December 28, 2022

Words of the Month - Finding the Present Tense

         It’s all the rage these days to write novels in the present tense.  The idea is supposed to be that present tense somehow makes the narration more “immediate,” more “cinematic” as if you’re watching events unfold as they happen, and more “authentic,” as if there is no filter between the action and the narration.  For young adult writing in particular, present tense seems to be practically required these days, because “everyone knows” that the YA audience demands that immediate personal immersion.  I hate it.
        The “cinematic” claim makes no sense to me, because in any narrative you’re always watching events unfold as they happen.  You can read only one sentence at a time no matter what tense that sentence is written in.  The only difference with present tense is that you get less of a narrator overlaying their current knowledge or emotions onto events that took place in the past.  Still, I don’t think the “more cinematic” claim really has much substance.
        As for the claim of being “more authentic,” the thing is, present tense is actually artificial, contrived, and nonsensical, because people don’t naturally tell stories in the present tense.  Anecdotes, certainly… “So I’m standing in the check-out line and this bloke in front of me has a cart full of pickles.  Seriously, there are like 80 jars of pickles in there!  And then he goes, 
‘You need to put each one in a separate bag so they don’t clink,’ and the bagger has this look on their face like WTF…”  Anecdotes can be told in the present tense because they exist in a single moment - everything occurs in a period of time brief enough that it can all be a single “present.”  But any story that takes place over days, weeks, months is never naturally told in the present tense because that wouldn’t make sense.  If someone were to tell the story about how they see the pickle man every week, and what they’ve learned about his background, and how the pickle drama unfolds over time, complete with thrilling climax and eventual resolution, they would tell that story in the past tense.  "The first time I saw the pickle bloke, he was in front of me in the checkout line, and he had about 80 jars of pickles in his cart..."  It can’t all be in the same present, so some of it must be in the past.  Therefore, use of the present tense in a story that wouldn’t naturally be told in present tense by any normal, rational person, is a constant, niggling, irritating reminder that the author thought they were being clever and modern.  And any time the writing is a constant reminder of the author, so far from being “more immediate,” it yanks the reader right out of the fictional narrative.
        Today’s younger readers may well not find the present tense distracting and off-putting.  After all, they’ve been trained to expect present tense narrative as the standard convention of fiction aimed at them.  They’re used to it as a literary device.  And when I say that I find it as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard, I speak as one who actually remembers chalkboards and fingernails thereon, so I am clearly not the YA target audience.  The fact remains, however, that present tense is at best a literary convention and not a natural “authentic” narrative structure.  If a book is sufficiently engaging I can sometimes go for pages at a time without being painfully aware of the author’s artificiality, but there have been many books in which the first few paragraphs of present tense narration were enough to convince me that this story was not worth reading.
        I recently read a Middle Grade novel in present tense, with which I was rather disappointed.  The use of present tense added absolutely nothing, and came across as the new cliché in writing for younger readers.  It also accentuated the constant, heavy-handed statement of what the narrator was thinking and feeling, rather than descriptions or actions that would have evoked those thoughts and feelings.  I also recently read The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, which intersperses third person sections with first person sections.  Present tense narration is almost always linked with first person, and yet Osman uses present tense for the third person sections, while the first person sections are in past tense, as any real first person would really naturally speak or write in relating the story of what they’ve been experiencing.  So I simultaneously appreciate that Osman gave Joyce an authentic past tense voice, and wonder why he had to go and put the third person parts in gimmicky, contrived, irritating present tense.
        As for my own writing, I have written a short story in present tense, partly as an exercise, and partly because it really did seem like the right voice for that particular story - which does indeed take place in a very immediate, short time frame, in which the narrator is very much focussed on only one moment at a time.  So, yes, of course there can be a place for present tense stories - we have this wonderfully rich and complex language because we have a wonderfully rich and complex array of things we want to communicate in wonderfully rich and complex ways!  But for myself, I think the current fashion for present tense narration is more often than not distancing where it claims to be immediate, artificial where it claims to be authentic, and altogether annoying!  What do you think?  Love it?  Hate it?  Couldn’t care less?

[Pictures: The Back of the Clock, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011;

Pickle Magic, woodblock print by Lisa Toth, 2012 (Image from LisaToth).]


Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

I do not like present tense narratives. They go against my grain. Present tense slows my reading and ups the irritant factor. I see it as a cry ofr attetioon, a fad, and I hope it will soon pass.
Another thing doing the exact same thing is the use of "they" as a singular pronoun. I stop reading, and go back to check if I overlooked a person somewhere. I might get used to it some time, but not soon.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

lol, I had a "they singular" in my anecdote! I agree it sometimes messes with my internal grammar sense and confuses me, but it does at least serve an important function, and I'm working on getting used to it. =)

J Lenni Dorner said...

My novels take place in 2005 and 2006 (mostly), so present tense feels fake to me.
"Without having a goal, it's difficult to score." Paul Arden
I hope 2023 will become everything you need it to be.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for your perspective, J!