Tuesday, 3 May 2011

PRESENT TENSE PROBLEMS

Some time ago a blog reader asked me to write about the use of present tense and the problems or issues it raises. Here's what she said:
"My son (13) has just started writing a book – he did NaNoWriMo in November as well, so now there is no stopping him! He has always read a lot of fantasy but recently he read ‘Wasted’ and loved it. He’s also just read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. As a result, his writing style has taken a swerve and he’s trying something altogether different with his new piece. He is writing in the first person and is having some conflict about what tense to write in, present or past; his first few pages have flipped between the two. His present tense section works really well – it’s vivid and he has a real voice going there - but from my experience, present tense can be hard to sustain, which may be why he’s unconsciously slipped. But you’ve done it! Is it something for more experienced writers or something that can be picked up on with careful editing?"
Firstly, hats off to that boy! Interesting that both Wasted and Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now have inspired him to try something different. I'm a huge fan of Meg's writing and she and I have communicated quite a bit. 

Anyway, back to the present tense. The problems that my correspondent raises are exactly the normal problems of present tense. Sometimes it feels like the right thing to start with, because it tends to feel vivid and fresh, but it is hard to sustain because it's not the natural story-telling tense. It's cinematic, allowing us to see what is happening but not allowing the usual variations of narrative tension. It can - and very often does - become irritating and grating because, in story-telling terms, it is purely a device, a trick.

Also, counter-intuitively, it doesn't always create immediacy. You'd think it would, but it can in fact make things seem more detached. This is why it works for Wasted, because the voice is detached, so the present tense is right for it. I first realised this point about detachment when, shortly after finishing Wasted, I launched into something else. I was so used to present tense by then that I did it again. I sent it to my agent who said, "I love it, but I think the present tense makes it rather detached instead of exciting and immediate." I was surprised but experimented by I switching it all back to the past and immediately found I could play with pacing and narrative in a way I couldn't with the present. She was right.

I think it is partly because the present tense feels floaty. It feels transient. "I'm walking along and I'm thinking to myself" - well, as soon as you've said it, it's no longer true. Whereas, if you write it in the past, it remains true.

So, my theory is that present tense works for something floaty and transient, something philosophical and ethereal. Which is why it works for Wasted.

Present tense can also be made to work with a genuinely special voice, a first person narrative through a character so real and true that we are happy to live the story, now, for real, in one person's head. That's why it works for How I Live Now, which is not at all floaty and ethereal. Also, How I Live Now is so raw and shocking that we absolutely need constant immediacy because we are living in the moment all the time. We are holding our breath all the time.

The present tense is less capable of showing different gradations of tense, whereas the past tense is a whole range of tenses, giving you much more expression. So you may have trouble expressing all the different aspects of the story. You will restrict yourself to immediate observation. That is right for Wasted, which is about immediate observation.


As I wrote this post, I remembered that Philip Pullman had spoken out against the use of the present tense so I thought I'd find the piece to show you. Here is the Telegraph piece where he was apparently vehemently against it - indeed, he is quoted as saying, "I just don’t read present-tense novels any more. It’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy." (Well, he won't like Wasted, then!)  But here is his Guardian piece in which he clearly and sensibly explains the problems of the present tense and the times when it works beautifully. And I'm interested to see that he also makes the points that I've made above that it's cinematic and fails to allow all the different aspects of story.

Think about it: "story" is the past. So the present tense is something to be used only for very good reason. If it works, it works, and you can then use it with confidence. If you find it restrictive, or you keep slipping out of it, you'd be better not using it. Or, think about whether there's a case for mixing in some present tense passages, as Pullman mentions. (Though you must never do this without good reason - it must feel right.)

As to whether it's something for experienced writers only: no. It's for any writer writing a story where the present tense is right.

And here's an exercise for you: take a chapter you've written in the past and change it to the present. How does it affect it? Or, if you're writing in the present already, change a chapter to the past and see what happens.

Do you know some other books where present tense has worked well? Or badly? What do you think about it as a device? Have you used it? Have you tried it and then discarded it?

26 comments:

Charmaine Clancy said...

Great advice, some points here I can use in the classroom.

Clare Kirkpatrick said...

This is a really interesting post for me right now. I wrote a short story about a mother suffering from depression, and a lot of that is in the present tense. I can see now from your post that the reason it works is because of the sense of detachment it creates, which, of course, the mother is feeling herself.

Also, I am using present tense vignettes to tell the story of my antagonists childhood in my novel. I didn't choose to do this, it just happened and it feels right. I think that the reason it feels right is because it's kind of the story of his parents told from the little boy's POV, a POV that is inevitably detached from what he's seeing.

I'd been trying to decide whether to make both things (the novel vignettes and the short story) past tense because of all the stuff I've read about present tense, but I can see now that there's actually a reason present tense feels right, so thank you!

Julie Cohen said...

I chose to use present tense for one of my novels, which is written in the first person, purely because past tense wouldn't make sense. The heroine's understanding of herself and the world changes so much during the course of the book that there is no way she could present her thoughts, emotions and misbeliefs in the beginning of the book and sound authentic if she were telling them in the past tense. Because by the time the story was over and she was telling it in past tense, she wouldn't believe these things any more.

