Sunday, December 7, 2008

past vs. present tense

I don't know if you know this, but I'm currently writing a novel, called "By the Time We Leave Here, We'll Be Friends". I've been working on it for a long time. I've driven myself crazy writing it and it's gotten rather complex. My problem was this: no matter how much I wrote, I couldn't feel connected to my characters. And now I think I know why:

I've been writing the fucking thing in the present tense.

I read this blog, by a woman named Emma Darwin (who's books, it should be noted, don't look like my cup of tea):

Past and present tense

A few quotes stood out to me:

"...Present tense is by definition unreflective. Because it's all present, there's less sense of even the past that happened on the previous page. It's just tap-tap-tap... one event after another. So although it can be quite thriller-ish, I sometimes also feel that the immediate past slips away for the reader as well, and to that extent you actually lose urgency, rather than gaining it, because you lose the pressure of those previous events on the characters, which is what ought to be propelling the story forward."

"I think it's that fiction is always about time and memory, at some level: not only does the experience of reading the book happen in time, but the story needs to exist in time - its own time, and the reader's - and if it's all present tense then you lose that: it's just a series of nows, if you see what I mean, no past underpinning it and no sense of the future ahead."

"Partly, perhaps, there are now at least two generations of would-be writers who are thinking in terms of scriptwriting as much as fiction, and of course film - even flashbacks - is always, you could say, in present tense. But more generally I wonder if it's one of the bastard tyrannical offspring of the revolution against the authoritarian author - not just the technically omniscient narrator, but what Gardner calls the 'essayist' novelist, whose opinions are explicitly stated, rather than implicit in the story and how its told. If a past-tense narrative at least implies a narrator retelling the past, it also implies their authority to tell it. Whereas present-tense narrative seems to be freer from any particular narratorial (sorry, horrible word) personality. This seeming objectivity is illusory, of course: in fact an author is always authoritative, and their personality forms the narrative just as a filmmaker forms the narrative of a documentary whether or not you see their decisions about what to film, or hear the questions they asked or the edits they made. Those events on film aren't happening now, any more than what's happening in a novel is."

I think she makes some good points. What do you all think? Do you like present tense? Does it annoy you? Give me some feedback, maybe some examples of novels you liked that were in the present tense.

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