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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tense in Fiction

One thing all fiction writers try to achieve is a sense in the reader that the events described are taking place as he or she reads about them.

So it's a bit of a paradox that most novels and short stories are written in the past rather than the present tense. And yet, for reasons that go back to the origins of storytelling, past tense sounds more natural to us when reading or listening to a story. We don't notice the tense and - with a well-written tale - simply become immersed in the events unfolding.

You can, of course, write a story in the present tense. Because this is less familiar to readers, however, they may feel less comfortable with it, and there is a risk they will notice the unusual style rather than becoming engrossed in your story. Stories written in the present tense can also look mannered and self-conscious.

Of course, good writers can and do write short stories, and even novels, in the present tense. The US writer Alison Lurie's novel Foreign Affairs begins as follows:
On a cold, blowy February morning a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain and unmarried - the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.
And the whole novel continues in the present tense. It's an unusual approach, yet as a reader you quickly get used to it (it helps that Ms Lurie is a highly accomplished author, of course). I'd be hard put to say exactly why the author chose to write the book in the present tense or whether it would be any the worse if written more conventionally in the past. It does certainly give the novel a distinctive "voice", however.

Even so, I'd always advise a new writer, and especially a new novelist, to write in the past tense. Apart from anything else it's what publishers are accustomed to, and if you write in the present tense you are giving yourself an additional obstacle to overcome to get your work accepted.

Another problem with writing in the present tense is that it's fatally easy to stray into the past tense by accident. As I mentioned above, we're all so used to past tense narration, it's easy to fall into it without even noticing. A story that switches to past tense in the middle (unless for a very good reason) then switches back to the present again is likely to be returned to the author in short order.

And finally, if you write in the present tense, you need to be very careful when referring to events that occurred in the characters' past. In ordinary, past-tense narration, we use the pluperfect tense to introduce such "flashbacks":
Mary smiled and sipped her tea, remembering when they first met. It had been a cold November morning...
If using the present tense, however, you need to use the simple past tense instead:
Mary sighs and sips her tea, remembering when they first met. It was a cold November morning...
It would be perilously easy to write "It had been" in the second example as well, yet this would be incorrect, or at least very poor style. If you are writing in the present tense, when referring to events in your characters' past, you should use the simple past tense rather than the pluperfect (past participle with "had").

To sum up, then, I highly recommend sticking to the past tense in your fiction. But if you want to experiment with writing in the present tense, be very careful you don't switch to the wrong tense at some point in the narrative. It's possible to make this mistake when writing in the past tense, of course, but it's much, much easier to get your tenses in a twist when writing in the present!


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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say:
If you are writing in the present tense, when referring to events in your characters' past, you should use the simple past (or past perfect) tense rather than the pluperfect (past participle with "had").

I think you have made a small mistake - past perfect is the same as pluperfect isn't it.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for this. Yes, you're quite right - the pluperfect is the same as the past perfect tense. I managed to get my own tenses in a twist there, didn't I?! I've edited the post accordingly.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little worrying, as, after reading Ali Cooper's The Girl on the Swing, I've decided to switch my own novel to present (and into first person). Does that really mean another barrier to overcome when wanting to get published? My novel is YA and as you say, it seems to give it a more distinctive voice, presence and sense of immediacy.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

There are different opinions on this. Personally I think that, yes, you are creating another potential barrier to publication by writing your novel in the present tense.

On the other hand, there are plenty of successful, published novels which have used present tense, so I would never say you shouldn't. If you feel that your book will genuinely work better in the present tense, by all means use it. I just believe that past tense is more familiar to most editors and publishers, so - other things being equal - there is a case for sticking to it for a first novel.

12:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm personally not a fan of present tense in fiction, ESPECIALLY in first-person, but it can be just as difficult to get into a book that's in third. But it sure as hell beats second-person present tense, the bane of writing workshop laziness everywhere. You know a story's going to be bad when somebody shows up with a story that starts "You wake up" or some such. But I think writers use present tense because it's an easier route to storytelling (or so they think--I think it's amateurish). You don't have to worry about deviating too much from what's happening RIGHT NOW in the scene, and these writers tend to watch too much TV anyway, which makes want to narrate as if they're watching a movie, hence present tense's attempt to mimic screenwriting. Nothing new is gained with present tense that can't be expressed in the past. Writers use it to sound clever, but it usually works out the other way.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Bernard said...

Great info and very helpful indeed. If I may, I have certain intrigue, which caused the search for this topic. A friend of mine has provided her services as a proofreader and insisted that I respect tenses but I have written everything in past /pluperfect when needed.

The only thing that comes up to mind is this:

"It was now the time"

Should I use,

"It was then"

thanks!

2:59 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hi Bernard

It's hard to know what would be best without a bit more context.

"It was now the time" and "It was then" look odd as complete sentences, though. They both need something else to complete them, e.g. "It was now the time to put on their uniforms" or "It was then I saw something that will remain with me for the rest of my life."

Just a thought, but you might like to join my forum at http://www.mywriterscircle.com, where you can post any questions of this nature and get a range of suggested answers from our members.

Good luck!

Nick

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All great info. I have received a few rejections mentioning my tense selection. I chose present tense because it "felt" right. But, now I see why and why I was wrong.

I have alot of rewriting to do. Thank you all!

3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know a story's going to be bad when somebody shows up with a story that starts "You wake up" or some such. But I think writers use present tense because it's an easier route to storytelling (or so they think--I think it's amateurish).

Try reading some Junot Díaz for an idea of the creative possibilities of the second person approach. I would agree that to do it well is difficult and examples are few, but to dismiss it out of hand is a touch excessive.


Nothing new is gained with present tense that can't be expressed in the past. Writers use it to sound clever, but it usually works out the other way.

You really love those sweeping generalisations don't you? There are very good reasons to use the present tense at times. Just because you don't happen to like it doesn't mean there aren't valid uses of it, or that authors are doing so "to sound clever". I get the impression you imagine all writers ought to be writing for you, personally. No need to take offence if somebody writes something you don't like - just don't read it, eh?

5:40 PM  

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