Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Verb tense --writing tip

Plagued by religious friction, violent fights and a belief, "the grass is always greener,"my peripatetic parents dragged their five children in search of the next good farm. From upstate New York to the Mississippi Delta, to the hills of Ohio and West Virginia their dreams led us forward to disillusion and defeat. I was the middle child, unwanted from birth and over-looked while growing up. Though all five of us are deeply scarred, sometimes being the least-loved can be your salvation.

The above is an example of a literary novel NOT written in present tense. Thank Goodness! :D

Question:  I read a book this week where everything was written in the present tense? Is that right? I'm just asking because I never actually noticed one before.

Answer: Well it's not wrong, but..   Back in the dark ages, when I was in college and the NEW YORKER featured short stories by Famous Lights of the Literary World such as John Updike and J. D. Salinger, they almost always were written in present tense instead of past. They were copied right and left. It became a literary conceit among those who aspired to literary heights, to write in present tense and to do so, seemed to denote that one was an icon of Literature, with a capital L. Or aspired to be one.

But then other people, even writers of thrillers, began to use present tense and it became passe, rather than an earmark of the truly literary to use preseent tense for narrative. People like John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline wantered into the previously holy literary territory of present-tense fiction and wrote Whole Books in it, though that eventuality had been scoffed at as impossible by the originators of the trend.

As a writer and a publisher I deplore the practice of tense bending as I feel it makes the narrative too easily confused with the dialogue. Not to mention that almost everyone then uses plain past tense for flashback, which reads like regular narrative to every reader...and promotes time-confusion. In fact whenever I see a manuscript that begins:

     Angela walks down the street, looking neither left nor right.

It makes me want to hit the return button -- that's yet another reason whey we select books by committee.
I am far too easily irritated.

In today's market, using present tense only serves to confuse people like you and me.

Usually, fiction is written in past tense, dialogue in present tense (because the people are speaking in present time of the story, even if it's historical fiction), and flashbacks in past perfect tense to distinguish them from the regular past tense of the story's narrative.

For instance:

Present tense (used in experimental fiction):

     I walk toward town. The distant buildings shimmer beneath the summer sun. "This is a hot day!" I say, though there is no one around to hear me.

Past tense, used in most fiction:   
    I walked toward town. The distant buildings shimmered beneath the summer sun. "This is a hot day!" I said, though there was no one around to hear me.

Past perfect tense, used in flashbacks:
    I had been walking toward town. The distant buildings had shimmered beneath the summer sun. "This is a hot day!" I said, though no one had been around to hear me.

Okay the same nothing happens in all three, right. So is there a place for present tense???

Yes. Write your SYNOPSIS in present tense and then STOP. Don't play around with narrative tenses just to show off.


  1. So glad to have read this. On occasion, I have picked up a novel to read because the blurb sounded interesting, only to find it written in present tense and find it so jarring that I cannot read it. It's just too weird.

  2. I'm with Kathryn on this one! I HATE books written in the present tense and will not read them! They almost always have a lot of back story or flash backs. Nope, I do not like them.

  3. I hate them equally as much as you two. Can't say I never did it, but I came to regret it very badly.