Present Tensions

Present tense narration, if done well, works well. Done badly, it works badly. Should we just give up on it?

Dale Stromberg

Browse a bit of writing advice, and you’re bound to come across the “done well, done badly” tautology: “Writing Technique X, if done well, works well. If done badly, it works badly.” In many cases, the stated or implied message is, “Avoid using this technique.”

A subject that consistently comes in for the “done well, done badly” treatment is present tense prose narration. There may be valid reasons not to want to use the present tense, and below I’ll even cover one that I can buy into. But first, if I can, I want to discredit a few I find faulty.

Too Flat

In a blog post on Writer’s Digest, Brian A. Klems makes this claim: 

Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships [...] Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time.

This is nonsense. There may indeed be authors who, in an act of literary theory gone wild, absolutely restrict themselves to the simple present tense. They probably have their reasons. But Klems jumps to a generalized conclusion that all present tense use robs time relationships of their complexity.

His post gives no illustrations of this loss of complexity, a common problem with writing advice: rarely does it make its case beyond generalities. An exception is Ursula Le Guin, who, in her excellent Steering the Craft, puts her money where her mouth is with this past-tense example: 

She was making a living before he’d even begun looking for a job.

This combination of the past progressive “was making” with the past perfect progressive “had begun looking” clearly indicates the order in which these actions happened—or, in this example, hadn’t happened yet. In an attempt to show that the present tense struggles to convey the same sequentiality, Le Guin ‘converts’ the sentence to present tense: 

She is making a living even before he begins to look for a job.

True, time does feel flatter here. The combination of “is making” (present progressive) with “begins” (plain present) creates a feeling of everything happening in the same frame of time, neither action before or after the other. But…

As a Le Guin fan, I am sad to say her line of reasoning here is not grammatically valid. It reflects the same canard Klems raises: that, in present tense narration, one may only use the simple present tense, excluding use of the pluperfect (“has lived”, “has begun” etc.). In fact, the first Le Guin sentence simply needs to have its auxiliary verbs changed from “was” to “is” and from “had” to “has” to function exactly the same in terms of sequentiality: 

She is making a living before he has even begun looking for a job.

If the present tense could not, for some reason, include the full range of time relationships, Klems and Le Guin would have a point. As would Philip Pullman, who, in a piece in the Guardian some years back, wrote that present-tense storytelling fails to “say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”

(The pedant in me insists on pointing out that things which actually, usually or sometimes happen are indicated with adverbs, not verb tense; and that what might happen is conveyed through the use of auxiliary verbs, the subjunctive mood, etc.—all of which are as available in the present tense as in the past.)

Anyway, a blog post by Emma Darwin contains a serviceable present-tense example exploding Pullman’s idea: 

I had been walking along the path for an hour when I realised I was lost; now I have been walking for three hours more, freezing to death, and I shall be so late for supper that when I get home my wife will have put my dinner into the dog.

Darwin manages to refer not only to the sentence’s present moment, but also to its past, its further past, its future, and its further future. All temporal relationships are crystal clear. Surely even Pullman would have to admit that whether a story manages to say “what usually happened, what sometimes happened,” etc., depends on whether the storyteller bothers to tell us those things—not on the tense of their verbs.

Perhaps your eyes have begun to glaze. But a writer who finds the study of grammar tedious is like an architect who has no interest in the properties of steel or concrete. How readily would you board that architect’s elevator?

Too Trendy

Here is David Jauss, making the case that the present tense is excessively employed:

Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction[.]” 

Am I the only one to find it odd to object to the present tense as “commonplace”? The presumable alternative is the past tense, which is… even more commonplace.

Now, I am indeed sympathetic to objections to trends on the grounds that they are trendy. I too am one of your curmudgeons who signals his superiority to the mob by disdaining anything beloved of the many. It’s one reason I don’t like your favorite author.

But if present tense narration was surprising in Jane Eyre (1847), bold in Ulysses (1922), and a “cliché” by 1987, but nevertheless still in frequent use 120 years on from Brontë’s novel, then surely it’s just another tool in the box by now. Not startling; not avant garde; not confusing or distracting—simply another mode. When authors like William Gass—who patronizingly links the rise of the present tense to “a hundred authors each named Ann (or Anne)”—raise their condescending but logically wobbly objections, they give the impression of casting their gazes about for something, anything, to oppose the ascent of a fad they’re not in on.

The present tense has a long pedigree (Brontë, Dickens, Remarque and others), literary cachet, and the stamp of popular approval in the form of sales figures. Notwithstanding such warnings dispensed on writing blogs as, “Some readers, in fact, won’t read past the few pages [sic] if your book is in present tense,” many readers of Hunger Games or Fight Club presumably had no trouble getting all the way to the end.

And before you object that present tense narration in Hunger Games “worked” because the author “did it well,” please recall that the only thing the “done well, done badly” tautology tells us is that, whatever mode or technique of writing we use, we had better not stink.

Which brings us to… 

Too Hard

The least convincing objection to the present tense is also surprisingly common: that some writers use it badly. Klems warns us:

The best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense. Many of us, however, do not.

