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  • Writing in the present or past tense?
    by ashlinn at 20:12 on 02 November 2005
    Recently, I had a discussion with a friend and writer about the use of the present tense in story-telling and I wondered if anyone had any opinions to contribute on this subject. What do you think of it both as readers and writers? Do you think that it brings anything extra over the standard past tense and if so, what?
  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005
    Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I'm being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore's The Siege.

    More seriously, though I've read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it's often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn't really imagining out the scene completely. It's also less flexible: I think it's much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder. After all, we're telling stories, and stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps, by denying that basic sense of a story already having a shape that the reader is waiting to have revealed and so understand, it's trying to trick the reader into suspending judgement. But I refuse to suspend judgement: I want to engage my brain when I'm reading, not just have a stream of stuff pass by my eyes.

    I have used it myself, for a few stories, but only when I want something extremely interior, one PoV, something with no sense of before or after: the crystallised moment kind of story, rather than the crucial turning point kind. And I've used it for very short sections in The Mathematics of Love and other novels - dreams, nightmares, snapshot perceptions - which are wholly separate from the rest of the narrative.

    So I'm partly trailing my coat in the paragraph before this one. Maybe I just want writers to be better at it and more descriminating before they use it. I've heard writers who feel that past tense is old-fashioned, which to me is a bit like saying that polysyllables are old fashioned: it says more about them than they would probably like to know, and nothing about the real story-telling possibilities of ourlanguage.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by old friend at 06:47 on 03 November 2005
    The use of the present tense combined with the narrator as the main character makes it impossible to convey the deeper emotions of the supporting characters; any attempt at this achieves something but there is always a second-opinion feel about his/her words.

    It is not difficult to write in the present tense but the problem is to sustain this without making this so obvious to the reader that it gets in the way of the story.

    A common technique with the present tense is to develop story and plot in the mind, using the past tense, and then to write it in the present tense. Good examples of this can be seen in the writing of Detective stories, particularly by American authors.

    'Pace' within a story can be changed quite dramatically with a change of tense within that story, but I an not keen on this for it can create more confusion.

    It has to be said that some stories offer themselves as ideal for the present tense and some writers are extremely good at using this.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by Traveller at 09:37 on 03 November 2005
    I completely reworked my first novel which was written in the past tense. I found it flowed much better in the present tense and was more immediate. A common device is to use the present tense in the opening chapter to reel a reader in - that works too. I think it depends on the type of story you want to tell. If it works use it - there are many novels that use the present tense and work very well.
  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by ashlinn at 10:00 on 03 November 2005
    I find this very interesting. Emma's comment:
    I've heard writers who feel that past tense is old-fashioned
    made me realise that few of the older classics are written in the present tense and it seems to me (just an impression, not having done the research) that most books in the present tense are relatively recently published ones. Why is that? Is this a new trend?

    And Traveller, why did you find the present tense more 'immediate'? Did you get the impression that the reader becomes convinced that they are following the story in real-time?

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by Account Closed at 17:06 on 03 November 2005
    I tend to write in the present tense, as I have not yet learnt how to time travel.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by Traveller at 09:07 on 04 November 2005
    The best thing to do is to write your piece in both versions then select which one you think is the best. The advantages of each will become clearer.
  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by EmmaD at 10:51 on 04 November 2005
    Of course you can have a nice postmodern argument that all fiction occurs in the narrator's present - whether the existence of a narrator is implied or explicit - and that s/he is telling a story about the past. It's an illusion that a narrative using present tenses is more immediate than one using past tenses - it must have happened already for it to be being told. Past tense is actually a closer representation of the story-telling situation.

    To use the classic postmodern example, only written 246 years ago: what tense would anyone say Tristram Shandy is/was written in?

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by el gringo at 11:46 on 04 November 2005
    After some experimentation, I found I was most comfortable writing action in the present tense, but with liberal use of flashbacks, journal entries and other devices in past tense to convey particular events which demand reflection. I've never had a problem with reading present tense since I read Malcolm Bradbury's joyful Rates of Exchange, and never found it a handicap in my own writing. You allow your narrator to observe without the need for instant analysis, but this does not prevent him/her from doing so at a later stage. If anything, it encourages you to be subtle and realistic, and to avoid teaching your reader to suck eggs.

    Only real drawback is that some people find it off-putting, as this thread has indicated!

