Intensity: Choosing Between the Past and Present Tenses

giphy (1)“Why isn’t this in the past tense?” Was the question. “By definition, all stories occur in the past.”

I was stumped. There I was sitting in my writing workshop, years into a novel about which I had thought of absolutely everything, every choice. And in one question this woman shakes me down to my boots. I didn’t know why I had written the entire novel in present tense. Nor did I know that by making this choice I was wading into a hogs-wallow worth of judgment and controversy.

I google. Wait, what? There’s a whole kerfuffle on the use of present tense that’s been going back thirty years or more. How did I miss that? I panic. That never-ending writerly feeling that I’m a complete fraud takes hold of me. The next day, I sit down and rewrite my first chapter in a very unwieldy past tense. But damn, I’m so much more literary in the past tense. All those tenses flitting from my fingers. I even wear my cat’s-eye glasses while I do it.

Then I call my mother-in-law, who happens to be a very accomplished novelist herself. “I never write in the past tense,” Mameve Medwed tells me, a cheerleader for Team Present. “All those tense forms are clunky and old-fashioned when creating a good sentence.”

Hmm.

In 1987, William Gass fired a major shot in the battle over present tense. Gass blamed it on current fads and, interestingly, an increase in the number of women taking writing courses. The implication seems to be that we are too self-obsessed (writing in the first person) and too timid to stake out a claim and say what really happened. Aha! This is why I didn’t know that present tense was a No-No. Most of my writing teachers over the years have been women and were therefore in on the conspiracy. So this being a woman thing doesn’t just include PMS, childbirth and menopause, but an inability to tell a story with the proper amount of authority too? I reread Gass’s article, unsure how much credence to give opinions proffered alongside VCR programming laments.

The fight moves on to a new Millennium. Novels are nominated for the Booker Prize that also happen to be written in the gasp Present Tense. Cue kerfuffling. It’s an absurd fashion we will look back upon in embarrassment. It’s a violation of the very nature of what the novel and writing itself means. Philip Pullman says that writers are trying to meet Hollywood halfway. He notes that present tense loses its impact if used throughout a novel. “But if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.”

Pullman’s point about claustrophobia is a good one. Team Past has more where that came from:

  • Past tense allows the writer to manipulate time in more interesting ways.
  • The pace in past tense is flexible. It’s easier to jump forward over days or years.
  • Past tense allows the Point of View character to be both actor and narrator, thereby granting an additional source of depth and insight into the character.

But they have some less valid points as well. Chief among them is the claim that in the present tense the writer must by necessity include mundane activities in the character’s day. Really? Short stories are often written in the present tense, are all of those stories full of humdrum details? A writer must choose which details are important in a scene regardless of tense. If, in the present tense, we don’t watch the character brush her teeth three times a day we don’t assume she has gum disease. Our minds gloss over the fact. Present tense novels have no more propensity to include the mundane than those written in the past.

Another talking point for Team Past is that the author loses the opportunity to foreshadow effectively. This one, frankly, causes some head-scratching. If foreshadow is intended to increase suspense and we analyze it that way, the tenses come to a draw. After all, in the past tense we know the narrator lived through whatever he was facing in the novel. When the antagonist has a knife to the protagonist’s throat, well, we know he doesn’t cut it. Suspense is reduced. But in the present, the protagonist loses the ability to reflect, I knew the minute he reached into his pocket, it was going to get ugly. A loss, no doubt, but one that perhaps can be compensated for by the immediacy of the present tense.

So, the benefits of the past tense boil down to time manipulation, the separation of narrator and actor, and pacing flexibility. What about those for present tense?

  • Present tense is easier to manage. There are twelve forms of tense to use in the past tense, whereas in present there are four. Mameve’s point is true, language is cleaner in the present tense.
  • To include a flashback in present tense, a writer can use the simple past. In past tense, a writer has to use past perfect. Flashbacks are just less wordy in the present tense.
  • There is a realism to present tense. Movies are frequently cited as cause for the demise of literature into the present tense and for good reason. Authors using the present tense often express the desire for the novel to mesmerize and capture the readers. Present tense adds immediacy to a scene.
  • Present tense can add to characterization and tone of the novel. A character who is perhaps not reflective does very well in the present tense. So does a drunk one. Or a frat brother.

