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Past and Present tense: which, why, when and how

It's a simple, but huge, decision you have to make about your novel or creative non-fiction, right at the beginning: will your main narrative tense be past tense, or present tense? And what, if anything, will you use the other one for? It is always possible to change your mind later, but doing so is somewhere between a flaming nuisance and a nightmare, so it's well worth thinking hard about the pros and cons of both.

Ages ago I blogged my first thoughts about past vs. present tense, and I haven't changed very much of my mind, but that was before I was pointed towards David Jauss's brilliant essay, "Remembrance of Things Present" in his marvellous book, On Writing Fiction: rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft. His intuitions are so perceptive, and his reasoning is so cogent, that I've based these thoughts on his much more fully-developed exploration, and I can't recommend the book highly enough.

But the fact that the essay argues against the "conventional wisdom" that present tense is "better", tells you a lot about what's been going on in the literary-creative-writing world, and so before I break down the pros and cons of both I want to have a think about that. After several centuries - even millenia - when stories were told in past tense, as something which has already happened (even if they're fiction, and never happened at all), in some quarters present tense seems to have become the norm.

Present tense has always been available, and been used, from the first prose fictions to the modernists, as an occasional technique for specific effects. But now a generation of writers who've grown up with film, and the influence of scriptwriting-teaching on prose-narrative-teaching, are using present tense as their default. The thing is, though, that film can't narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action. The only way to convey that this "now" happened before or after the main "now" of the story is to inform you of that fact (with one of relatively few, relatively crude conventions: fuzzy edges, a date, an implication or statement, a voiceover), and then switch to images of what happens/ed.

There's no equivalent in film of "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." To show the eight different tenses in that perfectly ordinary sentence, in a movie, you'd have to edit together a whole slew of present moments, and pray the viewers read the relationship between those events both in time and certainty (his wife might have eaten his dinner herself) as you want them to. 

So, if you subscribe to the new orthodoxy of present tense narrative (as opposed to making a decision that for this part of this story, it's the best strategy) then you're missing out on one of prose narrative's most valuable - and unique - strengths: the fact that the narrator is an entity independent of the physical action in time and space. Narrative time is independent of real time, and textual time is separate again. But present tense narratives can't exploit that nearly as fluently. For example, 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. (And if you've been force-fed the lunatic idea that sentences involving "was" should be cut, then replacing "was" with "am" and "is" and "are" won't make the slightest difference. See this post for why not.)

Present tense isn't so very limiting in combination with an external, knowledgeable narrator, telling the story in third person. I read Andrew Miller's Pure recently, and loved it. The handling of action, time and space are fluent and flexible, getting away from the now-now-now-now-now of goldfish tense which (as I said in my first post about this stuff) so often makes me feel as if I'm being tapped on the head with a teaspoon, page after page. But I was left wondering what using present tense actually added to effect of the narrative, given that the overall effect was unobtrusive. Did it make the story stronger, that the reader's trapped in the permanent "now": that, as Jauss puts it, "the narrative proceeds at the pace of the physical action"? Maybe: the story's set at the point where Paris is about to explode into the Revolution, and the reader knows the characters are teetering on the edge of the abyss of the unknown. But Miller keeps the psychic distance close in - the level often called "close third person" - and the main character is the only consciousness through which we experience everything. He doesn't test the limits of present tense much, in other words.

Present tense with an internal, character-narrator is much more problematic, as Jauss explores. It's supposed to be "more immediate" in conveying the character's experience as an actor in the story, but the same character, in their role as narrator, is actually standing outside the "now" experience of the action. And it does so just when we need a sense that their whole consciousness is taken up with experience of the moment. The character-narrator can't easily be both be in the action, and be outside it enough to narrate. Not only is the present moment  limited, but it's also in some important way divided. If the character is our representative in the story, then our experience can't be of real immersion.

So, even when present tense works, in a story you enjoy, what such a setup can't easily do is express the layeredness of human experience: the fact that these events are built on the past, and will be built on by the future. That's particularly ironic in novels like Pure, since the plot concerns the clearing of a cemetery, but there's an even bigger irony: the storytelling effect of the characters having no sense of the future depends entirely on the reader having lots of sense of it: but that can't be built into the narrative. If one of the things which we acquire as we get older is the maturity to be alive to the context of our experience - to its place in the larger narrative of our lives time and space - as well as the immediacy of it, then only a past tense narrative truly embodies and integrates context as well as moment.


