19 November 2016

Past or Present: A Tense Situation


by John M. Floyd





Western actor: Are those our teepees?
Director: We've upsized to wigwams. Teepees are past tense.



Consider this. You've come up with a great idea for a short story. In fact, you've been thinking about it awhile, you know who your POV character is, you have a pretty good feel for the plot, and you've even picked out a catchy title. But when you sit down to start typing the opening, there's something else you'll have to decide on, something you might never have thought about, only a few years ago:

Will your story be told in past tense or present tense?

The truth is, I don't think about it at all. I prefer past tense, and so far that's how all my stories have been told.

Feeling tense?

Here's the strange thing: I don't mind reading stories written in present tense. I just don't like to write them that way. I don't think I'd feel comfortable doing it, and besides, I would probably always be accidentally reverting to past tense and having to correct myself. (As Dirty Harry Callahan once said, "A man's gotta know his limitations.") I sure don't need to be bothered with doing any more self-editing than I already have to do.

Obviously, many of my writer friends don't share this preference. Stories written in present tense seem to be everywhere, nowadays--and, as I mentioned earlier, that was not always the case. The first novel I remember reading that was written in present tense was, I think, Presumed Innocent, back in the late 80s. No criticism, there; it's still one of my favorites. And I think all of John Updike's Rabbit novels were written in present tense as well. I can't recall many old-time novels written that way, though, except Charles Dickens's Bleak House.

Pitching tense

Why is present tense so popular in contemporary fiction? Most writers say it's because it lends a sense of immediacy to the story--a sense that this is happening right now, at this very moment, and we're all witnesses to it. When the robber turns away, the security guard draws his gun and fires. BAM.

That's not a bad idea, and when done well it works well. But writing in the past tense--when the robber turned away, the security guard drew his gun and fired--seems more natural to me. I like feeling as though I'm telling the reader what happened, not what's happening, and I'm not convinced that I give up any suspense by doing it that way. Past tense is traditional storytelling, the old classic once-upon-a-time approach. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Upsides and downsides

From what I've been able to find, it seems that there are several big advantages and several big disadvantages to present-tense fiction. On the plus side of the writing ledger are (1) the aforementioned "immediacy" and vividness of the action and (2) the fact that present tense probably makes it easier for the reader to feel a connection to the protagonist. On the minus side, present tense supposedly makes it harder to (1) manipulate time, (2) generate suspense, and (3) create complex characters.

Arthur Plotnik (what a great name for a writer, sort of like Francine Prose) says, in his book Spunk & Bite, "Present tense . . . imparts a live-camera mood that is relatively new to literary prose, as well as to journalism." Then he adds, "But in lesser hands, present tense can diminish the spell . . . It can seem affected, breathless, and flighty." He says it can be used to keep readers on edge, but that it can also "grow tedious if the inventiveness flags."

The key phrase, there, seems to be "in lesser hands." Maybe present-tense fiction is one of those don't-try-this-at-home endeavors. If you're a novice, proceed with caution. If you're talented enough, full speed ahead. (But watch out for those inventiveness flags, on the side of the road.)

NOTE: It did occur to me, while putting together this column, that there are at least two forms of writing that are and have always been done in present tense: jokes ("A guy walks into a bar . . .") and screenplays. I've never written jokes, but I have created several screenplays--and strangely enough, writing those in present tense seems correct and natural. Go figure.

My tense-sense summary

I would, as always, be interested in hearing your opinions. Do you enjoy reading stories/novels written in present tense? (I do--or at least I don't object to it.) Do you ever write stories/novels in present tense? (I don't. But only because I doubt I'd be good at it.)


He types the last sentence of the SleuthSayers post, clicks "Publish," closes the Blogger program, and pushes back from the computer. His Saturday column is finished and scheduled. "Guess it's time to rake leaves now," he says to his wife.

He typed the last sentence of the SleuthSayers post, clicked "Publish," closed the Blogger program, and pushed back from the computer. His Saturday column was finished and scheduled. "Guess it's time to rake leaves now," he said to his wife.

Different keystrokes for different folks.



15 comments:

janice law said...

Interesting column. I, too, usually go with past tense, but I found when writing the Francis Bacon novels that I often slipped into present tense at the start of the book and had to go back and convert to past tense after half a chapter or so. Who knows why?

Art Taylor said...

Great post here, John. I've written in both--without thinking too too much about it, but just following intuitively what seems best for a story. Appreciate your stepping here through possibilities and potential problems.

John Floyd said...

Janice, that's interesting, about the Bacon novels. Maybe it indicates that you felt an unusual closeness to the character. I agree with you: who knows why these things happen?

Art, I envy you the ability to "know" which seems best for a particular story. I have certainly read stories written in present tense that I enjoyed, and later wondered if they would have been as good in past tense. Probably not. As a writer, though, I can't seem to get past the unusual feel (for me) of writing stories in present tense.

Paul D. Marks said...

John, I’m like you in that I don’t mind reading stories set in the present tense. And I’ve also written a few. And I wrote one story that was a hybrid of screenplay format, using sluglines, but the text was in past tense. That was an interesting exercise. Ultimately, I think the tense depends on what seems to work for a particular story.

