I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with some of my writer friends about tense. Most the writers in my critique group vehemently do not like reading/writing present tense. “It’s trendy. “Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it—a fact that makes it rather difficult to enjoy novels written in first-person present tense.” I found myself the defender of the style. I like both, but especially like to write short stories in present tense. When I’m backed in a corner I go research. I found some very interesting opinions and facts about present tense writing.
DOES DISTANCE MAKE THE HEART GROW FONDER?
For me and others, past tense can create too much distance from the character. I find the self-conscious wink wink style, prevalent in modern writing, smug, easy to slip into when writing in past tense. You would think there’d be more self-consciousnesses with present tense, but it’s the opposite. When writing in present tense you cannot be reflective as the writer, you can only be reflective as the character. With past tense you have all the time in the world to narrate, comment and reflect on the scene, character and action. Many times the author is mired in their own commentary.
ARE TRENDS A BAD THING?
If you’ve been keeping up with writing trends, you have probably read/heard this: “Shame on you for enabling this sick trend by pretending it is ever ok to write fiction in the present tense. Writing fiction in the present tense is the reality television of literature– It’s an unfortunate trend that hasn’t gone away because there are people dumb enough to give it the time of day.” Many, many writers, readers and editors agree with this. “Sick trend” is precisely the same thoughts the old guard had about the beat writers, (Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al). For centuries we have only had the option of writing in past tense. Change is hard and strange and always has growing pains. It doesn’t always work, but when done correctly it can be dazzling. “Writing in present tense is most powerful and most entertaining. An active “right now” voice has a reader’s mind “living” events real time. A reader’s imagination is kicked into overdrive and races wild. Active present tense is the most exciting voice possible.” John Updike is often thought to be the first author to successfully use present tense in his novel Rabbit, Run (1959), but he is not the last. “The Hunger Games,” “All’s Quiet on the Western Front,” “Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Time Traveler’s Wife” have been embraced by critics and the public, they utilize the active present tense voice.
Embracing new things is good, and making a good argument fine, but it got me thinking about what present tense does for plot and character. Conventional wisdom suggests: plot drives the story, if you have a strong plot and interesting subplots and flawed likeable characters you are half-way home. Traditional writing tells us character is revealed through actions as the plot unfolds. How many blog and writing manuals are dedicated to this idea? Yes, I agree, but what if…
I am a fan of Merchant Ivory films and British Dramas, plots are slow, character development is big and long. Present tense writing is not only about putting you in the action, but present tense first person, allows you to be in the head of your character and this is useful when you want character development to be center stage. The caveat: if not done well, it can be boring and tedious. We, the reader, do not want to hear every thought in your character’s head. The trick is filtering the good stuff, those glimpses of your character’s fears and how they face them, (emotionally and psychologically) and making it natural in the narrative.
STILL DON’T LIKE PRESENT TENSE?
As a mom, I try to get my kids to try new things, especially foods and foreign customs. It’s hard when you haven’t grown up in an environment where you’re exposed to ethnic variety. I grew up meat and potatoes and homemade spaghetti. I didn’t try Chinese food until I was thirteen. I thought it was weird and foreign and I didn’t like it right away, (love it now). Present tense is weird and foreign and you may not like it right away. Did you know it sometimes takes thirteen tries (tastes) of a foreign food before your brain and taste-buds start to accept it? Try another bite of present tense, you might be surprised after a couple meals (novels) you develop a craving.
What are your thoughts of past/present tense? Do you think it helps or hinders character development?
Tam Francis is writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page