Thursday, July 22, 2021

No Time Like the Present?

What accounts for the current fad of present-tense narrative in fiction? Most of the time, it makes my teeth grind with annoyance. Even a recent urban fantasy novel by Charles de Lint veers onto that strange byway. The traditional convention of writing fiction in the simple past demands no mental contortions from the reader. Its familiarity makes it "invisible," allowing the story to come through unfiltered from the author's mind to the reader's, or at least producing the illusion of unfiltered immersion in the story. Present tense draws attention to itself and away from the characters and plot, until the reader manages to shift mental gears and adjust to that technical oddity.

Now, the writer might have an artistic motive for purposely directing the audience's attention to the narrative technique itself. Even so, in my opinion, doing this for a longer span than a short story is usually so off-putting as to defeat any such purpose. I can think of a few circumstances when present-tense narrative serves a legitimate function: In the case of an experience told in the first person by a protagonist of horror or suspense, writing it in the present could avoid the near-certainty that the narrator will survive until after the end of the adventure. Unless he's speaking from the afterlife, the reader will assume that if he narrates in the past tense, he lived to tell the tale. Another reason for the use of present tense by a first-person narrator might be that the narrator's mind is somehow clouded or she has some other cause for extreme confusion. Present-time narration could give the impression that she's groping her way through a strange environment. Also, I've read a few novels with lots of flashbacks that distinguish in-story past and present by alternating the verb tenses accordingly. And, of course, if a text is framed as a diary or series of letters, parts of it might legitimately consist of a stream of consciousness in the present. In the case of the rarely used second-person narrative voice, past tense—a blow-by-blow account of what "you did"—might sound peculiar unless (as in an effective horror story I once read) the "you" has amnesia and the story is telling the protagonist about his or own past experiences in an attempt to awaken memories. Present tense therefore has some advantage in a second-person narrative.

Fiction written in the second person, however, foregrounds the narrative technique itself so emphatically that it seems to me suitable only for short stories. At novel length, I'd think it would be intolerable. Many years ago, I read a horror novella I liked very much, except that the whole thing was told in second person, present tense. That choice still puzzles me, unless the author hoped it would draw the reader into the deepest possible intimacy with the protagonist. It seems to me that the writer was taking a serious risk; readers might be repelled by the narrative voice, viewed as an annoying gimmick. I was enthralled enough by the plot that I stuck with it despite the odd style of narration, which combined two distracting techniques in one story.

What do you think of present-tense narrative? Legitimate writing tool, a pointless variation from the norm that hampers suspension of disbelief, or something in between?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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