John Floyd said...

Paul, I've told myself I need to try again to write a story using present tense, and I suppose someday I will. I'm not surprised to hear that that hybrid of past and present was an interesting project for you.

One part of present-tense writing that I think I would find troublesome are things like flashbacks and other deviations from the timeline. The present-tense stories I've read that do include those techniques seem to handle them well.

Jeff Baker said...

In the first stories I wrote I kept bopping between the past ad present tense willy-nilly in the same story. I had to go back and rewrite the darn things! I was sloppy about that for a while and I still have to watch myself!

O'Neil De Noux said...

John. Excellent column. I write in both as well as in 1st and 3rd person. My problem is when I'm writing a novel in the present tense and write a short story concurrently, I usually scew up. Wait - isn't this one in present tense? I like the immediacy of present tense. I like the looking back of past tense, especially in my PI novels sent in the 1940s and 1950s. I have discovered editors who flat out won't publish present tense stories. I DO especially like writing in 1st person, present tense. At least I do at the moment.

John Floyd said...

Jeff, that's one of the things that's kept me writing in the past tense. I would have to be extremely careful not to mix them up in the same story.

Thanks, O'Neil! Yes, I've read things you've written in both tenses, and in different POVs, and you do them all well. I think period pieces, especially, should be told in past tense. BTW, I find it interesting that you've found some publishers who won't take present-tense stories!

Michael Bracken said...

One of the advantages of writing in past tense is that the narrator/author will have information that can be shared or not shared as appropriate. For example, if I write a story today about an event that happened last Saturday, I can include in the first scene bits of information not actually learned until Tuesday or Thursday or only moments ago.

O'Neil hears the sound of a gun being fired and a body dropping to the floor.

vs.

O'Neil heard the sound of a .357 being fired and John's body dropping to the floor.

In the present-tense first example, only a firearms expert might know what kind of weapon was fired just by the sound and would not know who was shot until later. Thus, the narrator/author would not be able to share that information with the reader until later in the story.

In the past-tense second example, the narrator/author already has information about the weapon and the victim by the time writing begins and can include those details right from the start.

Pat Marinelli said...

A few years ago I found it extremely difficult to read present tense, now I hardly notice as long as the story works well.

I usually write 3rd person, past tense. Occasionally I will write a story in 1st person, past tense. For me it's the way the story presents to me or in some cases the way the main character presents the story to me. I always listen to the characters in my head. I don't think I've even had a character ask me to tell their story in present tense. Hopefully, they won't because after reading your post and Michael Beacken's comments, I'd probably be very bad at writing present tense...I flip-flop back and forth and it would drive me crazy.

John Floyd said...

Good thoughts, Michael! The only problem with your example is that O'Neil shot John.

Seriously, your example shows why present tense can sometimes make it harder to convey the desired effect. Again, there are pluses and minuses on both sides--but I find past tense not only easier but more useful.

Pat, I too usually write past-tense third-person, and sometimes past-tense, first-person. Past is just more comfortable for me.

Thanks to both of you for your comments!

Melodie Campbell said...

John, I have a post already posted to Sleuthsayers (coming in Jan, I think) that speaks to this briefly. I won't repeat it here in full, but I'm one of those who has trouble reading present tense.
Enjoyed your research into this!

John Floyd said...

Melodie, I look forward to seeing your take on all this. I at first had trouble reading present-tense stories at all, but I've finally reached the point where I can get into them without constantly "thinking" about the crazy idea that this is all supposed to be happening NOW. But I still can't write in present tense.

One thing we haven't mentioned: in the classes I teach, most of the students who prefer reading/writing present-tense fiction are younger, and they're female. Not sure I understand that, but them's the facts.

B.K. Stevens said...

I've been out of town and away from my computer, so I'm late in commenting. (Is it inappropriate to offer a late comment on a post about present tense?)Once again, John, I find myself agreeing with you about almost everything. I don't write in present tense, but I've gotten more used to reading fiction that is, and I can enjoy it now as long as it's done well. (But often, I think, it isn't done well, and then it can come across as too self-conscious, as if the author's trying too hard to sound literary--I think Plotnik describes the dangers well.) Also like you, I think PRESUMED INNOCENT is the first book I read that was written in present tense; unlike you, I found the tense distracting and pretentious, maybe largely because I wasn't used to it. Probably, the use of present tense is like just about everything else in writing--fine if done well, less fine if done less well.

John Floyd said...

Bonnie, I'd listen to what you have to say regardless of what tense it's in.

I do remember being a bit surprised by Turow's use of present tense in Presumed Innocent, but I was honest in saying that it didn't bother me. Maybe because he did it so well--and maybe because I was completely absorbed by the plot, and eventually by what I still consider to be one of the best twist endings I've ever read.

I think you're correct that some lesser writers might try to use present tense (and mess it up) because they're trying to sound more literary. All I want is a good story, told well, and told in such a way that I'm not distracted by whatever style and technique is used. If past tense is what it takes to do that, so be it.