The battle between the pros and cons of past tense and present tense seems to be a tie. In that case, it’s probably best to stick with the hundreds of years of novel-writing tradition and go with the stodgy guys, even if they can’t program their VCRs.

I return to my own writing. Why did I choose present tense? Was I unwittingly following a fad? I flip through old stories, pieces of novels. It’s a mix. Some past, some present, each choice made to fit the story, albeit subconsciously. What kind of writer do I think I am, going around making important choices willy-nilly? If I’m going to be a serious writer, I need to write in the Serious Past Tense with lots of serious foreshadowing and rumination.

There’s still a niggling question, however. What were those present tense books that started off the great Booker Prize kerfuffle of 2010? Emma Donahue’s Room. Of course, she’s a woman after all. Timid, no doubt. Unsure of her authority. But Tom McCarthy and Damon Galgut were also to blame. And the year before, Hilary Mantel. Hold on, Wolf Hall was written in present tense? How did I miss that? Mantel also says that when she started writing Wolf Hall she didn’t think about it. “I was writing as I saw it.” Of the present tense, Mantel says, “It is humble and realistic – the author is not claiming superior knowledge – she is inside or very close by her character, and sharing their focus, their limited perceptions. It doesn’t suit authors who want to boss the reader around and like being God.”

David Mitchell is onto this as well, writing the historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in the present. So are Marlon James and Paul Murray. Not just girls, in other words. Mantel says of the critics who claim Team Present Tense is ruining the novel, “The novel is infinitely capacious, it can handle anything you throw at it.”

I remove my cats-eye glasses. Perhaps tense, like all the other choices in writing a novel is a matter of artistic taste, a decision of which to be aware. Maybe by not worrying about it I landed on something. After all, I didn’t agonize over my choice of protagonist. She was just there, in front of me, asking me to write her and to do it in the close third person. Could the answer of why I chose present tense be as simple as because it’s what felt right? Could there be no right or wrong in the debate, but merely whatever fits your intentions for that individual work?

Then I find one of those not-stodgy, to-live-by-writer-quotes:

“Books let you know what tense they want to be written in.” –David Mitchell.

14 comments

  1. Bonnie Waltch

    Nice piece, Sharissa! A lot of food for thought. I wrote my YA in present tense to give the story more immediacy, but now I’m writing an adult fiction novel in past tense — so I agree, it’s whatever your novel tells you to do!

  2. I write novels and short stories in both present and past tense. The story chooses the tense, not me. I wasn’t told one was better than the other. Each has its purpose.

    Perhaps it was better for you to be in the dark about tense. Your story is probably better in present instead of forcing it to be past.

    • Sharissa Jones

      Thank you for reading. Since I’m usually in the dark on things, it’s nice to know that this time it maybe helped.

  3. Eileen Tomarchio

    Great essay! I loved writing my first novel in close third-person present tense–employed not by design so much as instinct.

    So glad you used the example of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”. David Mitchell’s use of present tense and dialogue interruptions make the book so rich and vivid, almost musical.

  4. Stephanie Gayle

    Nothing like that soul crushing moment when you hear a question about your work and think, “What?!” Glad you made it to the other side.

  5. bellebrett@comcast.net

    Very helpful to see all the arguments laid out pro and con. Now I will feel more comfortable just listening to what my story tells me to do. Thanks, Sharissa!

  6. Carol D. Gray

    Great piece Sharissa. I remember Steve Almond saying with great authority–NEVER use the present tense. Now I know there’s more to it than that!

  7. Jane

    Present tense always makes a novel less compelling to me, and strikes me as a highly self-conscious device (which is obviously my subjective response). At this point I won’t bother reading a novel unless it’s at least partly written in the past tense.

  8. Jack Daniel

    Let me preface this with a disclaimer: I am absolutely not a fan of simple present tense. I don’t think it even begins to accomplish the immediacy that some think it does. Not even a little bit. I think it is amateurish and confusing. Not even John Updike could make it work effectively. It’s a totally feckless narrative device, IMHO.

    That said, I also am not a fan of simple past tense for the same reasons present-tense authors are not fans of it.

