Friday, August 2, 2013

In Defense of Present Tense

by R.C. Lewis

I recently heard a person with a considerable amount of authority state that writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn't be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. It's his opinion, and he's entitled to it, but I disagree. I'm tackling the first-person aspect over on my blog (web host is having issues, so I've cross-posted to my old blog), so I want to focus here on the idea of present tense. (And I'm mostly going to assume we're discussing present tense within first-person POV, because third-person present is a whole different puzzle.)

One argument against present tense is that it's unnatural to us in the English language. We don't tend to use it much in our speech.

(Except some people do relate anecdotes that way—it's their style—and what are anecdotes except telling a story? But anyway...)

I have a couple of issues with that argument. First, spoken language and written language are not the same thing. Spoken is a primary form while written is a secondary form. The way we speak has never been fully reflected in the way we write, and vice versa. Even written dialogue should only feel like a realistic depiction of speech, not actually be an accurate, true-to-life representation. So why would my use or non-use of spoken present tense have any bearing on whether writing a story in it is appropriate?

Second, of course we don't use (spoken) present tense the way we do in written stories, because we don't narrate life as it's happening. (At least, most of us don't. And I might be a little concerned about anyone who does.)

"Then why is your protagonist narrating their life as it happens?" you may ask. "Isn't that just as ridiculous?"

In my opinion, no. It isn't. Because when I read, I don't process it as the character telling me the story. To me, the story simply happens, and the narration is a construct to deliver that thing called "story" to my brain. I don't generally feel like the character/narrator is talking at me—they're just living the story.

Of course, I understand this is a particular philosophy and approach to reading—one I know plenty of people don't share in, and one which I discuss a bit more in the first-person post.

All that said, I'll make some concessions. The first time I read a novel written in present tense, it was awkward. I wasn't used to it, and almost every sentence felt strange. But not being used to something doesn't automatically make it wrong. Little kids just learning to read aren't used to sentences that don't follow simple subject-verb-object structure. The first time they encounter a sentence like the one I'm writing right now, they might feel very awkward indeed. You get used to it. In fact, the only time I seem to notice present tense anymore is when it's done badly. Which brings me to ...

... Sometimes it's done badly.

Present tense is tricky. You can't note or reflect on anything until it comes into the sphere of your POV character's perceptions. I once changed some material from past to present and discovered I had to shuffle sentences around in a paragraph to make things work. And sometimes a story (or even a voice or style) doesn't really seem to support the choice for present tense.

So why use it? What do we gain?

Some say immediacy. That can be true, but I've read things in past tense that seemed to have just as much immediacy. The difference with past tense is that it's a bit easier to ease off the immediacy when it's not needed. If present tense truly creates immediacy by its very nature, then that immediacy will be much more constant throughout the story. And I think that's probably what I mean by stories that do or don't support use of present tense—some stories can handle that immediacy better than others.

Don't use present tense just because The Hunger Games did.

There's also a distinction between past and present that hits me more subconsciously as a reader. If I read a story in past tense, I don't actively think about it, but there may be a feeling deep down that the character knows what's going to happen in the next paragraph, next chapter. Not always—skillful writers still manage to keep the suspense level high when they want to—but sometimes. (Then there are the blatant cases, ending a chapter with "That was the last time I saw my father alive.")

With present tense, we make all discoveries at the same time as the character. Their problems are exactly as big as they seem, with no hindsight to put them in perspective. That can be a good thing.

Every tool has a use. We just have to make sure we use them all mindfully and correctly.

Do you have opinions on present tense—for OR against? Love it? Hate it? Why? Please share (respectfully!) in the comments.

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. That may explain why her characters don't like to be pigeonholed. Her debut novel Stitching Snow (which is in first person, but past tense) is coming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.


Robb said...

Well said. Anytime someone says "never do this, always do that," it's a good time to tune them out. There are different voices and perspectives for different stories, and different styles for different writers (and readers). Just know how to do it, why you're doing it, what effect it will have on the story and readers, and work hard to execute it effectively.

JeffO said...

I'm much more likely to use present tense in short stories than longer works, and used it for the story that made it into Summer's Double Edge. Sometimes present just 'feels' right, and that was certainly the case where it did for me. Interestingly, when I read present tense, I often feel *more* distant from the narrator, instead of closer. I wonder if it's because present is much less common.

Vicki Weavil said...

I used 1st person, present tense in CROWN OF ICE. I think it works with that story (and obviously my agent and publisher agreed. The story arc contains a "count down" aspect (there is a time deadline the MC must meet) so the immediacy -- and NOT knowing the future quality -- of present tense really lent itself to that work.
I have also written in 3 person, past -- it just depends on the story itself. I think most authors would instinctively know whether one tense was working or not.

R.C. Lewis said...

Robb, declarations of absolutes definitely make my ear-shields go up. Being aware, knowledgeable, and always building our skills are key.

Jeff, that's interesting that you feel more distant in present tense. I know the first couple of times I read a book in present, it felt awkward—maybe distant, too. But it's become common enough in YA that I rarely notice anymore. I think the only times I notice is when it's not executed well.

Vicki, I also have mss in just about everything. Stitching Snow is first past, the WIP is in first present, and an older ms is in third past (limited). (Assorted other mss are in first past and first present.)

I'm not sure I can say most of us instinctively know whether one tense is working or not. Just ask Mindy McGinnis how long a particular ms of hers was in first past until she finally gave in and overhauled the whole thing to make it first present. ;-)

Cheryl said...

The first book in present tense I ever read was Smilla's Sense of Snow. The first page was awkward to me - I remember thinking, Can I read this? - but then I got sucked in and never once thought about it again. All I wanted to do was finish the book.

Present tense, past tense...So long as the story's engrossing, it doesn't matter. And neither does whether it's told using first or third person.

Of course, I do read a lot!

sbibb said...

I think it depends on the story. I've written manuscripts in first person past and present, depending on the story, and I think some stories just call for the style. It can be a little jarring to read one tense and then switch to another book, but I don't really mind if the story keeps my attention. :-)

Sophie Perinot said...

Maybe it is just me, but I don't know what tense or POV a story is going to be written in until the characters start speaking to me. I never set out to write my debut novel, "The Sister Queens," in fist person present (with two alternating viewpoints no less) but that's how it came to me. As a writers I believe we have to respect the voice of a piece, with a caveat that if we try a POV and tense and it's not working then we should consider alternatives.

Nick Green said...

Present tense in fiction is only ever an illusion, anyway. It's just as selective as past, and has just as much hindsight. That is, it focuses on the significant details and ignores the trivial ones, just as a hindsighted narrative does. So no narrative is really present tense. It just looks that way.

Jemi Fraser said...

The first few times I read present tense it threw me off for the first few pages, then I was okay. I've since read a lot of 1st in YA and I barely even notice the tense now. As long as its done well :)

Debra McKellan said...

Instead of saying "don't ever," I say never rule out! You never know what will work best with a certain story until you try it and succeed with it.

Gavareed9 said...

I am finishing off a six-year project--500 page biography-- all in the present tense. So relieved to read that others feel it's OK (although I would have submitted it this way anyway!) My reason for doing it this way, although it concerns a person who lived l00 years ago, is because she was Bipolar, and when in manic episodes, only thinks of the narrow NOW, no concept of consequences, everything is about impulse, risk (albeit stupidity). The other reason is to more clearly engage the reader in my subject's world.

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