Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Present tense

Is v Was... fascinating session with my advanced class on using present tense in fiction. I began with brief readings out from a selection of books written in present tense that I'd recently read, with discussion of various points along the way:
  • Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg)
  • The Resurrectionist (James Bradley)
  • When I Lived in Modern Times (Linda Grant)
  • The Sportswriter (Richard Ford)
  • And one in traditional past tense, Burning Bright (Tracy Chevalier)

It quickly became apparent that the challenge is how to get the past of the story told while being in the present on-going story. Gap-on-the-page or new chapter and shift into past tense are trad methods. Interwoven past and present is masterful and technically tricky, and effective.

I chose two small 'shift' sections from The Sportswriter and we modelled these, sticking to the sentence structures and tenses, but swapping in our own invented characters, actions, places, feelings. We surprised ourselves with the power of our little pieces -- nothing like walking in the shoes of a master, thank you Richard Ford.

The general conclusion was that past tense is best for good old storytelling, and present tense is edgey, tricky and sometimes downright annoying to read. Now on tense-alert, I've had two quotes along these lines sent by students:

  • Philip Pullman: 'the common mistake of thinking that using a present-tense narration conveys immediacy. It doesn't; it converys arty self-consciousness. It is a clanking, thumping, steaming cliche. There is far too much of it about...' (source unknown)
  • Philip Hensher: 'the odd and general belief that writing in the present, rather than the past, tense is somehow more vivid... Writing as vivid and localized as Motion's doesn't require this journalistic twist.' (Telegraph 20/09/08)

Don't want you to get tense about it, but what do you think?

1 comment:

India said...

I think they both have a point, present tense is getting to be very overdone lately and often a beautifully written piece in the past tense is far more interesting than a first-person narration written in the present.
I always find it more difficult to write in the present tense because there is this feeling of continually needing to move forward and rush through things, whereas with past tense there is more room for creativity with the flow of events and how it's written.
I do agree however that there are many novels written in the present tense that are easy to read, hard to put down and very well written.