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Live in the present. Write there too.

–  by Barry K. Rosen (aka Mellow Curmudgeon)

The ancient advice is still good. Live mostly in the present, with enough dwelling on the past to serve specific purposes like learning from mistakes. Also good is the much more recent advice to write fiction in the present tense, unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense.

Zen lore includes some stories with endings of the form

At that moment, __________ attained enlightenment.

Fill in the blank with the name of somebody who studied Zen for some time and finally saw the light when his teacher said or did something outrageously weird.

While my story Satori from a Consulting Gig does not presuppose any knowledge of Zen lore, it does have a surprise ending (partly inspired by those Zen stories) with my own way to fill in the blank. Using the past tense in my story’s last sentence helps make the allusion to Zen lore clear to those who might care about it.

Did I choose to write my story in the past tense because I planned to end it that way? Not consciously. I just set out to write a short story. I’ll write some fiction. I’ll use the customary past tense. Doesn’t everybody?

Not quite. I got over 16 million hits when I googled

present tense vs past tense fiction

much later, in preparation for writing this post. Before discussing some pros and cons that are out there (and some that may be new), there is a little more to be said about my story’s tense situation.

My story was written for an anthology whose editors asked the contributors to supply blurbs. I wrote a blurb in the same tense as the story, then noticed that other contributors wrote blurbs in the present tense for stories in the past tense. Why? I found the inconsistency troubling.

Another contributor (Sue Ranscht) kindly remarked that the present tense “creates a punchier tease” in blurbs than the past tense does. Indeed. Why not make the actual story (not just the blurb) be as vivid and engrossing as it can possibly be? Unless there is a specific reason to use the past tense, why not write in the present tense?

§1: Perilous Present
Written in the present tense, my newer story Entanglements begins with

Squatting over the airport, a thunderstorm supercell demolishes …

Yes, the word demolishes might be misread as (a typo for) demolished. Yes, the reader might be a little disoriented at first. Worse, the reader might suspect that gimmicky writing is camouflage for weak content. Such concerns loom large in a thoughtful page that recommends using the past tense by default and the present in some special cases. We can agree on the bedrock principle that one size does not fit all, even as we disagree amicably on where to draw some lines and how strongly to weight some concerns. That’s a respite from the train wreck of contemporary politics.

Dunno how 16 million hits in my Google search compares with how often the present tense has actually been used in good stuff. As good uses accumulate, the prudential reasons for defaulting to the past tense will gradually weaken. Of course, there will always be people who believe that the earth is flat, the moon landings were faked, and

Thou shalt write fiction in the past tense.

came down from Mount Sinai with Moses.

§2: Perilous Past
Readers (and writers!) may not be native speakers of English. As with many other aspects of language, English is exuberantly irregular in how it forms the past tense. People learn the past tense of a verb later (and less thoroughly?) than they learn the present tense. Can U hear the rumble of an approaching storm?

When offline (or distrustful of Google Translate), Pierre consults his French/English dictionary. How can he say prendre in English? No problem. Just say take. But Pierre is writing in the customary past tense. Neglecting to look up take in the other half of the dictionary, he says taked where he should say took.

Consider 3 common ways that verbs ending in -it can form their past tenses: hit/hit, pit/pitted, and sit/sat. Quick now: knit/knit or knit/knitted? Shit/shit or shit/shat?

There are a few verbs with 2 ways to form the past: an irregular usual way and a regular way for a special usage:

Starting a road trip, the team flew out to Chicago.
Swinging at the first pitch, the batter flied out to left field.
The picture was hung in a prominent place.
Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy on 1776-09-22.
This last nuance is subtle enough to trip up some native speakers.

§3: Perilous Past Perfect
Pierre is back. The draft of his story has a short paragraph about some taking that happened at an earlier time. Not fond of flashbacks, he has a good reason to put this paragraph as late as it is, not earlier in the narrative.

Sadder but wiser after being corrected by a ten-year old whose first language is English, Pierre refrains from writing had took for the past perfect for the verb take. He looks up the actual past participle and writes had taken.

