Authors sometimes play with the parts of a novel, like wooden blocks that can be rearranged. What will happen if the middle of the story is inserted at the beginning, or time moves forward and then backwards? What if exterior stimuli and interior thoughts occur meshed together as they do in real life? When reading Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf I adjusted to the stream of conscious style and noted the movement between the flood of thoughts in present tense, and the character’s actions shown in past tense.
But, one element seemed to remain consistent—the tense used to tell the story—the standard past tense narrative. Through years of reading, I did encounter some variations. One was the Babar series by Jean de Brunhoff. His use of present tense was not a difference that I noted as a child, but one that I stumbled over as an adult while reading The Story of Babar to my own children.
The present tense story-telling that appeared in children’s books has expanded into fiction for older adults. During this time, I noted that editors have tried to reduce, if not eliminate, some more complex past tenses such as past continuous (I was writing), past perfect (I had written), and past perfect continuous (I had been writing). One reason for this trend—it is easier for readers. Editors are set on reducing words and push the writing down to a sixth grade level. However, stories lose some of their texture when the past progressive and continuous verbs are excluded. These often set the stage for the character before another event happens.
“He was watching the riots in the street below the hotel when the door slammed behind him.”
This complex sentence uses both progressive past and a dependent clause. But, there is nothing wrong with it. The compound tense provides a sense of the setting within time.
Another reason some people insist on deleting the “was watching” form of the verb is because it sounds like a passive verb. It is not. This is: “The riots in the streets were being watched.” Do not trust anyone that advises authors to avoid any form of ‘’to be” used with another verb under the assumption that it is always a passive tense.
However back to my first point, using present tense for the narrative still seemed peculiar. I heard warnings from writing gurus. Novels written in the present tense would not sound like a story but an instructions manual. Present tense in fiction would distance the reader from the characters. After I began reading All the Light We Cannot See, with a narrative written entirely in present tense, I realized this did not take away the immediacy from the story in this historical novel by Anthony Doerr. I was no longer listening to someone recount the past but in the current moment.
Writing in the present tense requires a different expertise. While continuing to work on a book written in the past tense, I decided to play with the present tense. I rewrote three chapters to see how they would feel. This change in tense improved the flow of events as it forced me to write in a linear manner, including each action as it occurred. This prevented me from jumping back and forth to explain events as I constructed scenes.
In the end, I went back and rewrote these chapters in the past tense, so they would fit in with the style of the rest of the novel. However, I left the improved flow of events. Since my experiment writing in present tense I have become less tolerant of the rambling style which hops back and forth between past explanations and currently occurring events. Present tense works for writing novels but requires a greater skill to use this technique well.
It’s unfortunate, but it feels as though our capacity to both read, write, and at the same time be challenged is waning. I love being challenged by a writer. One example I use often is books by John Connelly. He’s not afraid to throw words and concepts at the reader and yet the same time maintains the story flow and movement. I learn much from him. Great post.