Past tense - the advantages

  • manipulating time: you can play with the order in which things are told, and the duration of your telling them. I thought more about the different kinds of time here.
  • flexibility of pace: you can change speed and gear in narrating events very more easily
  • creating suspense is much easier, because we know there is a future to this story (because it's being told from there), so the future is a mystery, not a blank, as in present tense. The narrator can even tell bits of it, or hint.
  • backstory and flashbacks are much easier to handle because there are so many more kinds of past tense than present tense
  • characterisation is easier when you can play with the order of time, and manipulate how and when the reader gets to experience each character
  • narrator and actor are separated by time, even if they're the same character
  • free indirect style, with all its scope for evoking voice, characterisation and consciousness, comes entirely naturally, as part of the narrative
  • the focus of the narrative tends towards cognition: the sense of what happened in the wider context of these people and their lives and pasts and futures. There's scope for dramatic irony, tension, suspense and understanding

Past tense - the drawbacks

  • the story is over: the reader knows it, and that the narrator, at least, probably didn't die
  • it's easy to slip into "telling": informing the reader, where you should be evoking the minute-by-minute tension of action
  • handling past tenses is sometimes nervous work for those who are less confident in their handling of grammar, and the had had problem with flashbacks needs a bit of thought
  • combined with third person it's easy for learner-writers to slip into a rather distant, bland narrative, remote in psychic distance, and so we never really experience things as the characters do.

Present tense - the advantages

  • immediacy: the story is projected into the reader's "now"
  • realism in time: the action is continuous, as it is in real life. The focus tends to be on perception: what is happening
  • disorientation: the stream of one-thing-after-another-after-another-after-another suits any narrative where the point-of-view character is disoriented, and/or you want the reader to feel the same
  • the eternal present suits characters and narrators who forget or repress their sense of past and future
  • defamiliarisation: when present tense was a rarely-used technique (Dickens used it, but after that no one much till the 1950s) its effect was strange and estranging.
  • if a theme or atmosphere of the story is that it's the human condition is evanescent, then present-tense narrative evokes that
  • it simplifies tenses: there's only simple and continuous present to grapple with
  • combined with first person present tense elides the gap between narrator and actor: the narrator knows and can tell nothing the actor isn't experiencing.

Present tense - the drawbacks

  • immediacy is also inflexibility: the narrative proceeds at the speed of the physical action, there's not much scope for expanding and compressing, and time-shifts are awkward or abrupt
  • realism in time lures you into including trivia of action and setting which in past tense you could skim over at will
  • suspense can only be created by the future being a blank, so there's less scope for irony, tension and suspense
  • realism in time means that there's less scope for narration that can understands the wider meaning/implications, unless the character actually stops and thinks - which means pausing the action
  • unless you can pause the action, exposition and flashbacks tend to feel dumped into the flow like a stone.
  • this awkwardness tends to limit the scope for subtle characterisation and depth of backstory
  • free indirect style is much more awkward to handle and much less effective, since there's no difference between the narrative tense and the tense of the actors' voices and directly-quoted thoughts.
  • whatever it was for Dickens, these days present tense is so familiar the "special effect" is almost negligible - except when it's worked hard, in small sections, to recapture that special effect.
  • by being eternally in the present, the narrative "takes the story out of time": it loses the sense of our human place in time, and how the past pushes us onwards and makes us act
  • combined with first person, the fact that a character is both narrator and actor creates a sense of detachment from the events: they must be observing at the same time as experience. Is that an effect you want?

Then, of course, there's the narrative which works with both past and present tense, either switching between separate chunks, or in one continuous thread, as with the different structures of Then-and-Now in the three threads of A Secret Alchemy. The logical way is to use present tense for the most recent sections, and past tense for those further back in time. But the reverse might work even better: the disoriented feel of present tense can make it perfect for memories, while the more solidly-anchored past tense can make it perfect for the more sophisticated relationship to time that a main narrative needs.

So if this post also sounds as if it's arguing in favour of past tense, then it's largely because I think you lose more by defaulting to present tense than you do by defaulting to past tense. Past tense needs reinstating as an essential way of writing; just as with showing and telling, or first-and-third-person, if you're to become any kind of a craftsman with your art, you must have both in your technical armoury.

An edited version of this post first appeared at Women Writers, Women's Books.