Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Too Tense!

‘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.

9 Responses

  1. I read a lot of YA, and right now present tense is THE BIG THING. I like it okay, and I've written in it. But I think past is still what I like best. It's easier to tell the story that way, and I don't feel like I have to be rushed on the page.

  2. Yes, present tense is big in YA. Personally, I hate it though one of my favorite authors, Greg Iles, sometimes writes in present tense. The only book I've ever read in second person is Stolen which was great. But for the most part, I don't like either. Present tense is used to be more in the moment but all it succeeds in doing is distracting me. When present tense is combined with a whiny, snarky YA voice, it's like nails in a chalkboard.

  3. I think it's all in the execution. It has to be really well done if you use the present tense through the whole book. I too have had that experience when I have read present tense novels–being pulled from the reading experience by it. I tried that in my first, first novel. The one "under my bed" and anyone who ever looked at it said FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON'T DO THAT! hah hah hah. I think it's a bit of a risk but when it's done right, the reader doesn't even notice.

  4. Yeah, I seem to have forgotten about YA in all this. I haven't read much YA in quite some time, though I've read enough 'first 250s' in blog contests that I should have remembered. First person, present tense seems to be the way to go in YA. I do agree with all of you, if it's done well, it works. And Roy did it well in Bent Road, by and large. It did throw me once in a while, though. Third person, present tense seems an unusual combination.

  5. I find that I write longer fiction best in past tense, so I would say that yes it is my default. However, reading present tense hasn't caused a significant distraction for me. Most memorable on my list of books was Morris Gleitzman's 'Boy Overboard' which I thoroughly enjoyed in Yr 7. As for second person, it's not something I've tried, and it's not something that I've seen used that I can recall, but I find the concept of it engaging, placing a person into the action of the book in the most inclusive way possible and I guess you could say, breaking down "the fourth wall" if you'll pardon the theatrical term. I like experimental literary techniques in action, or at the very least analyzing them and seeing how they do and don't work in comparison to the norm. Sorry, I'll shut up now 🙂

  6. Ramble on! Actually, that's not a ramble, thanks for the comment. I'm going to have to try reading Bright Lights, Big City, or some other full-length second person work just to see if it gets to the point of really annoying me over the long haul. And look for other present tense narratives as well.

  7. I wrote 40,000 of Baptism for the Dead's 62,000 words in present tense. Most of the time when I sat down to write, present tense wanted to come out of me, sometimes past. Writing during the two years I worked on Baptism was rare enough that I didn't want to risk fighting it. I just went with it. When I finished the book, I decided on past tense and rewrote the whole thing to make the tenses agree. Three short scenes remain in present tense for dramatic effect.

    Personally, I really love present tense. I always have. It's never seemed strange to me as a reader, and as a writer it comes very naturally to me.

    You ought to read The Crimson Petal and the White some time. It's second-person present tense, for more than 900 pages.

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