Dire news indeed for “many of us,” though it is fortifying to learn that the best writers need not fear. And Darwin, who I quote approvingly above, is nevertheless not immune to certain fallacies of this sort. Her post lists drawbacks to the present tense that are puzzling, to say the least:

There’s a horrible lurch, in so many present-tense narratives I've read, as the writer has to pause the moment-by-moment engine of the present moment, and lob in a lump of backstory or explanation.

The character-narrator can't easily be both be in the action, and be outside it enough to narrate.

There's less scope for narration that can understands [sic] the wider meaning/implications.

And so forth. Intriguing arguments, but she gives no evidence for them, making them as hard to argue with as they are difficult to swallow. One suspects she simply has only been reading present tense fiction by poor writers. If one has enjoyed finely written works in the present tense, as I have, her claims contradict direct experience, making them a tough sell at least.

Darwin likewise claims that present tense “narrative proceeds at the speed of the physical action” and that it “lures you into including trivia of action and setting” – things it may do, if the storyteller chooses not to compress time or to judiciously select detail; but there’s no rule of grammar saying you can’t do these things in the present tense just as handily as in the past.

Essentially, the “too hard” argument takes aim at a grammatical tense, when what it ought to concern itself with is the practices (or limitations) of some writers who use this tense.

Perplexing Objections

I’d bore you if I attempted to counter each bewildering claim made about the present tense in a single post, but my hobby horse, once mounted, insists on trying to trample a couple more.

Beth Hill, on The Editor’s Blog, claims one shortcoming of the present tense is that, “Readers have to believe that story events written in present tense are happening at the very moment they’re reading.”

But how can this be so? When I begin a joke with, “A camel walks into a bar…” is my listener obliged to presume I am reporting on an event in progress? For that matter, must readers of the past tense believe the events in the story are all done and dusted, as opposed to unfolding before their eyes? (Subjective reading experience shows the latter is plenty likely to happen.) This claim, like many others related to the present tense, leaves one baffled.

Meanwhile, Pullman identifies use of the present tense with a kind of authorial cowardice he parodies thus:

Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.

Being a milquetoast isn’t a good thing. Nor, conversely, are claiming to know more than you do or insisting your point of view is the only one. Food for an interesting debate, this argument — but an argument pertinent to a point of grammar it is not. To write, “I kiss him and he swoons,” is no less assertive of a fact than to write, “I kissed him and he swooned.” A Japanese proverb tells us, “If you hate a monk, you will even hate his robes”; I suspect the present tense is a garment worn by authors whose work Pullman despises for other reasons.

Just Not Right

The only argument against present tense narration that I cannot argue with, and which I myself may wish to consult on occasion, is one based not on grammar, but on aesthetics. I am reminded of lines from John Clare:

Old customs O I love the sound
However simple they may be
What ere wi time has sanction found
Is welcome and is dear to me

Writing is an imitative act, and that we should desire to write in the mode of the authors and stories we love best is most natural. It may be that all the fiction you grew up reading was in the past tense, and that only the past tense feels right for your own work. Perhaps the same story in the present tense just won’t smell right, the way sandalwood won’t make the house smell like Christmas memories the way fir or pine may. Sometimes you just go with your gut.

Tense Choice

So, why write in the past or the present tense? There’s a claim bandied about that the present tense confers ‘immediacy’. I suppose it can. But it need not do. This is really more a question of prose style than tense, and there is no shortage of examples of past-tense narration with just as much immediacy. Action and adventure stories abound in it.

Let me share my thoughts on making such choices, by way of two examples. I can only give examples from my own work, and I’m well aware they will convince nobody: after all, I’m not at the top of any bestseller lists. But here goes.

One of my stories is about a character who is caught in a time loop. All she is living now, she has already lived, and will live again. I chose to write it in the past tense. Part of my motivation was that I wanted the sense of finality the past tense could (subtly) help impart, the notion that everything we are reading has already happened and can’t be changed. Also, I wanted a slow and melancholy tone for the story; to look back on past events and grow sad over them only felt possible in the past tense; the present tense simply wouldn’t have evoked this. Thus, the past tense seemed consistent with the philosophical conceit of the piece.

Conversely, another of my stories is set in a fantasy world in which people worship the Fates. They believe that much of what happens to them must happen. Indeed, much of the story is about powerlessness to escape one’s fate. But I also wanted a kind of ironic distance from this; I wanted the story to say, on some level, that these people believe this, but the omniscient third-person narrator doesn’t necessarily. This was one reason I chose the present tense, to imply that events are happening, not that they have happened, and thus that anything could happen next. I absolutely did not believe I was lending the prose ‘immediacy’ or ‘momentum’ by doing so—it is in fact a slow-paced tale—but again felt the grammatical choice said something subtle about the story’s worldview.

Another writer, telling similar stories to these, might make different choices. I do not insist that these are right, only that they feel right.

In any case, my claim—with which I presume a hundred authors each named Ann, or Anne, will agree—is that the present tense is nothing to be afraid of. After all, done well, it works well.

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