Pierre’s pluperfect paragraph is grammatical but clunky. What to do? Rewrite the main narrative in the present tense and the clunky paragraph in the past. That will be a chore, but such a clear and distinct idea deserves the effort. Descartes would approve.

§4: John and Jane Get Tense
John has been writing screenplays that often use flashbacks. Now he wants to write a novel and still likes flashbacks. He realizes that readers would be confused if nothing but a paragraph break separates what the characters do and experience “now” (from their viewpoint) from the start or end of a flashback. There is a lot of sensible advice out there about things like narrative transitions to and from flashbacks, but John wants to stay closer to his cinematic roots. He uses the present tense for the main content and the past tense for the flashbacks. If he also switches to a noticeably different font for the flashbacks, that might be enough in most places (after narrative transitions for the first few flashbacks).

Jane has been writing historical fiction and using the past tense to make it look like history. Now she wants to write fiction with a first-person narrator and package it as a rather one-sided conversation with an implicit listener. She plans to keep the past tense for the main content and add some present-tense remarks, often in response to what the listener has presumably just said. The present-tense remarks will be frequent and incongruous. The narrator will tell a self-serving version of a sequence of events in the past tense while accidentally revealing the darker and/or funnier truth in the present tense.

I warned Jane that readers (especially impatient thick-headed guys like me) may just take the narrator to be ditzy and bail out early. But Jane is game to try. If she does make it work, I know a good place to submit her story.

§5: Recurring Rabbit
Rabbit
The Rabbit Hole is a series of anthologies of weird stories, with a troika of editors. Volume 1 came out in 2018, Volume 2 is scheduled to come out on 2019-10-01, and the editors hope to continue annually. Maybe Jane can contribute to Volume 3.

My story Satori from a Consulting Gig in Volume 1 is just 2 pages long, so even those who dislike it may still be glad they bought the book for $2.99 as an e-book or $12.50 as an ink-on-paper book.

While every extended narrative in Volume 1 uses the customary past tense, Volume 2 will have at least one story told in the present tense. No, the editors’ fondness for weird stories does not extend to a fondness for weird writing. As originally submitted for Volume 2, my story Entanglements did have some weird writing at the end that seemed unavoidable to me. Editor Curtis Bausse suggested a strategy for avoiding the unwanted weirdness, and the strategy worked. There was no fuss at all about my use of the present tense. That is as it should be.

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24 thoughts on “Live in the present. Write there too.

  1. mimispeike says:

    One of two major problems I still have to deal with. I go back and forth – past/present. In many scenes I am there, watching the goings-on and commenting. Me and my reader are flies on the wall. I am not about to write that out, it provides many an amusing moment.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. atthysgage says:

    Thoughtful, comprehensive and entertaining, Barry. Thank you.

    I have (Flight of the Wren) done an entire book in present tense. Once you get into it, I think it works fine, but it always jars me a little at first. It felt appropriate, mood-wise, for Wren because the narrator was such a nihilistic teen. She saw the past as something to be forgotten, but didn’t believe the future was going to be worthwhile either.

    Beyond that, I admit, I tend to use past.

    I’m old.

    Someone even older, Ursula Leguin, had this to say on the subject: “Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense, but at this great length (novel length) it can be hard going. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step — now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.”

    It’s easy to say, “Hey, times and tastes change, old lady,” but she’s not wrong about the effect. Present tense has a way of flattening out a narrative. When every moment has the same immediacy and uncertainty, it can dilute the drama. Think of a horror film, where the camera stays in the tight POV of the character, walking through the darkened house. It ramps up the tension, allowing a bigger payoff when the boogey man jumps out, chainsaw blazing, but you don’t normally spend the whole film in that POV because it’s exhausting and self-defeating.

    Obviously, there are good present tense narratives and poor ones. It has more to do with the goals and skills of the writer than with the choice of tense. As with all aesthetic choices, something is lost. At the very least, we should be aware of what we are giving up, and write accordingly.

