‘A man walked up to me and said, “I’m a wigwam! I’m a teepee! I’m a wigwam! I’m a teepee!” I said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”‘
That’s a really bad joke.
I’m too tense today. On Monday I foolishly said I was going to write something about tense. On Wednesday I tried to put some ideas on paper and didn’t get much. Same for yesterday. Now I sit, with my self-imposed deadline come and gone, and no real ideas. Add to that the fact that the good part of autumn has come and gone in central New York, that we’re into the winter part of fall, and my mind is not overly-cooperative. But enough whining.
What got me going on this subject was reading Lori Roy’s novel, Bent Road
, which I picked up from my library over the weekend. The book opens as follows:
“Celia squeezes the steering wheel and squints into the darkness.”
Bent Roadis written in present tense, and it made me realize how unusual this is. We often find sections of novels written in present tense: dreams and flashbacks are often written in present as a way to convey immediacy, a feeling of this is happening NOW (question: why would you do this with a flashback?). But entire books written in present tense? In my experience, it’s fairly unusual, though obviously not unheard of. (Yes, I have read others, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head; and yes, feel free to suggest some in the comments). Past tense seems to be the default setting for fiction.
I enjoyed Bent Road, don’t get me wrong, yet I did find myself pulled out of the story from time-to-time by the present tense. My eyes saw present, but at times my brain tried to switch the word to past, which caused a bit of dissonance and disorientation in my head.
Present tense seems like a bit of a risk to take when writing a novel. It’s not something I’ve done, myself (I have done it in a couple of short pieces, though); I don’t know if I’d enjoy writing a novel in present. Funny, though, yesterday, while working on a rewrite of a scene in Barton’s Women, I found myself shifting into present tense. I’m not sure if my attempts to write it in present were the result of the influence of Roy’s novel, or if present tense was somehow more appropriate to the new action I was writing into the scene. It took a lot of work to get it into past.
I have found, though, that present tense often works very well when paired with another uncommon literary technique: second person point of view. A lot of people don’t like second person. For some, I imagine being addressed as if you are a character in a novel is a deal breaker. Like asking a rhetorical question of an agent in a query. Consider the opening line to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”
I guess there are a lot of people who might say, “You’re right, I’m not” and close the book.
I’m about done for the day. What do you think of present tense? Is it something you like to read or like to write? Do you make a conscious choice of tense when starting out, or does it just sort of happen? Thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend.