Present tense for novel writing

So I’m reading Matt Haig’s wonderful novel The Radleys. I usually don’t like vampire stories but this is about a very English family of vampire ‘abstainers’ living in suburbia – it’s warm, sympathetic and very funny.

Anyway, The Radleys has got me thinking about present tense narration, and even considering it as an option for the thriller I’m writing at the moment. So I have been reading various opinions this morning about present tense novels – do they work, do they irritate their readers, and so on.

Never one to shy away from expressing a strong opinion, Philip Pullman has weighed in on the anti-present-tense-narration side of the discussion, calling it a ‘silly affectation’. Really? Always?

Opinion on the Writewords forums is divided when it comes to present tense narration:

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? EmmaD at 21:09 on 02 November 2005

Reading an extended piece in present tense often makes me feel as if I’m being hit repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. Even a wonderful novel like Helen Dunmore’s The Siege.

More seriously, though I’ve read some wonderful work in present tense, I think it’s often a cop-out by the writer. It seems to save the trouble of constructing suspense by being naturally suspenseful, but just reads as a string of events. It tries to create a sense of immediacy which hides the fact that the writer isn’t really imagining out the scene completely. It’s also less flexible: I think it’s much harder to move clearly but unobtrusively in and out of flashback and backstory, and can lead to some terribly crunchy changes of gear and tense. I suspect it looks easier to do well, and is actually harder.

Re: Writing in the present or past tense? Luisa at 19:27 on 01 December 2005

No disrespect at all intended, but I’m struggling to understand the point of view of people who dislike books written in the present tense, or who see its use as trendy, or liken reading it to being hit over the head.

I strongly disagree with the comment that it is not natural to tell a story in the present tense in English. It is perfectly natural. Have you ever told a joke? Or talked about what a bad day you’ve had? Sometimes you use present tense, sometimes past tense. In both cases, you’re telling a story. They are both natural in our language. Do I speak a different language from the rest of you? (Don’t answer that!)

We’re talking about writing fiction, not newspaper reports. There are very few strict conventions to be adhered to, as I see it. Writers tell stories how they see fit to tell them.

We have a straight choice. We write in the present tense, or we write in the past tense. It’s the same as deciding whether to use first person or third person. It’s an important decision, and has implications for the whole story, but I can’t see how choosing one tense over another would cause such extreme reactions in a reader.

Luisa

Preach it, Luisa! Molly Spooner’s take on it is similarly nuanced.

I think the author needs to be prepared to defend his or her decision, because if there aren’t good reasons for it, stylistically it’s the writing equivalent of ‘shopping all your photographs into sepia tone to make them look deep and artsy.

So what might be a good reason to write a novel in the present tense? Richard Lea of The Guardian has this to say:

It’s no accident that Christian Paul Casparis traces the recent upsurge in present-tense narration to the beginning of the 1960s – the moment that Harold Wilson proclaimed a new Britain forged in the white heat of technological revolution. As the pace of modern life accelerates, the present that we’re all living in seems much more immediate, much more fragmentary. In a world of Watergate and Wikileaks we’re much less prepared to accept a final version, an official story. The internet, mobile phones, Twitter: all gnaw away at our capacity to reflect; all push us to experience life as a series of unconnected moments. As we blog our lives away to the accompaniment of the 24-hour rolling news, can it be any coincidence that novelists are reaching for the present tense?

I’ve got nothing against present tense narration per se – I’m devouring The Radleys, I loved J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and I even quite enjoyed The Hunger Games. But as a novelist, you need a reason to do it and you need to be aware of some of the technical problems it throws up. Like how to convey time-lapse without a sensation of ‘grating gears’. How to maintain immediacy and pace without stressing the reader to the point of exhaustion. And most importantly of all, how to avoid sounding like you’ve just done a Creative Writing MA and are wanting to show off your shiny new toolkit.

What do you think? What novels have you read which use present tense narration particularly well? Is it a portal to vivid, immediate, thrilling experience of story at its rawest and purest? Or is it like being hit over the head with a teaspoon?

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Stephen Davies

Children's author: picture books, chapter books and YA novels

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