Monday, February 1, 2016

Present Tense



PRESENT TENSE

Second in a series discussing the most common forms of Verb Tense:

Past, Present, Future, Speculative

Some good sites to visit:
http://english.stackexchange.com

A good article about using present tense, both pro and con: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-pros-and-cons-of-writing-a-novel-in-present-tense
A good discussion about using present vs. past tense in narrative: http://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/3255/use-of-past-vs-present-tense-in-works-of-fiction

Present Tense, the language of the immediate, seems like it should be the easiest to use. In some ways, yes; but in lengthy fiction, staying in the moment is difficult and limiting to perspective. Present verb tense has two forms: Simple and Perfect.

Simple Present - tells what is happening now

Most of us are familiar with the first person "I am" structure: I am walking (now), I am typing... and so forth; similar to what I call the was/ing structure of past tense, the convention adds a layer of fluff between story and reader, holding them at arm's length. Using immediate strong verbs convey an intensity that draws the reader into the character or story: I strut along the runway; second person structure: He gallops toward center field; Barbara wishes she could fly.

Perfect Present - tells of an ongoing action and employs present tense of had: has/have; may be written with or without the implication (of the conclusion).

I will have been in the air eighteen hours by the time my flight lands. He has to keep running until he reaches the finish line. Tammy may have the correct answer (if we live long enough).

Positives: When done well, readers are drawn to the action and live in the moment with the characters and scene. The tempo is often fast-paced. Young adult stories lately have used this convention. Readers will often enjoy trying to figure out which way we'll jump next.

Negatives: It's like absolute infinity--you have no past or future, only implication. Now, implication has its wonderful moments as well, but there are only so many times a character or scene can cast red herrings for the reader. Readers can lose the bond with untrustworthy characters. I find the style breathtaking and if I am pulled into a particularly intense book, can only read a small amount at a time.

Telling an entire story in this way is difficult to keep up, and often involves an author slipping into past tense to describe a flashback for example, because some piece of past information is necessary. This will take the reader out of the moment. Gone, Girl, used this technique.


Books and authors employing Present Tense:

Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) and Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog) often use this method to tell story, but even then only parts of the books from particular character points of view are in present tense.
Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire - very eloquent
Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons
John Updike, Rabbit Run

What other books have you read that are written in all, or mostly, present tense? What do you think about reading and writing in this style? Do certain genres tend to lend themselves to this convention over others?



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