In the Now
A fiction writer confesses his new-found love for writing in the present tense. Here’s why you may want to consider bringing your own fiction into the present.
First published in Writer’s Digest
For years, I’ve been fighting off the present tense.
I don’t mean this as some Buddhist confession. I mean that, during the past twenty years, as literary novels began bursting forth with he says, she walks and they dance, I refused to participate. As a staunch minimalist, firmly opposed to anything that muddies the author/reader connection, I saw present-tense narrative as a showy, intrusive gimmick – and vowed my fealty to the great past-tense tradition.
Boy, was I due for a comeuppance.
During a holiday visit, I ransacked my sister’s bookshelves and picked up Blue Diary, Alice Hoffman’s 2001 novel about a small-town hero with a dark past. I finished a few days later, and was rereading the last page when I noticed it was written in past tense. Along with the 282 pages before it.
So much for “intrusive.” And now I was curious. I took a short story that I’d been percolating – a man who falls in love with a barista who makes perfect lattes – and gave it a shot. Though I often lapsed into past tense (a 20-year habit is hard to kick), I found the transition remarkably seamless. I also found that the new tense imbued my descriptive passages with a poetic, gem-like quality. Rather than trying to describe this quality in precise terms, I’ll give you a sample:
That night, Andre crosses his front lawn, huffing steam into the cold air. He pauses and sets down his guitar case. A full moon is filtering the madrone, silvering its smooth limbs. Reminding Andre of Roxanne’s shoulders, bare and slender, turning away as the espresso bites into his tongue.
I am now halfway through my first present-tense novel, and have become the most unbearable of evangelists (like your Uncle Ralph, who finally quit smoking after 30 years, and wants to make sure everybody else does the same). So find a comfy spot on the pew as I bear witness to the present tense and its several salvations.
Putting the Reader Into the Story
If you watch the History Channel, you’ll notice that most of its commentators speak in the present tense (“So there’s Napolean, stuck behind enemy lines, and he’s completely out of croissants!”). If you watch Comedy Central, you’ll notice that the classic joke style is present tense (“Two authors walk into a bar…”). In both cases, the object is the same: to draw the listener into the center of the action.
Not that past tense prevents this. We are programmed by centuries of storytelling to take a past event and convert it to a present image. But if present tense can increase the efficiency of this mental conversion even five percent, why not use it?
One of the best ways to create power within a narrative is to pique the reader’s interest by withholding information (for instance, a character who suffers extreme panic attacks but refuses to say what might be causing them). When you reveal these explanatory secrets later, you create a sense of resolution similar to the moment, in music, when a dissonant chord returns to its home key. In this way, all good books, no matter what their genre, are mysteries.
The past-tense narrative, however, implies that the events in a story have already occurred. It’s easy for a reader to feel, therefore, that the secrets of the story are being withheld – and that he is being toyed with. Using present tense, the author creates the illusion that these events are unrolling at precisely the moment the reader is reading them – and that the narrator himself has no idea what’s coming next. (All stories are manipulations, of course, but some are more subtle than others.)
A few years ago, I wrote a novel featuring three first-person male narrators, and decided to give each of them a distinct manner of speaking. The shy artist used simple words and brief sentences. The cynical journalist used large words and complex sentences. The gregarious former jock spoke in present tense.
We all know this guy. He’s loud, street-smart, and he loves to tell stories: “So Charlie and me, we’re walkin’ in there like we know what we’re doin’, and all of a sudden the fire sprinklers go off!”
Another present-speaker is the American teenager: “And then Suzanne goes, ‘No way!’ And I’m all, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ Then Terry pulls up in his Nissan and we’re like, “Si-i-ck!’”
I make fun – and certainly no writer wants to work in stereotypes. But present-tense speaking contains a definite blue-collar undertone, and can come in handy for giving your character an immediate and recognizable style.
Killing the Pluperfect
For the geek grammarians and lovers of syntax, I save the best for last. I’m basically a musical writer, and I can’t be happy with a sentence or paragraph unless it slides into a certain rhythmic track. One villain that continually messes with my mojo is the verb form that we call pluperfect.
A pluperfect phrase is formed by the word had and the past participle form of a verb (swim swam swum, get got gotten, drink drank drunk). “Johnny had swum across the lake, where he had drunk too much and had gotten sick.” Put simply, pluperfect describes an event that happened before a past-tense event. (The equivalent form in adjectives would be the superlative: close, closer, closest.)
In a past-tense narrative, the author is operating on two primary levels. The main thrust of the story occurs in the past tense; flashbacks and recollections take place in pluperfect. Especially in tales where memory plays an important role, the author will spend a lot of time dealing with those clunky had gottens and had swums.
By using the present tense as his base, the author is able to handle past events in past tense (an enormously logical concept) and rid himself of pluperfect. Even better, he can keep pluperfect in his back pocket, in case he needs to describe an event that occurs before a flashback or recollection. He has just expanded his arsenal of tense from two to three (or, if you include future tense – will swim – from three to four).
To illustrate, I’ll take a passage from my novel and mess with it. First, its current form. Note how neatly the tense switches from past to present.
My memories of Tuesday are like figures viewed through marble glass, but a few odd tracks are clear. Nefertiti found an excuse for buying me a drink – then, arriving at a busy café, instructed me to save a table while she got the cappuccinos. She sprinkled hers with chocolate; she sprinkled mine with Ecstasy.
Now, I’ll convert the same passage to past and pluperfect.
My memories of Tuesday were like figures viewed through marbled glass, but a few odd tracks were clear. Nefertiti had found an excuse for buying me a drink – then, arriving at a busy café, had instructed me to save a table while she had gotten the cappuccinos. She had sprinkled hers with chocolate; she had sprinkled mine with Ecstasy.
Admittedly, the switch in no way destroys the passage. But you can feel the rhythmic dissonance. Extend this over a 300-page novel and the difference is enormous. (Worse yet, imagine an entire novel composed in pluperfect!)
It’s no accident that poets – working in the most rhythmically demanding form of all – are particularly fond of present tense.
Unlike your Uncle Ralph and his cigarettes, I would never completely forsake the past tense (you’ll note that I used it for this article). But from now on, the present tense will hold a special place in my repertoire.
The truth is, if the author does his work, the average reader won’t even notice. So pick what’s best for you – what’s best for your story – and have at it.
In researching this article, I was ransacking another bookcase – belonging to my friend Anne – for present-tense novels.
Oh, wait a minute. Let’s do this in present tense.
So I’m pulling out Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season – a 2000 bestseller about spelling bees – and Anne says, “Oh, that’s really good – but it’s not in present tense.”
I scan a few random pages, take a quick survey of verbs, and say, “Wanna bet?”
Photo by MJV