In Defense Of The Present Tense, And Other Happy Accidents
A quick head’s up: I have a throat so sore it feels like esophageal gnomes are stabbing my throatmeats with searing hot knives. So, if this post really derails, or is too short, or just stops somewhere in the middle, I probably couldn’t take it anymore and had to pour boiling kettle water into my mouth to kill those stabby fuckers.
All right. Time to focus. Get in the game, Wendig. Get in the game.
My most recent novel — the one that garnered representation — is written in the present tense.
It was an accident.
Well, okay, no — the writing of the entire book that way was not an accident. It’s not like I fell down the steps or dropped a plate and — boom! — a novel written in the present tense was miraculously and unintentionally born.
What happened was, I’d written three drafts of the novel before then.
Each draft was third person past tense, as are most novels.
Something didn’t sit right with those earlier drafts, but I couldn’t quite peg what it was.
I took some time away. Too much time. But, in the meantime, amongst other things, I worked on a number of scripts — screenplays are, of course, written in the present tense.
The day came that I decided to work on the novel again and put together a new draft, and I accidentally wrote a whole chapter (they’re short — under 2k, mostly) in the present tense.
And it was a revelation.
Okay, before that point I was skeptical of the present tense. You don’t see it very often, and conventional wisdom says it’s a big no-no, nuh-uh, no way, compadre. I guess there exists a feeling that past tense is used to tell stories because it’s reflective — you can’t tell a story until after it’s happened, and so the present tense lances this illusion. It sounds silly, but stuff like this matters — if the reader doesn’t respond to the color of the paper on which the story is printed, then he may put it down early, and may not recommend it to others. Tense can be a warning sign for some.
But, looking at the chapter written in present tense, man, I was into it. The story was meant to have a kind of urgency to it, a freaky “in-the-moment” quality where the threads of fate must be untangled even before they are spun, and past tense just wasn’t doing it.
Present tense tightened it. It put a firecracker in its ass. It made it run.
Actually, let’s talk about the merits offered by the present tense.
Some books are ponderous, and appropriately slower — they feature a lot of history or introspection. That’s not a bad thing. For many books, it’s a good thing. Present tense probably isn’t for those, but is rather best for stories that feel present, that you want to read like films. You read actions and events in the present tense — Bobby kicks down the door and stumbles through it, blinking as he gets a face full of white hot sunlight — and to me it reads like a movie playing out in your head. That’s pretty cool. I don’t like all my books to play out that way, but truth is, I find reading screenplays to be elegant, the stories framed in a simple, visual way. Writing a short story or a novel in this mode simulates that, to a degree.
Fast and Urgent
Similar — but different! — is the speed and urgency that the present tense gives the story. It’s like a race to the bathroom with a full bladder! No, no, wait, that sounds horrible. What it does is put the reader right alongside the characters. You’re all in this journey together. It hasn’t happened yet — it’s happening now. A story written in just such a way feels dangerous and uncertain. Anything can happen. Someone might die. Shit might explode. Throat gnomes might suddenly appear at 11:00PM at night while you’re sleeping and start chiseling away at your tonsils with hammers and axes, leaving those implements behind by 3AM to simply use their bare hands with the ragged claws and the befouled fingers and –
The point is, the story now feels fresh, the mysteries and events with uncertain outcomes, the characters always on the cusp rather than having already been. For me, writing in the present tense even had that sense of urgency — it felt exciting to write that way.
This makes it good for thrillers, mysteries, adventures, probably even horror. Other books that require a lot of explication and exposition will likely suffer from present tense, instead.
This one’s a double-edged sword — a story told in the present tense is unusual enough that it might warrant a shout-out in reviews, or it might even warrant someone to take that extra step to review your work having heard about the choice you’ve made as an author. This can reward you, or it can bite you in the ass. That said, if you’re looking for something to set the story apart, this is one way to do it. I don’t recommend it as the primary reason for using it — at that point, we’re talking about it being a gimmick, like being about to shoot milk out of your eye or being able to tie your genitals into pornographic “balloon” animals.
The Overall Challenge
The overall challenge is throat gnomes. They have invited friends. Hounds, elf-hounds, willing to scratch the earth that is my esophagus and see if they cannot find a treat deep within the pillowy tenderloin pockets of my tonsils. Little bastards, all of ‘em.
But, were you to identify an overall challenge in regards to writing fiction in the present tense — well, I’d say it’s overcoming the stigma that the present tense has.
The good news is, I think that stigma is lessening. You find more books written in present tense now than you used to, and as this post by Grammar Girl notes, many of them are good ones. Chuck Palahniuk? Dan Simmons? Seth Harwood? Audrey Niffenegger? (I’d also add: Charlie Huston.) These authors write books not only notable for their usage of present tense, but really excellent books written in the present tense. Point being, it can be done, and it can be done awesomely.
The bad news is, it’s still a stigma, and by choosing to go that route, you are putting up a “love it or hate it” flag.
Now, some will tell you that you can’t get an agent or a book deal with something written in the present tense. Obviously not true, given that many books have reached publication with present tense intact. (Moreover, I’ll remind you that I got myself an agent recently — same agent as the aforementioned Harwood — with a novel written in the present tense. … Of course, I say that, and I’ll probably get edits in the next couple days that tell me, “Oops! Present tense has gotta go!”)
Yes, it’s a choice. And yes, it’s a viable one. Every choice you make in a novel is one that could potentially threaten readership — whether you choose to write a science-fiction novel or a book with a female, non-white protagonist, every choice in the writing process is one capable of both turning off a reader and turning on a new reader. Best you can do is to ignore the concern over trends, be aware of dangers, and then write the best damn book you can with your choices firmly in place.
And now, I go to spray the throat gnomes in their many eyes with Chloraseptic. Wish me luck.