JWAM reader request no. 24: Past tense versus present

Glenn says:

I hope I’m not too late with my question, but what I am very interested to know is your thoughts on present versus past tense for a story. Basically when I first started writing a few years ago I confused the aspect of “active voice” with present tense (oops). So from bad habit ingrained in me since then means I typically write in the present tense thinking I am making the story more immediate, intimate, etc. Buuut I don’t seem do it very well AND I have received comments that maybe past tense would be a better way for me to write even for stories that are happening “now” as opposed to recounting past/historical events.

Excellent question and one I was unclear about until scarily recently.

Past tense is the default storytelling tense. I’ve heard lots of people say they can’t stand reading stories in present tense. They find it pretentious and annoying. I suspect that’s because it’s associated with Modernism, with writers like Gertrude Stein, and thus with capital-L Literachure.

Samuel R. Delany argues that it’s because the natural present tense in spoken English is not present tense, but present progressive. No one says, “I sit there, minding my own business”. They say, “I’m sitting there, minding my own business”. Which is probably the major contributing factor to present tense feeling so very literary. People really don’t talk like that. On the other hand, Damon Runyon deployed present progressive and he’s never been accused of directly replicating everyday speech. (I adore Runyon.)

Scott says that what he likes best about present tense is that you don’t have to use the pluperfect when you do flashbacks, you can use the simple past. Sure some people hate it, but some people hate books written in first person or omniscient point of view. They’re clearly crazy.

I like present tense fine. As with any other writing technique when done well it’s a marvel; when done badly it’s a nightmare. It sounds like you’re worried that you’re not doing it well. This could be as much because of you inexperience with writing, as because of present tense. That said, it’s a really good idea to try changing the tense of stories that aren’t working. I’ve switched from past to present and found a story suddenly has legs, and vice versa. My first novel, Magic or Madness didn’t work for me until I switched from third person for the main protag to first person.

Though sometimes no amount of changes will make a broken story work. But no worries there are plenty of other stories to write and experiment with. When you’re not on a deadline you’ve got all the time in the world.

You’re right, present tense can be much more immediate and intimate. I use it for parts of my next novel for precisely that reason. It makes it seem like my extremely unreliable narrator is talking to you right this very minute. She’s up close and personal how could you possibly believe she’s lying to you? She’s said she’s stopped that stuff. You believe her, right? How could you not? She’s right here! Right now!

Hope that helps and I hesitate to say it cause I’ve thrashed it to death this month, but, well, good luck.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

8 comments

  1. Tim on #

    I find a big thing about writing in present tense is about how well it’s done. A lot of time I’ll read something in present tense and find the tense makes the writing seem really unnatural and a barrier between me and immersing myself fully in the story. Other times I won’t notice it at all and I’ll love the book.

    I also think that there isn’t necessarily a problem with tense-changes within a story as long as they’re appropriate. Random tense-shifts can be quite jarring and off-putting. For example I was reading a book (written in 3rd person subjective) where twice the tense, for no apparent reason, changed from past to present for a couple of pages before going back to past. Overall it was still an excellent book (one of my favourites), but I found that particular part a little off-putting…

  2. Nicholas Waller on #

    One book I thought handled mixed tenses well wasn’t a novel, but anyway – it’s Michael Collins’s Carrying the Fire, his personal (non-ghosted) account of the first moon-landing.

    For the parts concerning his past life, his early flying, the training and his previous spaceflight and so on he wrote in the past tense: “As I was spacewalking, unfortunately I dropped my Hasselblad camera, which floated away and was lost”.

    For the description of the Apollo II mission as it unfolded, he used the present: “Neil and Buzz go into the Lunar Module and seal the hatch and we prepare for undocking. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.”

    It sounds more immediate, as though he is talking into a dictaphone or the radio, and that he doesn’t know at that point if the mission will be successful or even if he will survive. Use of the past tense then would have given more of a sense of someone sitting back at home in his study recalling the events of years before (which in fact, of course, he was).

    BTW these aren’t accurate quotes, just paraphrases from memory.

  3. Carrie Ryan on #

    I love this question. I also think that there’s the idea that past tense is told through the influence of what has happened after — it’s not a true reflection of what’s going on in that moment. Of course, I also kind of think that’s bogus 🙂 But one reason I liked writing my current series in present tense is that you don’t know how it will end — there are no guarantees. Not even the protag has to survive the end in order to tell the story.

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Oh dear. This is the nightmare result of that whole “was = passive voice” trainwreck. Passive voice does NOT mean using the word “was,” people! Passive voice ALSO =/= “not active writing.”

    I have a headache now.

    Present or past tense. Future if it floats your boat.

  5. Rachel on #

    I tend to assume with past tense that the narrator already knows what’s going to happen; with present tense they don’t. But maybe that’s just me?

  6. Glenn on #

    Thank you so much for the reply, Justine, it’s really appreciated.

  7. Amber on #

    Hey! I’ve enjoyed reading all your posts this month, even though I didn’t ask any question (didn’t know I had half of them anyways!)
    My mom doesn’t like first person pov and I don’t understand it. I love it and it’s my favorite!!
    Your compulsive liar book sounds really good. I hope to read it sometime!

  8. Steve Ely on #

    Story syntax aside, I think you raise an interesting idea when you cite Delany’s idea that “the natural present tense in spoken English is not present tense, but present progressive.” This is true in varying cases, I suppose. In the case you cite, it seems very much that the present progressive is being used to tell a story that occurs in the past. I mention this because a pet peeve of mine is the present progressive being used in verbal English in contexts that the present tense actually would be more natural. If you want to know about something, why say “I am wanting to know…” instead of just “I want to know…”?

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