It was a difficult decision to make, though, for the reasons you mention—present tense can be difficult to sustain and it limits your pacing and presentation of other aspects of the story.

Stephanie Butland said...

All very interesting. I think it's true that story is what sticks - what we remember later, and we don't know what we're going to remember as it happens, therefore the present tense lacks authority.
At the moment I'm writing partly in a voice that veers between tenses, and it is making me realise what tense does to the story, the character, and the reader's perception.
Any thoughts on the historical present?

Ebony McKenna. said...

I've recently revised a manuscript from third person past tense to first person present. I've never written novel-length like this but it has upped the pace and made things more immediate for the narrator. It's stepped things up a notch for this novel at any rate.

Dan Holloway said...

"So, my theory is that present tense works for something floaty and transient, something philosophical and ethereal."

Absolutely agree with you there. I've used it once for a full-length novel, and once as a frame taking up about 20,000 words for a past-tense novel, in both cases because I wanted that sense of ethereal detachment. It's hard to know exactly what to call it, other than to say it's what great contemporary Japanese literature does perfectly.

I also rarely use anything but present tense for short stories and flash fiction.

It’s a very good point that we can be much more elastic in our pacing with the past tense. This is particularly true with those “time passing” parts of the narrative – in the present tense it’s so much harder to say simple things like “we hung around for 3 hours watching TV before we got ready for dinner” – that can be more of a handy thing with past tense than being able to crank *up* the pace.

Joan Lennon said...

Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go - 1st person, present tense - perfection on a stick!

Jim Murdoch said...

Arnold Schoenberg, creator of the (in)famous twelve-tone system of composition, once commented that there is still a lot of good music to be written in the key of C. I know that first person present tense narratives are growing in popularity but there are still a lot of great stories waiting to be told by an omniscient narrator in third person past tense. I’ve never been able to write in the present tense – with the exception of dialogue – because it doesn’t make sense to me that anyone would explain what they’re doing as they’re doing it; they should be too busy doing it.

Rik said...

I always read this blog, but never comment. But I had to delurk after reading this snippet: "Present tense can also be made to work with a genuinely special voice, a first person narrative through a character so real and true that we are happy to live the story, now, for real, in one person's head."

In my current wip, my MC is telling his story - while living in another person's head ... and I can't concieve of writing the book in anything other than the present tense. Of course every now and again I have to have a reminiscing section, written in the past tense, to slow down the action. But other than that I find I really enjoy writing within the constraints of 1st POV present - especially having to find different ways to let my MC discover what's going on elsewhere in the story.

JO said...

What an interesting post. I play with tenses - trying out one, then another, seeing which 'works' for me (though I'm still not sure what I mean by 'works').

And then, like Dan, I often use the present tense in short stories - but not for the novel, as the past tense gives me more flexibility to move about in time and space.

And then the most encouraging bit of this post - a 13-year old who is writing, experimenting, thinking - it's great to see a young person playing with words.

adele said...

Agree with everything you say. The only time I use it is almost in what I call 'dream sequences'....or floaty and ethereal bits of the story where things are supposed to be spooky or strange or SOMETHING other than the normal story. I must admit to being a traditional third person sort of writer for most of the time, though I do occasionally write in the First Person...that's quite daring enough for me without trying a whole story in the present tense!

Lee McAulay said...

My first full-length novel - written when I was 18 - was a combination of present tense (for the reality parts) and past tense (for the fantasy parts). It was a split-setting novel where the first-person narrator jumped between mundane everyday life and a quest through a fantasy forest.
I specifically used that structure because I was playing with the tenses.
The whole thing is tosh, however... but useful for practice and writing discipline.

Pelotard said...

I've recently used present tense in two short stories. The first was a very special case; it was a horror story, it needed the immediacy of first person, and I didn't want the reader's subconscious to interfere with sensible comments like "he's telling you this so obviously he survived it." As it turned out, the detachment of present tense fit very well with the narrator's laconic mode of expression.

For the second story, I consciously tried to emulate that detached/laconic combination. Again, I think it fit well with the character, but I also felt that it was more difficult to sustain - this story was longer, 5,500 words vs 1,700 for thew first one.

So yes, I agree that it's probably very difficult to keep it up at novel length. But short stories yes (and they allow for more experimentation, anyway).

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I find that present tense grates on me. I can no longer read it in novel length. I can read short stories in present tense, and I don't mind when a book switches from past to present to clue the reader in to a change in timeline, but an entire present tense novel is such a penance that I no longer subject myself to it. Maybe I'm missing out on some good stories, but there of plenty of others that don't set my teeth on edge.

That's something every writer needs to keep in mind. Does using present tense buy you enough that it's worth losing those readers who hate it?

Keren David said...

I wrote When I Was Joe in the first person present tense - it worked very well for the games I was playing with the reader.

eleanorpatrick said...

I've read so many children's/YA novels in the present tense in the last two years that I couldn't start to name them all. Great to see this trend. Most have been in the first person. Sounds more natural that way; third person is a bit more difficult to carry off well because it sounds like a Radio 4 cricket commentary.

