Showing posts with label present tense. Show all posts
Showing posts with label present tense. Show all posts

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension


by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.




But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…

28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.
I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.

Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.

It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.

Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.

I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.

Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.


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.