Why So Tense?

photo by Anders Engelbøl

by Juliet West

There’s been a fascinating discussion in the British broadsheets recently over the use of the present tense in fiction. The author Philip Hensher complained that writers are ‘following fashion blindly’ in choosing the present tense. Philip Pullman went further and condemned the approach as ‘silly affectation.’ Extreme views, but there’s surely room for measured debate around this issue.

When I began writing fiction, I was wary of using the present tense. Stories were something that happened in the past, right? Admittedly, I’d read some wonderful present-tense fiction. But I would always experience a vague mental lurch when alighting on the ‘is’ or the ‘says’ or the ‘I am’ in the first paragraph. Ah, my brain would tell me.  Present tense. That’s okay  – it’ll be fine. Usually it was fine. If the writing was good, it was good, regardless of tense. But still, there was that initial lurch.

I started entering short story competitions, with zero success. Then I began to notice that many of the prize-winning stories were written in the present tense. Of course there were exceptions, but present-tense narrative was a definite trend.  A couple of years ago I decided to experiment with this trend, and my luck started to change. In the past eighteen months I’ve had several stories placed in competitions or accepted for publication, and each one is written in the present tense.

Perhaps it sounds like I’ve been somehow dishonest in my writing – employing a literary device in order to get results, even if this might go against my creative gut instinct. This isn’t the case. I’m proud of those stories, and the standard arguments for using this style – immediacy, vividness, energy – definitely apply.  The present tense can, undoubtedly, spark a story into life.

But … is it possible that writers now feel obliged to use the present tense, whether or not they think it’s right for the story? Does past tense equal dinosaur?

The true question must be: what is lost by writing in the present tense?  Perhaps this quest for immediacy restricts the opportunity for rich and reflective short fiction – the kind of writing which has a very deep resonance, which brands itself onto your consciousness. As an experiment, I jotted down a list of short stories by contemporary writers which have made a profound impression on me (authors included Helen Simpson, Colm Toibin, Annie Proulx). I went back to those stories, and I found that all but one used the past tense.

This might prove nothing other than the fact I have a subconscious preference for past-tense stories. And clearly it would be ludicrous to suggest that present-tense fiction is inherently incapable of delivering resonance. But I would question the tendency to use this device as a default setting. Brain lurch can be a good thing, but it can also become tiresome.

What am I doing right now? I’m wondering whether my latest competition entry will impress the judges. It’s a short story, written in the past tense. Wish me luck.

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5 thoughts on “Why So Tense?

  1. Mike?

    Perhaps you are right when you say that watching a film is different to reading prose. But is it, really? I watch a film to be transported to another world, another time, another place. How is this different to reading prose? Yes, watching a film is more passive in that the world is fully realised on the screen for you – rather than having to create it yourself from prose – but films as active and dynamic and unfolding as if I am there are the same attributes I look for in reading (and writing!) prose. So while past tense or present are equally valid, my preference is to live in the world NOW. For me, present tense inherently lends itself to this immediacy far more than past tense. That’s my two penneth anyway!

    Merry Christmas writers and readers everywhere!

  2. Interesting point about watching a film, Mike. But I do think that watching a story unfold on a screen is different to reading prose on a page. Now I’m also wondering about speech. When I tell a friend a story, say, about something that happened at work last week, I tell the story in the past tense. And I might finish by saying: ‘now it just makes me laugh, but at the time it was terribly embarrassing.’ Different tenses do offer different possibilities!

    Dora – good luck with your story!

  3. It’s great how your scientific approach brought about present tense success! Hurray! I find that present tense gives immediacy to whatever it is I’m writing. It gives me the chance to feel and act with my character. It’s good for setting scene, creating tension, surprise, drama but ultimately it is more difficult to pull off. I also agree that the arrangement of words on page tends to be more jarring and discordant. It takes a lot of skill to get it right or perhaps a particularly strong voice. I still prefer writing in present tense though but it might prove more fruitful if I used it as a starting point, rewrote and moved on.
    I hope your past tense story proves successful! Then we will know the answer.

  4. Last night I submitted a short story, a story that was originally written in the past sense (eons ago!). I tried my best to write it in the present tense for the reasons you mentioned. Finally I changed it to half-and-half, employing the “Once Upon a Time” scenario because it wouldn’t have worked otherwise. I will let you know how I make out with the judges. Thanks

  5. I prefer writing in the present tense because I want the reader to feel as though the story they’re reading is happening NOW, unfolding as they scan each word. Of course, it isn’t; the very nature of them holding a collection of dead trees glues together shows that the words they digest must have been fashioned in the past, perhaps centuries ago. And yet, I still think the immediacy of the present tense that you mention holds true. When we go to the cinema we don’t sit in the darkness thinking ‘I’m watching the past’ do we? No, of course not; we watch the film and trick ourselves into believing that the story we are watching is happening NOW, unfolding as we scan each image. This is true even when we watch films SET in the past. So why not write in the present tense? It seems the most natural way to me; we LIVE in the present tense. Indeed, the majority of the thoughts of sane people extend to no further than the end of the current day. And who thinks beyond the end of the current year? Some people can scarcely comprehened Christmas even in December. So writing in the present tense might be the style of the moment but who wants to read material written in the past tense? (Or, for that matter, the future tense?) Our society is speeding up, not slowing down, and whether we agree with the increasing levels of impatience or not, I doubt whether Western societies will become more relaxed and less demanding for our time. Shops open 24/7, even on Sundays, and employers would have us work 24/7 if they could. So, other than the ‘Once upon a time’ type stories, I can see few benefits of writing in the past tense. Just my thought for the day! Right, I’m off to travel in my time machine again . . .

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