    Liked by 8 people

    • It’s clear Ursula K. Le Guin’s advanced age didn’t diminish her awareness of current trends and events while she lived, and I believe her intellect and wisdom will remain relevant in ages to come.

      “As with all aesthetic choices, something is lost. At the very least, we should be aware of what we are giving up, and write accordingly.” Seems you have wisdom of your own, Atthys.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    Barry, thanks for this thought-provoking post. I’m pasting a snippet from a fiction novel of mine (not yet published). In this snippet, I switched from past to present to give more impact to the scene that unfolds during a ceremony involving the protagonist. I explained to my editor that the change in tense is intentional. Readers can judge for themselves whether this works. I wrote the scene completely in past tense and this mixed tense way and decided I liked this one better. I think you make some valid points. With no preconceived notion, I think I can write first person present tense more easily than third person. I’m going to play around with this idea of writing fiction in the present tense. Thanks for stimulating some ideas.

    She saw the rock formation and the flat stone spread before it, charred by countless ritual fires. BB showed her the rock paintings drawn by their ancestors—animals, stick-figure men, spirit people called Mimis he explained. The walls displayed scenes of the sun and the moon, the rivers and the Great Rainbow Serpent. Earth energy permeated the entire area.
    “You can never understand today, Serena, unless you understand what came before. Gurumarra shows you great honor in taking you to this place.”
    People arrived throughout the day: woman, children, and men of their clan. They spoke little to her. The children seemed both curious and shy; at times she heard them whisper, “Galinawa”. At sundown, an elder woman arrived accompanied by two younger women to whom she gave directions. All were clad in simple cloth skirts, naked above the waist. They brought bowls with pigments of some sort and a large quantity of white kaolin clay. She watched as they body painted one another, mostly smearing white with dots and designs of bright red and ochre.
    The elder woman, the one with authority, instructed Serena to remove her clothes, and they proceeded to dress her in a similar skirt and to paint her body. She felt but did not see the snake glyphs they traced in coils and curls. She guessed a yellow sun, or was it the moon, now decorated her forehead. When they had finished, they led her to the flat rocks where she stood alone, a circle of the clan kin surrounding her. Night had fallen. Serena tried to register the scene before her.
    The flickers of a huge fire, tongues of flame dancing with shadows, cast its illumination on the tribe, their wide eyes and white teeth reflecting flashes of orange, women, men, children in white kaolin and colored markings. Clap sticks in hand, the tribe silently sways and waits. She looks around, mindful of her small breasts, exposed for all to view, fearful of what is about to happen. The old familiar nausea and tightening in her gut momentarily grabs hold and steals her concentration. She searches, catching site of DJ, clap sticks in his hands and BB, barely recognizable perched behind a huge didgeridoo. Only the crackle of fire disturbs the silence. Anticipation for the ritual soon to unfold mounts. She can feel the tension.
    Gurumarra stands. Gone is the ridiculous stove-pipe hat and coat. He is adorned in body paint, necklaces, and he holds the wooden piece he had been whittling and crafting for days. In all ways, his stance commands power and attention. His voice is deep yet musical. At some unseen signal, clap sticks pound in unison, the didgeridoo music begins, giving wind to the voice of the creators. Their shaman begins the telling, his voice full of meaning accentuated by his eyes which convey a deep knowing. Men dance in snakelike fashion; women and children join; others chant. Serena quickly understands this dance tells the creation story of the Rainbow Serpent.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I think we are all agreed that the writer should select the tool or technique that works best for his or her particular story.

      Having said that, I find present tense jarring for a couple of reasons:

      1.) It annoys me. (Heh! True-confession time.) Beyond that, I cannot improve on what Atthys or LeGuin have said (say?) here. I will gladly read a short story written in the present tense, but an entire novel? No thank you–check please.

      BTW: No offense intended, Atthys! I do not mean this comment to apply to your work; I trust your instincts and command of craft to execute story correctly. Which only goes to prove the larger point, I suppose: all rules and/or reading prejudices and preferences were made to be broken. Guided by a writer we like and trust, most of us are willing (or does this over-state the case?) to set aside our parochial reservations and ossified preferences long enough to find out if he or she can “pull off” any given particular technique.