Nicola - isn't Chicken Friend in the present? If I remember, it has great present tense narration and anecdotes in the past, seamlessly joined. Can't go check - listened on audible!

Nicola Morgan said...

Gosh - too many good comments for me to reply to properly. So, let me start with the one where Eleanor praises Chicken Friend ;) Ah, you're right - it's both present and past but mostly past. It begins with the present but the rest of the book is looking back at the story, until it catches up with that present, at the end, where the final para is present. It's also an eg of a book that begins at the end...

Thanks, all, for your points. However, some of you accidentally raise another point: you make it sounds as though when we tell stories the reason for telling and context must be literally authentic. This is not the case. For example, we can tell a story in the first person even if the person dies. As another example, Julie says, "Because by the time the story was over and she was telling it in past tense, she wouldn't believe these things any more" - but this is exactly what fiction can do. I think you all need to have more faith in the imagination of the reader.

Let me explain (though I think I need to blog about this). I'm writing something now that's in the past tense. If you're going to take that literally, you'd have to assume that the narrator (first person) is recording the events, in writing, after each episode, without knowing the outcome. But that IS EXACTLY what story does. All the time. Oh, I'm not making myself clear - I feel a blog post!

Basically, don't be too literal in your interpretation of story-telling truth.

Rik - thanks for delurking and creating a fab new word!

DanielB said...

I've written the whole of Shadow Runners in the first person, present tense (my first attempt to do so since The Cut in 1998). Having done it like that, I now can't imagine it being done any other way. I've started writing the sequel in the same voice. I was trying to recapture some of the cheeky, conversational immediacy I loved in the Clarice Bean novels when I read those with my daughter a couple of years back - only with a darker edge. Hope it works...

Stephen Ferre said...

Excellent advice. When I've reviewed/critiqued stories in present tense, I've told them much the same (about the detachment and lack of immediacy). It's a device to use sparingly, and I have to admit to being very close to Pullman in his opinion on the subject.

It works sometimes, of course. ;-)

Linda Strachan said...

Excellent post. Tense and which POV to write in are such important decisions and sometimes when something is not quite working re writing it in a different tense or from a different POV can give it a whole new lease of life. An excellent exercise, Nicola.

In Dead Boy Talking the MC tells us he has 25 minutes to live and I wanted to use that as a count down. So I wrote those passages in 1st person POV in present tense to give the sense of time running out for him, so that the reader could be there experiencing it as he did.

DanielB said...

And let's not forget the "dramatic present", beloved especially of many French prose writers.

Welshcake said...

"So, my theory is that present tense works for something floaty and transient, something philosophical and ethereal."

It can also work for a story with intense action and tension-The Hunger Games, for example.

In the end, it comes down to needs of the individual story, I don't think you can say there are hard and fast rules. I struggled with the voice for my current novel for ages. Then I tried first person present tense. It worked!

Anonymous said...

Hi

I'm almost certain this is the wrong place to put a random question, but I wasn't sure where else...

I think I first found your blog in 2009, and I was hastily pitching my barely-polished manuscript to agents. I got a bunch of kindly rejections, and one request to read the full manuscript which wasn't followed up.

I'm 17 now and anyhow, after leaving it alone for so long and learning a bunch of things about writing, I'm now rewriting that story into a more robust and (hopefully) better version.

My question is, are there any special guidelines I need to follow if I'm re-submitting to the same agents I already submitted to? Do I have to notify them that it's the same manuscript they already rejected?

I'd appreciate any time you'd take to respond.

~ Verity

Inkpen said...

Hi - I'm the blog reader with the 13 year old writing son and thanks so much for this post and all the comments - this has been fascinating. Your reference to the cinematic qualities of the present tense I reckon is highly relevant to my son's writing, as is Welshcake's suggestion that it can come into play for 'intense action and tension'. I'm wondering now if being a teenager is part of it too - at that age, writing can pour out with such speed and immediacy (no envy here!)that perhaps present tense best expresses that. Subtleties of narrative pace and tension can develop later ... once the main character has escaped from the police ...

Emma Darwin said...

Great post and comments - I blogged a while back about past and present tense, in the context of adult writers of adult fiction, but the issues are the same:

past and present tense

Emma

Catharine Withenay said...

Thanks for this - I know I've come late to the party!

My memoir of my time in Africa is written in the present tense. I am interested that this makes it 'detached and ethereal'. I certainly didn't want to be there, so for the most part 'detached' is appropriate: I am looking on at this strange world into which I have been flung.

And possibly 'ethereal' works too, as I want to capture some of the African way of life - its languid pace and relaxing style. (It can also be a reason why nothing gets done!)

There are the occasional past tense bits of backstory, or reflection on a day/weekend that has passed. I think it carries for the 75,000 words but I have struggled in parts to keep it fresh, or to work out which tense it should be in. Also I don't want it to be too passive ('I wonder if I should...' 'I then realise...') and I miss being able to slot in observations that I have made over the course of living there for four years, but didn't (or couldn't have) recognise(d) at the time of writing.

Thank you for your insights!