Friday, August 07, 2009

Past or Present Tense?
By Persia Walker

Most writers are trained, consciously or subconsciously, to write in the past tense, yours truly being one of them. But there are others who go for the present, who find it the better and more natural mode of expression. I've always wondered about them.

I've always written in and preferred to read novels written in the past tense. Stories written in the present tense have somehow always struck me as slow, ponderous, and even sometimes pretentious. All of this, of course, is highly subjective, and could be simply a matter of habit.

The other day, for example, I wrote an email to a friend, describing the plot of my new "bestseller." I automatically switched to the present tense. (Synopses are, for whatever reason, usually written in the present tense.) Not to be immodest, but I managed to convey drama and urgency in this less than brief email -- all the while using the present tense, the supposedly slow and ponderous present tense.

Hmm, I wondered. Why should the present tense be fast-paced and gripping in a synopsis, but slow in a novel? Was it all a matter of perception?

When writing, I tend to pepper my manuscript with notes. These notes are invariably written in the present tense. By the time I review these notes, weeks later, I've forgotten that I've written them. They strike me with their freshness -- and their present tense-ness. Written while in the grasp of some inspiring thought, these notes are often taut mini-scenes. My usual practice has been to simply rewrite them in the past tense and flesh them out a bit. Sometimes, however, I've felt that the scenes have lost something in the recasting. And sometimes, I've been strongly tempted to leave them just as they are, in the ponderous present tense I so otherwise eschew.

Yesterday, I dug out a battered copy of Dean Koontz's book Intensity. I wanted to see how Koontz handled a scene in which the protagonist confronts the sadistic killer holding a teenage girl in his basement. I also wanted to see the chapters in which Koontz probes the killer's mind. I remembered that he used multiple points of view, using one chapter to reflect the killer's thoughts and the next to express the protagonist's. What I didn't remember was that Koontz used the present tense for those chapters given to the killer and the usual past tense for those given to the heroine.

The contrast was jolting. It was uncomfortable, but effective. Time slowed and I was transported into the killer's mind. I felt as though I'd entered a time warp, as though I were floating in evil miasma. The change in tenses not only showed, but made me feel, how the killer existed in his own world, a place where time -- and ethics -- as the rest of us know it, did not apply.

If the present tense chapters underscored the killer's mind-bending insanity, then the past tense ones, where the story clipped right along, underscored the heroine's strong, if terrified, sense of sanity.

Should I attempt the same technique, I wondered? Why not? Maybe it was time I became a little inventive, a little more flexible. I couldn't see myself writing the entire book in present tense, but chapters here and there, for sure. Especially chapters that explored the killer's mind.

I decided to go for it. I would use a mixed bag of tenses. I would actually write in -- gasp -- the present tense.

The manuscript is still in its early stages, still subject to major changes. We'll see how it goes.


Rhonda McKnight said...

Give it a try. I read The Elevator by Angela Hunt. The present tense got on my nerves, but it was a good story. I don't know. I'd be interested in you sharing how it works for you.

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