      2.) Present tense has the horrifying knock-on after-effect (as has been mentioned) of both flattening and, paradoxically, elevating everything that happens in the tale to roughly the same level of import, impact, and relevance.

      3.) Present tense seems to me to be a bit absurd for tale-telling. With fiction written in the past tense we readily recognize that the narrator has survived the story’s events (at least to this point in their lives–we might be reading a letter or diary entry from someone deceased). Therefore we more readily, it seems to me, surrender to the fictional dream because past tense replicates the oldest narrative tradition extant in human culture: that of tales told ’round the campfire by a master story-teller.

      Am I to take seriously a passage like this: The door creaks open. A hand emerges holding a .357 magnum revolver. The revolver is aimed directly at my face. I stare into the black muzzle of eternity. It fires!

      The problem I have here is that present tense seems a more affected and ham-fisted inflection of the authorial voice than past tense: an attempt to jolt the reader into a heightened state of suspense and involvement with narrated story events. And since we know that story-narrated events cannot possibly be occurring at the very moment we read about them, an additional barrier is erected between author and reader by present tense: a niggling, maddening distraction akin to a high-pitched whine at the upper threshold of hearing that keeps the reader from committing to a full and willing surrender of his or her senses to the fictional dream.

      All this is but one (now aged) man’s opinion; heh! Like the young-uns say (said? have said? will say, and thus mayhap say again?): your mileage may vary. It’s all a matter of taste, to be sure.

      Liked by 7 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    “an attempt to jolt the reader into a heightened state of suspense and involvement with narrated story events.”

    For me it is a way to get in characterization in a livelier way than using all past tense. I enjoy the change in rhythm.

    I haven’t looked at Sly for two months. (I’ve been working on something else.) I’m going to reread book one and try to see it as others see it.

    I agree that the whole thing in present tense would be deadly. To get a good mix is the thing I worry about. And to handle the transitions well.

    Liked by 3 people

    • @Mimi: Would you care to post a paragraph or two from Sly demonstrating your use of the present tense in that narrative? (No one need criticize this excerpted sample if you prefer; it would be for illustrative purposes re: this discussion only.)

      Liked by 4 people

      • mimispeike says:

        I will do that tomorrow. Just got home from work at 11pm.

        No, no. Criticize away. You know by now that I am committed to my approach. I would love to hear your reaction.

        Liked by 4 people

        • mimispeike says:

          Chapter one is writ past tense. Here’s the finish:

          Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland  and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. When he could take no more knocks, he would grumble to Jakome, “I have a tongue in my head, I guess, and I guess I know how to use it.”

          The king, alarmed, would admonish him, “You have a brain in your head also, and a good one. It cannot but instruct your tongue to keep still.” And the cat, although spitting mad, would swallow his remarks and make nice with men he detested.

          I start chapter two in the present tense. I am on the scene, narrating:

          ON THE PLAZA de CATALUNYA
          ≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈
          Men he detested, yes, indeedy. One such comes to mind most particularly. 

          Let’s poke our noses into an apartment on the Plaza de Catalunya, just down from the impressively upright cathedral, a structure combining the spired Gothic style with an earlier Romanesque fortress-like base. (The Moors had nearly made it this far north during their ascendancy.)

          The resident of these premises is a man of nice taste. The walls are hung with art and lined with shelves of curiosities; the fellow is a collector. A recovering collector myself, I’d wager that the trove of oddments is the response to an inner deficit, and a way to keep disappointment with life at bay.

          What I can deduce from this accumulation? The pieces are carefully arranged, the hallmark of an obsessive personality. That fits with what I know of him. They are clustered, not on the basis of type, ceramics, silver, etc., but by shape, color, pattern, in pleasing convivialities. I see nothing that would not, as situated, make a charming still-life. He has an eye.

