Thursday, January 20, 2022

Presently Tense

Does anybody really like fiction narrated in the present tense? Apparently, to my bafflement, many people actually do, since that device seems to be a currently popular fad. Not only do authors write it, lots of editors accept it. Of the two most recent Ellen Datlow anthologies I read, each contains multiple present-tense selections. The January-February issue of THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, which I just finished reading, includes twelve stories, of which five are told in present tense. To skew the balance further, one of those is the longest piece in the issue. Only one story strikes me as possibly justified in its narrative choice, being framed as a sequence of day-by-day news-as-it-unfolds reports.

Many years ago, I read a horror novella that enthralled me except for one feature: It was written in present tense and second person. "You walk to the top of the barren hill and find the ruins of an ancient stone circle. . . ." kind of thing. (Just an example, not a quote. The bizarre narrative style is the only specific thing I recall.) I've seen second-person-present-tense work very effectively in an occasional short story. At novella length, it was excruciating. An author I follow on Facebook dislikes present-tense fiction so thoroughly that it's an automatic downcheck for her. While I don't go that far, in my opinion present tense has only a limited justifiable use. It works well in the aforementioned rare short stories in second person. And if an author wants to leave open the possibility of a first-person protagonist's death, present tense can discourage the reader from meta-thinking along the lines of, "He can't die, because he's telling what happened in the past." (Only in a short story, though, not inflicted on us for the length of a novel or even a novella.) There are few other circumstances in which present-tense narrative doesn't annoy me. Sometimes it makes sense when used to distinguish current action from flashbacks, as Stephen King does in his recent thriller BILLY SUMMERS. I didn't mind it too much in that book, although I don't think it was necessary.

Why do fiction writers use present tense? I assume the idea is that telling the tale as if it's happening at this moment is supposed to enhance suspense or create a feeling of immediacy. It's probably meant to give the audience a sense of being immersed in the action. In my experience as a reader, that style has the opposite effect. Present-tense narration draws attention to itself and away from the story. It most often generates distance rather than emotional involvement. Conventional past-tense storytelling is "transparent" because it's what we've been conditioned to expect. When reading, we look through it, not at it. My advice, for what it's worth: As a writer, don't mess with what traditionally works unless you have a strong, specific reason for the change.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. There's one classic exception I forgot to mention -- Damon Runyon. The first-person, present-tense style is perfect for his shady New York characters. They typically speak without contractions and not only in the present but also often in present progressive where you wouldn't expect it. E.g., "So I am strolling down Broadway when I meet Harry the Horse, who is telling me. . . ."