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Monday, October 01, 2007


Past vs present tense

A question Bran Fan asked a while ago, but I see I never got around to answering, was this:

I was wondering about present vs. past tense. Since about 90 percent of popular fiction is written in past tense, we are taught to read stories that way. Present tense is harder for me to read and harder to write. Wondering why you went that way for Benighted and if you're also writing new work in present tense.

Sorry for the delay, Bran Fan, I only just spotted it. It's a good question, but regrettably I don't have a very good answer. I'll do my best...

I've written in both past and present tense; currently I'm writing in the past, but for other writing projects, I've got no particular plans. When I wrote Bareback/Benighted, I didn't sit down and decide that I was going to write a book in the present tense, or consider very much what tense would be appropriate. I wrote the first chapter in a breathless rush, and Lola's voice started spilling out; in order to capture that voice, I had to use the present tense, because that was how Lola speaks.

In retrospect, my analysis would be something along these lines: Lola is an entirely subjective narrator, generally in a high state of emotion about something, very sensitive to certain things but blind to others. Because of that, it felt somehow right to be hearing her describe things as if hearing an internal monologue. The story is told entirely inside Lola's mind - she's an unreliable narrator, and you have to pick up cues from other characters to realise she's being unfair - and her mind is extremely reactive. Everything that happens triggers an emotional response; every moment is lived intensely; she broods, but she doesn't exactly reflect. For her, the past is always considered only insofar as it has an effect on how she's feeling right at this precise moment, a time to be relived rather than remembered. There is no 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' for her; she feels a reasonable variety of emotions, but tranquillity isn't one of them. To quote Wendy Cope, 'I have emotion - no one who knows me could fail to detect it -/ But there's a serious shortage of tranquility in which to recollect it.' The past tense has a degree of distance that the present leaves no space for, and as a result, it was part of Lola's personality that she should think in the present tense.

But having said that, I like writing in the present tense. That sense of up-close, vivid emotionality tends to trigger a good writing mood in me. I may well use it again. It just feels comfortable. When I read Bran Fan's question and considered using the present again, it seemed less like a challenge and more like a siren call: write in me, write in me... Hopefully this doesn't make it impossible for people to read, because I just like it.

I think one reason why the past tense is more popular is that, when we tell stories in real life, we generally use it, because we're talking about stuff that's already happened. Hence, the past tense is probably the natural one to use in storytelling. It has verisimilitude.

In speech, there's something casual about using the present: 'So I go into this bar, right? And there's this guy wandering around, and what does he do but step on my foot! So I go up to him, and I say to him, I say...' In fiction, it doesn't quite have that effect. It's hard to give a general rule, but I'd say that broadly speaking, using the past tense gives a sense of space, whereas the present is more claustrophobic. You can, in fact, move backwards and forwards in the present just as much - in fact, it can be easier to distinguish tense that way, as anything that's a flashback is automatically indicated by the use of the past tense - but it puts you right here in the action, right now: there's no distance between your 'now' and the narrator's.

I'm not sure why I enjoyed using the present so much. Perhaps I found that up-closeness cosy rather than claustrophobic; it feels warmer, somehow, than the past. Possibly it comes from reading Margaret Atwood. Possibly I was imprinted in English classes, where essays teach us to say 'Hamlet tries to kill his uncle' rather than 'Hamlet tried to kill his uncle,' that is, the sense that fictional characters exist only in the words that their creators use about them. They have no past, because they aren't real; everything they've 'done' hasn't really happened. Hence, using the past tense when talking about them isn't completely accurate - and if that's true in talking about characters, why shouldn't it be true in creating them? Then again, I don't always write in the present tense, so who knows?

I've had people convinced that writing in the present tense is much more difficult; I've even stood there saying, 'Well, no, for me with this character it was easier' and had them still insist that it was incredibly clever of me to write an entire novel in such a difficult form. It's always rather embarrassing when people attribute undeserved admiration to you for taking the path of least resistance, so hopefully this post will resolve it once and for all, and if it happens again I can run away without looking too rude.

It is interesting that you find it easier! I find it harder...

Your point about student literature essays ("Hamlet kills his uncle") got me to wondering. Why are most novels written in past tense but all synopses in present? In fact, all synopses are present tense, third person, no matter the tense or person of the novel. Funny, that.

I must respectfully disagree that present tense gives one up close cozy feelings. It tends to distance me when I read. I can't lose myself in a present tense novel because the narration feels like stage directions.

We all have our quirks. I have a friend who refuses to read first-person novels, and I love them. So, I suppose that narrative choices we make will lose us readers and also gain us readers.
Feel free to disagree, different strokes!

Synopses in the present? I'm really not sure. Possibly to try making it sound as dynamic and exciting as possible? Or possibly because if you wrote it in the past tense, it would sound more like an actual story being told - only, because it's a synopsis, told badly? When you think about it, it's a curious convention.
I used to find present tense hard to read because it was unfamiliar, but now I can pretty much deal with it without noticing. I even wrote a short story in present tense without noticing I'd written it that way at first; like Kit said, it's what felt right.

What throws me for six is when writers mix tenses. Not so much if they do it chapter on chapter, but in the same paragraph...bleargh! What's up with that?
Most of my stories wind up being first person, present tense because that's how I tend to think. It's enough of a habit with me that sometimes when I try to write something in past tense, I'll slip up and write it in present. I like the sense of here-and-now that it conveys.

My ex-boyfriend's first published story was written in second person, present tense. It was pretty ambitious in terms of style, but he managed to pull it off pretty well.
The one really outstanding use of present tense in a novel, for me, was The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood -- standing out for me, probably, because it's the first novel where I was conscious of present tense as a style choice. (Also, the novel itself was kind of exciting.) Present tense took place in the narrative present, and all flashbacks were in past tense.

I tend not to remember if something is written in present tense or novelistic past. (I'm more inclined to notice first person, which I've been avoiding lately. Not sure why.) I do notice a lot of people have intense trouble managing past perfect tense when writing in present tense, which bugs me during my day job. It's like transposing music to a new key. Sometimes present tense can lend itself to pretension, but it's not inherent, like passé simple in French or anything. But if I'm put off by a book, it's rarely (I should bravely go out on a limb and say never) the tense that does it.

I write everything in present tense [also, mostly in dialogue. And also, with lots of puzzled/sarcastic/find-a-synonym/oooh-what-if/reword-this-later! notes to myself in brackets] because it's faster -- I can't really explain that. It feels like it both comes out of my brain faster and the action on the page is happening faster. Then convert it to past tense during the editing process. Only things I've ever attempted to keep present-tense in the final form are short stories. Works sometimes and sometimes not.

What I hate about that -- and this might be totally unrelated -- is, while writing this stuff it feels like the action is happening at one pace, and then when I step away and come back and read it later, it's at a completely different pace, like a blip, all speedy and not nearly as harrowing, or as full, or as finished as it seemed. Makes it harder to judge some things.
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