PPast or present tense? That was/is the question.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t going to write about this topic. Not until we had a Burning Chair conversation about tense and I said it could be the subject of a blog and Pete had the absolute audacity to start yawning. And not just a stifled, polite yawn — but a big, old, impolite exhalation of air. How rude.
Pete remains convinced that there is nothing interesting to say about tense. I, as someone who is still developing his writing, strongly disagree. And just a cursory review of the online writer groups confirms that I’m not alone. Writers all over are still unsure about whether present tense will work for them.
We all know the difference between the tenses.
For example: “Pete did not offer to buy the drinks” versus “Pete is not offering to buy the drinks”
But what’s interesting is the opportunities and constraints that both offer.
Past tense feels like the standard as it is by far the most popular in genre fiction, but an increasing amount of fiction is using present tense. That said, Dickens’ Bleak House, which was published in serial in 1852, is in present tense so this is hardly a new fashion.
Where present tense absolutely excels is in prose that is action oriented with less reflection — and especially with an unreliable narrator who misleads the reader by omitting or changing facts, leading to a twist or some other dramatic shift.
Two great examples of this (no spoilers here!) are Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller, and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk — which are both first person present tense with unreliable narrators.
However, there are some major drawbacks with using present tense.
Firstly, and my sincerest apologies for being blunt, but one needs to write well. Much of the criticism of present tense writing out there is less to do with the tense and more to do with how it is (mis)used. That’s not to say that it should be avoided, but that it requires an additional degree of thought. Something to bear in mind if you are about to embark on the present tense journey.
Secondly, time shifts and back stories are a bit of a headache in present tense. And I know what you are thinking, “Hey, but Audrey Niffenegger managed it in The Time Traveller’s Wife!”. Oh, right, you weren’t actually thinking that. Well, you could have been, and the answer is that she managed this by firstly, making it a diary and secondly by introducing TIME TRAVEL!!!! So, unless you’re writing Doctor Who fan fiction then just be aware that your plot is probably going to be linear in nature, which obviously presents a constraining factor.
Finally, and this one is for all the philosophers out there; there is no present. As humans we can only perceive the past and the future and not right now. Don’t believe me? OK, consider what you are doing right now… Nope, that’s in the past. What about now? Nope, also in the past.
See? The present tense is imperceptible in real life. This is why we don’t say, “I’m being punched” and instead say “I’ve been punched”. Well, that and the pain of being hit…
Going for it / Gone for it
I don’t want to give the impression that present tense shouldn’t be used (I’m not Philip Pullman – click here for a great interview with him about this topic), just that it should be used with purpose and carefully.
And the alternative doesn’t mean you have to place everything in the past, remember that you can include present tense statements within the dialogue of a past tense based piece, such as:
“Where are you going?” the world-weary Simon asked the traditionally-mean Pete.
“I’m finally going to the bar to buy you a well-deserved drink,” he replied.
See? Present tense within a past tense piece.
It’s worth considering all options when writing.
Finally, I’ve read a few comments online that suggest that you need to decide your tense before you start your writing as it takes too much time to change later.
I would challenge this in the strongest terms. As we’ve written before, just get the novel written and if it’s in different tenses then so be it. It will then be the first thing you fix in your own edit (make sure you do fix it though!). Just don’t let it stop you from getting your thoughts on the page.
And finally, no piece on the use of tense would be complete without referencing the gold standard text on this topic and that is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. Thanks to Dr Streetmentioner and his cohort Douglas Adams, you will find a solution to every grammatical problem you could think of, and a few you couldn’t…
Happy writing y’all.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash