Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is Present Tense Pointless?


I’m reading more and more books that are written in the present tense. I don’t get the point. People tell me, “It makes the action more immediate so the reader feels like the story is happening right now.” I’ve never read a present-tense book and thought to myself, “Wow! These verb conjugations make me more involved in this book!”

Maybe I’m just odd, but my brain doesn’t pay so much attention to verbs that it can make that kind of distinction. Whether you write “He runs” or “He ran,” it doesn’t matter; either way, I visualize a boy running. Even if you did write “he runs,” it doesn’t trick me into thinking I’m there watching him run. He never runs or ran because he’s not real.

I don’t think present tense is pointless by any means. I just think those are pointless reasons to use it. Here are some reasons I agree with:

It’s easier to write and read

Sometimes conjugating verbs sucks. When do you say he ran, he was running, he has run, or he has been running? Even if you use your verbs correctly, sentences like “he has been running” are hard to digest.

When you write in present tense, it’s much simpler. It either happened now, or in the past. Let me illustrate this:

I sit at the table and think about the last time I ate fried chicken. It was raining.
I sat at the table and though about the last time I had eaten fried chicken. It was raining.

In the second sentence, not only does it sound bad to say “I had eaten,” but when did it rain? While he sat at the table thinking, or when he last ate fried chicken? It would make more sense to say, “It had been raining,” but that’s so wordy.

Sometimes it just makes sense

I’m seriously considering writing Hunger in present tense. I don’t particularly want to, but at certain points, it only makes sense. For instance, let’s say my character gets frustrated and says, Ugh! I didn’t know what to do.

Here’s the problem: when is she saying “ugh”? Did she say it when she didn’t know what to do, or is she saying it to readers as she narrates the story? It sounds like she’s sitting down talking to the readers, and she’s not. “Ugh” expresses her frustration during that moment, not her frustration at the memory of the moment.

Ergo, it would make more sense for her to say, Ugh! I don’t know what to do.

Style

There are things you can do with present tense that are difficult to do with past. Stream of consciousness (writing exactly as the character thinks) lends itself well to present tense, for instance.

Let’s say my character is having an argument with herself. It sounds better like this:

I want to take him back, but I can’t. Well, maybe I can. I don’t know. Should I? I’ve been thinking about it for days. Ugh! I don’t know what to do!

…than if I wrote it like this:

I wanted to take him back, but I couldn’t. Well, maybe I could. Should I? I wondered. I didn’t know. I thought about it for days. Ugh! I thought. I didn’t know what to do!

If I wrote this scene in past tense, I’d have to completely change it in order for it to sound right.

You can use words like “now”

Just yesterday I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my husband when I ran into the sentence, “No moon was out tonight.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Andrew said. “Isn’t this supposed to be first person past tense?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Then it doesn’t make sense for her to say ‘tonight’ unless she’s using present tense, right?”

For a second, I just stared at him. “I thought you’re supposed to be an engineer,” I said. “How’d you know that?”

This is also a problem with the word “now.” Logically, theirs is no “now” in past tense. Here’s an example: “If he wasn’t mad before, he was now.” How can you used to be mad now?

Why would you use past tense?

As I read over this article, I wonder why I hate present tense as much as I do. I can’t think of any reason that past tense is better than present, but I just know in my gut that it is!

I’ll be frank; I use past tense because it’s what I was raised on. It feels unnatural to switch. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through a book and realize it’s in present tense, and I’ll think, “No, no, no! That’s not right! It’s so weird!”

You can keep your present tense to yourself; I will always be partial to the past.


CHALLENGE: How many books can you list off the top of your head (don’t cheat by looking at them) that were written in present tense? I’m curious to see how memorable it is. I can think of The Help, Water for Elephants, and The Hunger Games.

28 comments:

  1. I've noticed that present tense has become hip these days, especially in YA fiction. I seem to remember Michelle Moran using it in MADAME TUSSAUD too.

    As you know too well, I'm using both past and present tenses in my novel—past retrospective for one first person narrator, present for a second first person narrator. My main reason for doing this was to make the two narrators' voices obviously different—to give the reader a clear indication of who's narrating and when. Plus the present tense seemed to work better for the "voice" of the second narrator, who's uneducated and innocent. Plus I do think it makes her story more immediate.

    Present tense is a tricky thing though. It's not logical—who writes while they experience something? But fiction requires suspension of disbelief anyway, so why not use all the tools at your disposal?

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  2. The most common group of books with present tense I've read are romance or erotica. To me, it's about POV. Inside a character's head during action is present tense. Narrator voice is less likely to be so. I haven't read The Hunger Game books as I'm an anti-hype person (and no, none of the Twilight series either).

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  3. I have to admit I notice present tense immediately and it usually pulls me out of the story a bit. Past tense feels so much more natural to me, which is why it's my preference. And there has been a trend in present tense lately too. If I Stay by Gayle Forman is the only one that really worked for me but that's because she switched between present (for the present) and past (for flashbacks). Some other books with present tense: Shatter Me, Snow Crash, Wither, Girl of Fire and Thorns.

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  4. If the entire book is in the present tense, I would think the immediate impact of dialogue would be diminished. Our characters always speak in the present tense, don't they?

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  5. I don't choose to write one tense or the other. The first sentence determines voice, tense, viewpoint, and I have to go with it. If I try to change it, the story fails.

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  6. I picked up a book recently in the present tense... couldn't even bring myself to finsih it.

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  7. I can read present tense without it bugging me, because, as you said, I don't really notice verbs. Though sometimes, when I'm halfway through a book, it suddenly strikes me that it's in present tense and it throws me off.

    I write all of my novels, however, in past tense. Short stories and poems are about fifty-fifty present and past.

    My one WIP is in past tense but the MC's thoughts are spoken in present tense like your example under Style. I feel it's okay though because much of her life revolves around exact thoughts, hers and others, so she remembers.

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  8. I've noticed that when I read books in present tense, my mind automatically "translates" the verbs into past. I "hear" the verb in past tense, even though the word on the page is in present. Don't know how I noticed this, but it's definitely true. Once I got several pages into a present-tense book before I even noticed it was in present tense! Do other readers do this? Seems that all the work the authors are doing to be different winds up being for naught. My theory is that our minds are habituated to hearing/understanding narration in the past tense and will do what it needs to normalize and facilitate the reading experience.

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  9. The characters in my debut novel (The Sister Queens) demanded present tense -- that's how they spoke to me. Which was odd because I am generally a past-tense reader. But I went where the muse led and I will leave it to others to judge the results.

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  10. If I remember correctly, Wolfhall by Hilary Mantel is written in the present tense. Whatever it dragged you from page one into C16 London

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  11. I thought of Wolf Hall too. Also Time Traveler's Wife.

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  12. I thought of Wolf Hall too. Also Time Traveler's Wife.

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  13. I'm currently reading Robopocalypse and it uses present tense to excess, which is how I ended up here, trying to figure out why anyone is using this style. I've encountered it several times lately, and every time I see it, it feels less like I'm reading a proper novel than some sort of amateur fan-fiction. In Robopocalypse it's particularly distracting because every chapter is taking place in the past, recounted by an overall narrater, who is repeating the accounts as told by the persons whose experiences they are, in present tense!! Everything about it screams for the use of past tense, yet the author refuses to do so. I can't tell if this is lazy writing or just bandwagon jumping, but it is massively distracting and unnecessary.

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  14. Ordinary People by Judith Guest. The novel, not the movie ;).

    But that brings up a point I read this morning on this very topic. Authors have sometimes said they write past stories in present tense because they "pictured it as a screenplay," as if the story was unfolding before them.

    And I have to admit that has some appeal. I am currently seeking publication of an historic fiction novel. It's written and fully edited in past tense. But just this morning I started reading it aloud to myself in present tense. And I liked it!

    Th scenes were always real and immediate to me as I wrote them. Giving them the freedom to unfold as if happening real-time seems to emphasize that feeling.

    It's how I stumbled upon your blog. I find myself torn this morning on this specific matter.

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  15. I'd like to reply that, as a screenwriter, I prefer present tense and if I was to write a novel I'd probably write it in the present. Scripts are always written in present tense and to me it sounds better. I'm so used to it now. It feels awkward for me to read past tense.