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by ashlinn at 12:04 on 04 November 2005
    Sorry, Emma, I haven't read Tristram Shandy so I can't say what tense it was written in but I would guess from your post that it's the present.

    As a reader, I don't generally like the present tense. For me, it works best when used in conjunction with the first person POV as it can give a sense of listening to a monologue which can be good if the narrator is a fascinating, larger-than-life kind of character. However, in the more traditional story-telling context I prefer the past tense. Sometimes the use of the present tense makes me feel as though the author is putting him or herself at the same level as me and I find that annoying. Of course the author knows the end of the story but I don't so it feels patronising to pretend otherwise.
    In other cases, the use of the present tense can feel like literary poseurship. I prefer when the tense used is as invisible as possible so that the focus is on the story and the characters.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by Traveller at 12:52 on 04 November 2005
    I agree that the traditional story telling tense is the past. Use the present for a breath of fresh air! It can really liven up scenes - I don't think it's an illusion that it creates more immediacy. Action scenes can be sharper in the present tense. I haven't analysed why this is but I think it's because it's a less wordy tense...that might be bullsh*t I'm not sure...
  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by EmmaD at 16:24 on 04 November 2005
    Of course the author knows the end of the story but I don't so it feels patronising to pretend otherwise.

    Yes, I think that's one of the things that annoys me, too.

    The point about Tristram Shandy is that Sterne makes TS set out to tell the story of his life, starting at conception, but then lets him be constantly sidetracked by other stuff - past, present, future, opinions - that he tells the reader. It's pretty long, and I have to confess that I've never finished it, but what I read made me laugh aloud, which doesn't often happen. I think I'm right in saying that, three of the old volumes later, he gives up, having got to the story of himself aged 5!

    The postmodernists love it, because it wasn't written much after the invention of the novel - i.e. book-length prose fiction - and yet it's constantly playing with the form and making jokes about it - what's real, what's 'real' in the novel, what might be invented, unreliable narrators, stream-of-consciousness, what's narrator, what's author, what's reader... And lots of sex. Eat your heart out John Fowles.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by chris2 at 16:17 on 06 November 2005
    I have to agree with Emma about being repeatedly rapped over the head by the present tense. For a very short piece of writing (and particularly for a poem) the present tense can be terrific. For a novel or even a short story (i.e. for a narrative), it always feels horribly artificial. It jars in every sentence.

    The present tense ruined Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man for me. It was as if the author was intruding with a technical gimmick the whole way through. I picked up the book to confirm that I wasn't mis-remembering my reaction and opened it at random. The very first paragraph illustrated one of the problems.

    Howard walks back into the party; Miss Callendar remains standing by the mantelpiece. Someone has gone out and found more to drink; there is a more subdued air now, a softer sexual excitement. He passes through the bodies, face to face, rump to rump. He inspects the scene for Flora Beniform; there are many faces, but none of them hers. Later on, he is up in his own bedroom.

    Quite apart from the fact that this reads rather like a set of stage directions, how ghastly is 'later on, he is up'? The use of 'is' with 'later' just doesn't work well, but that is the sort of thing you are stuck with in present tense narration.

    Even if French where, unlike in English, present tense narration in the spoken language is quite normal, most writers of consequence have avoided its use and stuck with the past tenses. A sort of exception is Andre Gide who, in Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925), actually mixes up present and past in adjacent sentences. It seems to work in French but would, I think, be a disaster in English.

    To sum up, I would say that, because it is not the natural way in English to relate what's going on, it will always be an artificial intrusion into the reader's absorption of the narrative.

  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by ashlinn at 17:25 on 06 November 2005
    That's my problem with the present tense; while I am reading I am conscious of it all the time and it focuses my attention away from the story and on to the style.

    As for French, a high proportion of children's books in French are written in the present tense as opposed to adult books which are in the 'passe historic' which is a tense that in only used in writing and never expressed verbally. The present tense is easier for children learning to read as it's closer to the way they speak. Maybe that connotation is one of the reasons why writers of French adult literature avoid the present.
  • Re: Writing in the present or past tense?
    by Derek at 13:58 on 01 December 2005
    Really enjoyed this thread. As a children's author I made it my biz to investigate a few children's books written in the present tense (by even the great Jacqueline Wilson). My view is/was the author's are/were just trying to be clever or trendy...
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