    I’ve found something better, which seems to be invisible to Professor Google. The earliest example of this usage of tense that I can recall is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. He puts the protagonist in the scene live in real time, yet uses a combination of past and present tense quite legitimately (this is not a ‘mixing’ of tenses) to do that.

    In our real present, we also regard the immediate past and the immediate future. Not everything is precisely regarded as the present. That is how we navigate the world, by regarding what has just happened and predicting what will happen in the next few seconds. That is our real-time experience of our present.

    This is what Dickens did. He used past-tense verbs for incidental events that had just happened (such as ‘a door slammed’ instead of ‘a door slams’) and present-tense verbs for ongoing events (such as ‘it’s raining’ or ‘Mary is crying’).

    That’s completely legit. It places the narrator (and reader) in the temporal position of being directly in the scene, right now, without the ham-handed handcuffing inherent in simple present tense. And it’s nearly invisible, which is why some likely incorrectly assume Bleak House is written in present tense. It isn’t.

    The usage of present tense verbiage implies that the past tense verbiage refers only to the immediate past, so they work together to establish that temporal position of ‘right now’, much more effectively than simple present tense ever could.

    Of course, this is much more effective for first-person than third-person, but it works. It has the added advantage of being able to do summary and for the MC to look back on a scene, because all they have to do is allow the timeline to proceed for a few moments (which timelines do naturally and relentlessly), and then the narrator can sum up and resolve the scene. All that is needed is a line break.

    It does have limitations. You can’t foreshadow, except in subtext, usually only by allowing the narrator to accidentally do this, unaware that they are doing it. And it is really not easy to do, because the author must consciously examine every single verb and reference it to the timeline, where in past tense every verb is past and in present every verb is present, so those authors don’t have to even think about this at all. They just unconsciously use past or present tense. In present tense, the timeline just evaporates, leaving the reader ungrounded.

    Regardless of those two minor limitations, the Dickens approach is still worth it. I won’t write any other way. It is astoundingly effective. It accomplishes the immediacy that simple present tense fails to accomplish.

    So from that point of view, I think some of the arguments here against simple present tense are specious or at least weak:

    Time manipulation: Other than restrictions in foreshadowing, time manipulation is just as easy and acceptable in present tense (and the Dickens approach) as it is in past tense. Flashbacks and frame stories are just as effective, and just as allowed. On the nose foreshadowing and flashforwards are cheesy anyway, and most authors can’t do them well. They are best avoided.

    Separation of Narrator and author: in present tense (and the Dickens approach), both of which really only apply to first person, the narrator is the author, or at least the MC or viewpoint character is the surrogate for the author. And the author should be completely invisible in any case in fiction (which is one of the problems with simple present tense, which is that the authorial manipulations constantly stick out like a sore thumb). But no separation is necessary. A narrator with a split personality can hardly tell a story effectively.

    Pacing flexibility: I don’t see any connection between pacing flexibility and tense. I think if you know how to create and manipulate pacing, present tense (or the Dickens approach), or past tense has no bearing on that at all. It’s just as easy and effective and allowed, regardless of tense.

    So those three reasons really aren’t problems with simple present tense.

    The real problem with simple present tense is that it just does not work. It is a high-concept conceit that forces the reader to constantly translate it into logical temporal terms they can make sense of, and it is up front, calling so much attention to itself that it distracts from the story and makes the reader question whether what the author thinks is important is their own author persona and ego. Put another way, it simply blows.

    The arguments for present tense here also seem specious or weak. They are of a very slight advantage which is greatly outweighed by the inherent glaring weaknesses of present tense. Simple present tense really does not effectively place the MC and reader in the present. All it seems to do is unground them from the past. So everything is floating out in temporal space with no connection to a timeline at all. And a timeline is necessary for any story.

    The Dickens approach has all the advantages of past and present tense yet does not have those inherent weaknesses. It has the advantage of the immediacy of film and camera view, yet it also has the literary advantage Hollywood can’t seem to get a handle on, which is narration.

    Taken together, it can be considered better than film at creating a real time live story experience. We suspend disbelief in film—we know it isn’t ‘happening right now’, yet we still are swept away by the fictive dream. The Dickens approach can do the exact same thing. Simple past tense can’t, and simple present tense can’t do it effectively or without its limitations getting in the way of the story, negating any advantage and essentially shooting the author directly in the foot.

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