          There’s not a spec of dust (that I can see), a feat, what with all these dust-catchers. This individual tidies the room himself; a servant would not caretake so lovingly. Such commitment to spic-n-span is not healthy. When one is so insistent on an orderly surround, the inner life is in turmoil, it is a coping mechanism. He cannot be at ease here, he’s always fluffing a pillow or shaking out a rug. He always finds something amiss.

          A dinner is just underway in the next room. It will be a fine one. This personage–he is clearly one to be reckoned with–has access to the skills of an outstanding chef. Near neighbors, both aging bachelors, both fond of good food, both sustained by creative interests, literary leanings in the one case, the pursuit of arresting objects in the other, have formed an unlikely alliance. A swindler and a churchman have bonded.

          The swindler (actually, the son of a swindler) is a transplanted Burgundian. His father had held high office at a court rivaling that of the Valois for extravagance. He makes much of it, dropping names, claiming close acquaintance on the basis of a word or two. Despite his many achievements, he feels, as you and I might put it, less than. The churchman (actually, His Excellency, the Archbishop of Haute-Navarre, canon of the cathedral overwhelming the plaza) radiates a serenity the other envies with all his heart.

          This goes on for a few hundred words, then I revert to past tense for the evening’s interaction.

          Liked by 3 people

  5. Thanks for the stimulating comments.  Here are a few quick replies, with «» as a wrapper around quoted fragments that is more visible than ordinary quote marks.

    «
    I think we are all agreed that the writer should select the tool or technique that works best for his or her particular story.
    »

    Glad we can indeed agree that one size does not fit all, however much we may disagree about specific cases and what makes a good default.

    «
    Am I to take seriously a passage like this: The door creaks open.  A hand emerges holding a .357 magnum revolver.  The revolver is aimed directly at my face.  I stare into the black muzzle of eternity.  It fires!
    »

    Am I to take seriously the same passage in the past tense?  Neither tense works for me in the isolated passage.  Either way might work, depending on what comes before and after.  Assuming that the gun was not loaded with blanks, I balk at having a first-person narrator who is dead.  As one of the gems in RH-1 illustrates, even that can work well.

    Maybe I should have said something about the past tending to work well when a first-person narrator works well.  Didn’t want to open another can of worms about the narrator.

    Liked by 5 people

    • ‘Lo there, Mellow Curmudgeon! (BTW: absolutely love that moniker.)

      Re: “Am I to take seriously the same passage in the past tense? Neither tense works for me in the isolated passage. Either way might work, depending on what comes before and after. Assuming that the gun was not loaded with blanks, I balk at having a first-person narrator who is dead.”

      LOL! I was waiting for someone to call me out on that example; glad you raised the issue so that so we can further discuss.

      First off, the cited para is hardly an example of deathless prose. It’s simply meant to illustrate a point: that the present tense (IMHO) tries too hard to be all-up-in-yer-face with ACTION, EXCITEMENT, SUSPENSE! It’s all happening NOW, folks!!!

      Secondly, let’s assume for a moment that the narrator of that passage is, in fact, dead: a loquacious ghost. For my money, I much prefer the past tense if I’m to listen to that ghost drone on for chapter-after-chapter of an entire novel.

      De gustibus non est disputandum. (In matters of taste there is no dispute.)

      In conclusion, then, I would say: There is no clear “right” or “wrong” here. All we can do as working writers earnestly engaged with one another in discussion of the craft is to hold this never-ending public conversation in as informative, amusing, and thought-provoking a manner as possible.

      Or as we might ask drive-by internet eyes looking for a moment’s substantive diversion: Are you not entertained?

      Liked by 5 people

  6. Very stimulating discussion! I enjoyed it. Switching from past to present tense at moments of heightened drama when telling a story is a convention of oral story telling, and it can work in fiction as well. Victor’s excerpt does this so seamlessly I didn’t notice the change as I was reading. I had to go back and look for it.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. mimispeike says:

    Chapter one is writ past tense. Here’s the finish:

    Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland  and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. When he could take no more knocks, he would grumble to Jakome, “I have a tongue in my head, I guess, and I guess I know how to use it.”

