why I'm using present tense in my novel: like I said, it makes more sense in my case. I've written in past tense before, and liked it; don't get me wrong. But I found it limiting and awkward in some cases; especially in flashbacks, because the flashbacks really should be presented in past perfect if we're going to nitpick, shouldn't they. And in the case of lots of contemporary examples of storytelling, be they on screen or not, the flashback is an oft-used tool. It helps to break up the plot, making it more difficult for the audience to second-guess where the writer is taking them. It becomes awkward in print, though, if great chunks of the story are flashbacks.

I've edited other writers' stuff too, and the flashback is kind of like the uncultured guest at the dinner party; it must be tamed and taught its manners--and at least attempt to be told in past perfect for the first paragraph, so that the audience understands sufficiently the when of a particular passage. But finding this balance is hard. Ideally the narrative is invisible.

And that's why I'm using present tense. There is a massive flashback in the work that I'm writing. That flashback will be written in past tense, helping to contrast it with the present. I'm not going to spoil it by giving too much away, but that's the primary reason I'm using it. I know some people will resist at first, but by the third or fourth page I'm pretty sure what's happening in the story will get them and the narrative will indeed become invisible.

Another reason I like using present tense is because it makes dealing with time in the story all that much cleaner and more clear. If, for instance, I need to reference something that already happened I simply use the past tense (not past perfect, which can sometimes be clunky, in my opinion), whereas if something is happening in moment I use present tense.

I prefer present tense for another reason: It's always bugged me, and sort of "popped the bubble" of the story for me when the narrative is in the past tense but the dialogue is in the present tense. You wouldn't dare to write this kind of dialogue in a flashback:

"Do not have done that!" he had said, but it was no use.

No, it makes more sense to us to see it in the present tense:

"Do not do that!" he (had) said, but it was no use.

(The past perfect is sometimes optional, let's face it.)

If we had a bit of dialogue in a traditional story, it might look like this:

He chucked another log onto the fire. "That's nice," he said.

I may be the only dude who's anal retentive enough to get bugged about past tense narrative coexisting with present tense dialogue, but hey. To each their own, but it bugs me a little. And I'm not afraid to try new things, especially when I'm ignorant of how foolishly I'm kicking against the goads.

Chris said...

Here's my conclusion, though: A good story is a good story no matter how it's written, in my opinion. I see so many bad ones...published by major houses, no less, and the tense of the narrative is the least of the problems. Originality is a big part of a good story. The one I'm working on has a lot of that going for it and I know it. It's felt so right to change some of it to present tense, too. When an artist knows, he knows, and competent artists don't make choices about their work for light or idle reasons.

I hope I was able to explain a little of my perspective on this. I hope that my work, when it's done, is reflective of my hopes for it. Thanks for reading.

AAE said...

As much as I, mostly, agree with your post I must point out that Dickens wrote Bleak House in the present tense! I think it has to be done very skilfully, some of my favorite novels (time travellers wife) are written in the present tense. I am playing with it myself in my own work at the moment but don't know if I have the skill to pull it off. I'm also playing with the third person viewpoint .

AAE said...

As much as I, mostly, agree with your post I must point out that Dickens wrote Bleak House in the present tense! I think it has to be done very skilfully, some of my favorite novels (time travellers wife) are written in the present tense. I am playing with it myself in my own work at the moment but don't know if I have the skill to pull it off. I'm also playing with the third person viewpoint .

Rene van de Pol said...

How should someone state a fact, when writing fiction in the past tense?

Example:
"Liam remained silent. It is regarded as highly disrespectful to interrupt a merchant halfway through a sentence."

The change of tenses is annoying, but unless our story is hostorically accurate, set in the 12th century and the fact is no longer true in present time. Or at the very least its value no longer holds the same importance. Then surely you can get away writing "It was regarded". But in a fictional world, the fact can be as true today as it would be at the time of writing the story.

By telling the reader these fictional lands exists, present tense is the only tense that seems to make sense to me.

I'm biased to write in the present tense because of this. Am I wrong?

"Liam remains silent. After all, It is regarded as highly disrespectful to interrupt a merchant halfway through a sentence."

Pettifogger said...

The only present-tense book I recall reading was a short-story collection by Damon Runyon. He made it work well. I have not tried it.