Monday, September 27, 2010

Tense About Tenses

A few weeks ago, Ellen Levine passed around an article by Philip Pullman about the use of the present tense. "What I dislike about the present tense narrative," Pullman writes, "is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate." He compares writing in the present to the use of a hand-held camera in film. Writing in the present, he says, is "an abdication of narrative responsibility." (The Guardian, September 18, 2010.)

Really? Since I am 185 pages into a novel told in first person, present tense, my palms began to sweat when I read this. Is my novel claustrophobic? "Pressed up against the immediate..."--in fact, a sense of immediacy is exactly what I am looking for. I'm not sure if I should admit this, but I didn't think much about the choice of tense when I started the book. Instead, I heard Brandon spooling out the story and I wrote it down as he was telling it. Somewhere in the second or third chapter, I realized what I was doing--and just kept on.

My last two novels were written in past tense; one in third person, the other alternating first person voices. Past tense felt natural for both, especially since both stories took place a long time ago. Unless you're writing an epistolary novel (good luck, Gary!) you and the reader buy into the conceit that the narrator is telling you a story that he/she has not written down. First person, present tense requires a similar leap of faith. There's a gauzy scrim between you and the narrator.

When the Pullman article came in, I was reading a novel suggested by my student, Ann Schoenbohm, called The Velvet Room. It's an older book, one I missed when it came out because I was already in college and not, at that point, reading children's novels. The novel is narrated in the past tense, from a third person limited point of view. It's a Once Upon A Time tale that is satisfying and comforting, even in its most suspenseful scenes. So have I made a mistake, writing in present tense?

I went to my bookcase and pulled Ron's Strays off the shelf. It's a present tense novel. I never felt claustrophobic, reading it--just up close and personal with Ted, riding along with him as he deals with tragedy, girls, and talking animals.

So here are some questions: does the choice of tense depend on the story? On the narrator and psychic distance? On the mood you happen to be in when you start writing? Let me know.


  1. The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The first book I read that I felt was written about me. And then I read all of her books: The Egypt Game; The Changeling, The Headless Cupid etc. She was one of the first writers entering esoteria (Is that a word?) for that age group (8-11) at that time (the 1960s). Boy has that changed! She was very important to me and to my desire to be a writer when I was nine years old. Ahem. Present tense. What an interesting perspective Mr. Pullman has. I am writing something that is in numerous POVs, one in first person and the rest in third person, but all in present tense. What the present tense does for me here, of course, is to allow me to get deeply inside of each character, a close psychic distance. Far from being claustrophobic, the present tense is eternal because it takes you inside the mind at that moment in all of its layers and timelessness (but I am starting to sound esoteric). Also, for a reason I can't explain, my work in the present tense is far more poetic. Perhaps that's because a persona (or speaker) is such an implicit part of a poem. Or perhaps I feel more liberty with the stream of consciousness of an unfixed time to play with voice I'm not sure. I definitely admire Pullman, and I think there is a strong tradition in English literature of third person past tense, but with a close psychic distance that American writers don't always pull off as well, of speaking directly to the reader (A notable exception that comes to my mind is Kurt Vonnegut), as Dickens does. I am sure there are many counter-arguments, but in this five minutes of present tense these are my thoughts.

  2. Liza,

    You've wonderfully answered your own question. If your story demands a sense of immediacy, present tense is an excellent choice. If you need a broader view, a once-upon-a-time storytelling distance, then third is a must. Can't wait to read what you're working on.

  3. I'm currently writing a book in first-person, present tense. It's something I never thought I would do. Like Liza, the voice just came to me that way. It is challenging, however. I have to be very selective in the details I include. I have to be very spare with descriptions, since only things that he would notice would be part of his narrative. He also isn't going to describe his own body language very much, but I like being in his head and his heart. He's an angry young man, and for good reason. It's a fun adventure for me.

  4. I think "narrative responsibility" is changing as readers begin to expect a different relationship with books. Many narrators used to ask the reader to play the passive observer, a la the strong English tradition Kelly mentioned. But I think today's kids want to be active participants in the story. First person, present tense lets them be in the story as it happens. The school librarians I'm working with say kids really respond to that intimacy/ immediacy. I know I do. Two of my all-time faves, Laurie Halse Anderson and Anna Quindlen, are masters at first person, present tense, and use it often. I mention them any time someone suggests that that FPPT is restrictive or ineffective.

    As for Pullman's camera analogy, I think that sometimes a shaking camera shot tells a story, too. Part of the joy in watching an old family movie is remembering the beloved family member behind the camera, jiggling it as they laugh at a moment, or cursing as they trip on a root running alongside a giddy kid. It makes it real, gives it depth. Besides, if we all took the time to set up a tripod to perfectly capture our family moments, we'd miss the good stuff.

    Keep on truckin', Liza K.

  5. I had a first-time experience editing a critique partner's manuscript the other day. She has written a dystopian novel in first person, past tense. As I read her (most excellent) chapter rewrites, my mind rather naturally and automatically replaced her past-tense verbs with present tense verbs. The immediacy of her writing screamed present tense and my brain just made the substitutions.

  6. "An abdication of narrative responsibility." Jesus. Just what I need, some windbag talking to me like that. No wonder I read "Daily Racing Form" instead of donnish bullshit like that.

  7. Pullman does tend to be a rabble-rouser, I think just for fun. He has also said that he wants to champion the omniscient pov, which he uses to good effect.

    John Gardner has a lot of stuff about present tense and the "I am a camera" nonsense that used to be so popular, but I am at work and am not at liberty to think much beyond Angus cattle.