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  16. I also find present tense reads horribly. Your examples of inconsistent usage of past tense are surely just errors:

    "No moon was out that night."

    "If he wasn't mad before, he was then."

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  17. I absolutely hated present tense until this past year. I think it's because the present-tense craze has taken the YA world by storm, and I'll say it - as much as I love YA, they're not exactly well-written. So the bulk of books being written in the present tense are being written by maybe not *bad*, but far from good writers. The book that changed my mind on the whole thing was The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway. And it was because he's a good writer. He had a mastery of English language you won't find in werewolf-vampire-witch love triangles. I was kind of floored by what he can do with words. Barely noticed the tense, but when I did, it made the book better. Of course then I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and went back to hating present tense. I think the lesson is that the tense really shouldn't matter - the writing should. Good writers are allowed to play with words and language because they know what they're doing. Bad or iffy writers should probably stick to the rules.

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  18. Screenplays are always written in the present tense. If you've just written one it takes a while to get comfortable back in the past. Maybe this is the reason it's becoming more popular.

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  19. When it comes to novels the tense seems to have its own rules: for example, even if you're reading it in past tense the characters may very well speak as if it's happening "now" - although it's already happen. The "now" that they speak of is the "now" of their moment and not the "now" in ours. Saying "that night" would distance the character from the scene.

    I like past tense because often it allows the narrator (be it first or third person) to "look back" over things as if they're telling the story and know what is going to happen.

    I do find that present tense can sometimes ruin the flow - it is an awful amount of "now, now, now" in it which allows for verbs to be bent in a weird way - and because a lot of books use a natural flow it rarely sounds clumsy when reading - if it's an informal text then it's not common for people to write "it is" instead of "it's" so "it had been raining" will often be shortened into "it'd been raining".

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  20. I can go better than that. I recently read 'Molly Zero' by Keith Roberts - a writer whose other books I have thoroughly enjoyed. 'Molly Zer'o is written in the present tense and the second person. It's almost unreadable. First published in 1985 it has never been reprinted.

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  21. I thought of trying the present tense after I read an excerpt from Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. She has won two Booker awards so I decided perhaps I could learn something from her style. I found the excerpt confusing. Where Anne is to be beheaded. Also, the way she kind of wove the dialogue/thoughts into the narration - I had to reread to grasp what was going on.

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  22. Angelfall (Penryn & the End of Days) and Divergent are written in first person present tense.

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  23. Sentences such as "he has been running" are only hard to digest if you're semi-literate.

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    1. I am also capable of digesting bubble gum, but that doesn't mean I want to eat it.

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  24. Great points. Even though I've mostly written in past tense, I do notice it's prone to a handful of logical problems, and despite present tense's unpopularity, it doesn't seem to suffer any. Just an example I encountered today:

    "She was better off now."

    Ah, yes, the time when it was now. Funny that it's now again.

    One of those moments you suddenly want to change the last hundred pages of past tense.

    It could always just as correctly be, "She was better off then," but better than when? Better then than then? The then that was then but then was now? I mean then.

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    1. It's similar the reason I've been eyeing first-person of late: It just leaves you with more tools.

      Here's a sample from a first-person story I've been experimenting with where both characters being spoken of are male:

      "My estranged mentor had thought it important that I reflect an ideal he had in his mind, like selecting a sculpture to put on display in one’s garden. He had been just so opulent of ego as to seek out a doppelganger of his own younger self, and preserve it. I was his retroactive self-portrait, a desperate reach to capture vicariously that which he'd lost and forgotten. It had been the beginning of the end of what sanity he had. Once he had thoroughly realized that he could not somehow inhabit me—when his fatherly guidance became more like unto a mad brother’s jealousy, that had been his final breaking."

      Having the use of first-person pronouns available here is a life-saver. Try to read it with third-person pronouns and realize how much would have to be done to distinguish who was who. Awful.

      Third-person past tense versus first-person present is, I'm beginning to realize, like the difference between trying to sculpt with just a claw hammer versus three types of hammers, a set of chisels, and a pickaxe.

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