All tensed up. Present or Past?

What is it with tenses these days? I picked up a book this morning at the library that looked extremely promising – all sorts of accolades in the blurb and it was a debut, which I try and make a point of reading. But on flicking through it, I realised it was written in the present tense so I put it down. I’ll admit I’m old fashioned – I like my narratives in the past tense and while I’ve written a couple of short stories in the the present tense I can’t imagine sustaining it for an entire novel. I deliberately chose present tense for effect, to make it more immediate, given the types of stories they were (ghost stories).

And yet present tense narrative in fiction does seem increasingly popular with writers. Choice of tense doesn’t seem to be something that’s necessarily related to genre – the book I put down today was a contemporary crime thriller, but I’ve seen present tense narrative used in historical novels, but mostly ones I gave up on I have to say.

Is it a thing of personal taste in the same way that I’m not over fond of first person narrative, or is there something else to it? Indeed does it reflect a change in the language where we can relate events that occurred in the past in the present?

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10 responses to “All tensed up. Present or Past?

  1. A book written in past tense does not bother me as much as work with tenses confused.

  2. You’re right about that. I read a book recently where the author couldn’t make up their mind whether they were writing in present or past – they kept switching mid paragraph. It was dreadful.

  3. Unfortunately, I associate present-tense with poorly written smut. I’d be interested to see an example of a present-tense piece done well.

  4. Well you could have a look at this piece. You should be able to view it. It’s one of the ghost stories I wrote a while back. I felt it really had to be in present tense given the ending.

  5. I hate books where the tenses are inconsistent. That would have me flinging the book aside immediately. If asked I would probably say I don’t like books written in the present tense either. But I’ve just finished an excellent book, The Messenger by Markus Zusak, and I suddenly realised when I was almost at the end: “Hang on! This is in the present tense!” That altered my assumptions, but, to be honest, if it had registered in my brain at the beginning that I was reading a book in the present tense, I probably wouldn’t have kept on reading.

  6. I absolutely agree on the inconsistency front. I book I read recently for review did this, and if I hadn’t been reviewing it I would probably have chucked it.

  7. I’ve been asking myself that exact question lately since my classmates in creative writing certainly prefer the present tense. Your theory that we’re old fashioned sounds as good as any! I’m always tempted to pass the present tense off as “poorly written smut” as Julie said, however I’m hard-pressed to explain Margaret Atwood who seems to be the modern champion of the presente tense. As much as I loved Oryx and Crake, I agonized through the entire novel over its present tense.

    It happens that I recently re-read William Faulkner’s Light in August and I noticed that he used the present tense for Christmas’s flashback to the distant past and it worked beatifully. I lack the knowledge to explain exactly when the present-tense is appropriate, but I know it when I see it 🙂

  8. Whers is your sense of creativity.

    A novelist writing in the present tense places you in the midst of the action and the the story.

    If it is a great plot and well written, What earthly difference can it make to the reader?

  9. I have been reading a lot of short stories lately, mostly in literary magazines and prize-winning collections. I have grown exceedingly weary of the present tense. One part of me sees it as perhaps a bit of laziness on the author’s part.

    I think that I seem to find that there is some lack of authority there; if the writer says that something HAPPENED, he is sure of it, and I believe him. If he says it HAPPENS, he seems a bit tentative, as though he waiting for my reaction before deciding what happens next: “At the light, Billy turned left–no, right.”

    The reason for the choice of the present tense seems to always be given as, “immediacy, it puts the reader IN the story.” It seems to have the opposite effect on me; I have a harder time suspending my disbelief and getting lost in the story.

    I recently started a story by Alice Munro (no relation to H. H., I take it), who seems to be on every list of great writers of today. She starts out with something like, “When he is ten, XXXX’s parents take him to YYYY.” Okay, we’re in present tense. The only problem is, a few paragraphs later, XXXX and his wife GO to the same place. That just doesn’t work with me. If the adult XXXX and his wife are GOING to YYYY, the ten-year-old XXXX (to fall back on my native Southern Redneck Past Emphatic tense) DONE WENT there some time in the past. I didn’t finish the story.

  10. The current use of present tense saddens me. When I first saw present tense fiction, I found that I couldn’t pay attention to the story because the tense sounded so cumbersome. After a while, I learned to mentally translate what I was reading into the past tense. That made it more palatable to me. I think it would be great if, for those writers who just have to write in present tense, a past tense edition could also be put out. It would be interesting to see which version would be more popular.

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