    The king, alarmed, would admonish him, “You have a brain in your head also, and a good one. It cannot but instruct your tongue to keep still.” And the cat, although spitting mad, would swallow his remarks and make nice with men he detested.

    I start chapter two in the present tense. I am on the scene, narrating:

    ON THE PLAZA de CATALUNYA
    ≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈
    Men he detested, yes, indeedy. One such comes to mind most particularly. 

    Let’s poke our noses into an apartment on the Plaza de Catalunya, just down from the impressively upright cathedral, a structure combining the spired Gothic style with an earlier Romanesque fortress-like base. (The Moors had nearly made it this far north during their ascendancy.)

    The resident of these premises is a man of nice taste. The walls are hung with art and lined with shelves of curiosities; the fellow is a collector. A recovering collector myself, I’d wager that the trove of oddments is the response to an inner deficit, and a way to keep disappointment with life at bay.

    What I can deduce from this accumulation? The pieces are carefully arranged, the hallmark of an obsessive personality. That fits with what I know of him. They are clustered, not on the basis of type, ceramics, silver, etc., but by shape, color, pattern, in pleasing convivialities. I see nothing that would not, as situated, make a charming still-life. He has an eye.

    There’s not a spec of dust (that I can see), a feat, what with all these dust-catchers. This individual tidies the room himself; a servant would not caretake so lovingly. Such commitment to spic-n-span is not healthy. When one is so insistent on an orderly surround, the inner life is in turmoil, it is a coping mechanism. He cannot be at ease here, he’s always fluffing a pillow or shaking out a rug. He always finds something amiss.

    A dinner is just underway in the next room. It will be a fine one. This personage–he is clearly one to be reckoned with–has access to the skills of an outstanding chef. Near neighbors, both aging bachelors, both fond of good food, both sustained by creative interests, literary leanings in the one case, the pursuit of arresting objects in the other, have formed an unlikely alliance. A swindler and a churchman have bonded.

    The swindler (actually, the son of a swindler) is a transplanted Burgundian. His father had held high office at a court rivaling that of the Valois for extravagance. He makes much of it, dropping names, claiming close acquaintance on the basis of a word or two. Despite his many achievements, he feels, as you and I might put it, less than. The churchman (actually, His Excellency, the Archbishop of Haute-Navarre, canon of the cathedral overwhelming the plaza) radiates a serenity the other envies with all his heart.

    This goes on for a few hundred words, then I revert to past tense for the evening’s interaction. Though I have bits of present tense there also. Not unlike what Hugh Walpole has done in Fortitude, that I am currently reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, Barry, so much for “Once upon a time…” Is that the Present Tense band wagon rolling by? I’d better jump on before FOMO strikes my heart and I can never write again.

    But I jest in sarcasm font.

    Rules, schmules. Write whichever way you think best tells your story. Past tense will never become passe, while present tense will be the more likely of the two to trend and ebb if only because it can be so exhausting to read. Besides, most readers who are not writers will probably read both tenses with only a subconscious awareness of the difference.

    Maybe the main difference between film, where present tense is far more commonly used than any other, and novels is the amount of time the author has to build the story for the viewer or reader. If you have only 90 to 180 minutes, and plot unfolds without description, utterly dependent on what our eyes and ears relay to our brains, I think it is a more immediate and realtime telling than novels depend on. (Hence present tense descriptions in screenplays.) Our connection to a film story is a function of visual, aural, and emotional stimulation in ways far closer to the way we experience present life than the way in which we decode the squiggles on a page that can provide so much more intellectual depth and nuance.

    Check your inner critic the next time somebody regales you with the tale of an event that happened to them, and they tell it in present tense. My own inner critic’s reaction every time such a narrator says something like, “I’m driving down the street…” is, “No you’re not.” It adds a layer of disbelief that tarnishes credibility, and is about as annoying as That Guy who refers to himself in the third person.

    Liked by 4 people

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