Putting Things In the Present

By David L. Brown

I’m a writer, as anyone who has followed this blog may have realized. In recent years I’ve gotten seriously into fiction. Of course, the novel The Star Phoenix was the inspiration for this blog (the original novel is now available as a two-book Kindle version on Amazon under the title “Promise of the Phoenix.” You can find them at bargain prices here and here). The Star Phoenix was written in the mid-90s, and a lot of liquid’s gone under the overpass since then.

About two years ago I self-published my second novel, Quantum Cowboy (available as both print-on-demand trade paperback and eBook formats on Amazon and other sites. The $2.99 Kindle edition can be purchased here). At about the same time I published a non-fiction book titled Dead End Path: How Industrial Agriculture Has Stolen Our Future, also available at various online sites including here.) In the past year I’ve written another as-yet unpublished novel and am about three-quarters of the way through yet another. The first is a murder mystery and the current one is a science fiction novel.

Now you may wonder why I’m bringing all this up, and there’s a good reason. You see, I’ve had a kind of epiphany about my writing style and I wanted to share my discovery. You see, both of these newest books are written in the present tense. Yes, as if the action is taking place right now, not at some time in the past or in a galaxy far, far away.

Until recently, for the most part writing fiction in the present tense was considered a no-no. We’re all familiar with the common past tense format of nearly every story or novel we’ve ever read. It’s de rigour, it seems, to take the position of a storyteller relating something that happened once-upon-a-time. It’s interesting that even science fiction stories set in the far future are written in…wait for it…the past tense. Well, of course, because that’s just the way books are written.

But does that really make sense? Well, maybe not. After I started experimenting with the present tense in my murder mystery, Retirement Man, I soon learned to love telling a story that’s happening in the here and now, just as the story unfolds. It puts the reader right into the middle of the action, and I like it.

Now many old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud writers and critics have a problem with fiction in the present tense, and they’re quick to tell you why. It’s unnatural, they say. It doesn’t give the writer enough latitude, stuck in the present. It’s just not the way writing is done. To all of which I say bushwah and codswallop.

First, it’s completely natural to speak in the present tense, so why not write in it? If you listen to a radio broadcast of a ballgame, does the announcer report the action in the past tense? It might sound like this: “Casey came to the plate. He hit the ball and it sailed over the fence. Mudville was without joy.” No, that’s not at all the way a sports announcer does it, it’s present tense all the way. Casey steps to the plate, he hits the ball a mighty stroke, etc. It’s active, something that’s taking place right now this very minute in the mind of the listener. (And by the way, if you look up the poem I’m referring to, “Casey At the Bat,” you may be surprised to learn that it’s written in…the present tense. To do it otherwise would ruin the whole effect, which raises the question: Why are most fiction pieces written in that plodding, boring, turn-the-readers-off past tense?)

What about the claim that the present tense doesn’t give the writer latitude? Who says writing in the past tense gives you more? It doesn’t. When writing in the present tense, I have the ability to do flashbacks, and they go into the past tense, which is proper. I can introduce speculation about future events, and they’re expressed in the future tense, again as is proper and natural. If any form is limited, it’s that old stodgy past tense. When you’re already writing in the past tense, how can you differentiate a flashback from the main storyline? Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a past-past tense. If you’re writing in the past tense, you’re stuck there and cannot go back.

Another thing about writing in the present tense is that through its immediacy it creates a sense of tension, of “being there” that keeps readers turning the page. (The novel of that title, Being There, by Jerzy Kosiński, and the great movie version starring Peter Sellers provides an example of some of the points I’m making, the total involvement of the reader, or in that case television watcher.) To my mind, at least, it’s frankly harder to put down a story that’s taking place right before your eyes (and unfolding inside your head). The writer’s challenge is to make the reader “experience” the setting, the nuances, the sights and smells and touch of the action. What better way than to tell it in the present tense?

As far as objections based on tradition, it’s well known that rules are made to be broken and I’ll say no more on that.

Now there’s one point I’ve read from critics that I can agree with, and that’s that it’s hard to write in the present tense. Yes, it is hard, as so many worthwhile things are. Does that mean one shouldn’t do it? Of course not; it’s a cop-out. It’s hard to become a concert pianist. It’s hard to be an Olympic gold medalist. It’s hard to do anything well, and that includes writing. It took me a little while to master the full power and flexibility of present tense writing (and I’m sure I have further to go), but after one and a half novels it’s not only coming easily, but it gives me a feeling I didn’t have before, a sense of drawing the reader into my story as if he or she is sitting right beside me, under my spell as it were. I sent the MS of Retirement Man to a friend of mine, and he wrote me the next day to say that he’d been up until midnight finishing the book, unable to put it down. That’s the kind of effect you want to have on your readers, the ability to essentially pick them up and carry them along almost as if they themselves are characters in the story.

Some other comments I’ve read on the subject make the point that screenplay writers almost always write in the present tense, and indeed people who read my books often say they’re reminded of a cinematic effect. That’s what a book should be, in my opinion, something that creates pictures in the minds of the reader, just as a movie flashes them on a screen. And not only pictures, for the written word without doubt is far more powerful than any motion picture can ever be. Words can express so much more than just the image of a car chase, for example—it can bring to life the pulse-pounding reaction of the characters, the feel of sweat running down their necks, the smell of tire rubber, the thoughts and fears and hopes and doubts of the characters, and so much more. Can any movie do that? No way, Jose.

So there’s my position on writing stories in the present tense. I’m hooked on it. To me, it’s become the natural, the correct way to tell a story. And as an aside I’d like to remind you that time itself, the passage of which makes necessary the verb tenses we’ve been examining, comes in three flavors of which the most poignant, the most real, the most important is the present. The past is merely a collection of memories and the future is made of possibilities. The present, baby—it’s where we’re at! Carpe diem and all that.

Next time I touch on this subject, if I decide to do so, I may discuss my use of writing in both the present tense and the first person as I did in portions of Retirement Man. That’s another thing that’s fun, because the first person character in the present tense can share his experience and speak directly to the reader, exposing his personal quirks, opinions, reactions, biases and inner thoughts in ways that typical third person past tense writing can never achieve. Until then, I’ve got a novel to finish…and two more in the queue. I’ll probably be doing more with the first person present tense model, and I’m looking forward to it.

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