Monday, February 12, 2007

Tense



I'm fooling around with tense in something I'm working on now. Typically, I write most of my stuff in past tense, as do most writers, but for some reason I started writing a scene in present tense and I rather liked the sound of it. I'm going to copy a paragraph from it below, and then rekey that as past tense so folks can see the difference. My question, what do you think? And do you think you could read a whole book in present tense?

The evening arrives on a chilling wind. And there is sleet that sends the people of Vylenaar scurrying from the streets as the sun fails. Shutters are locked, fireplaces lit. Families huddle together. Only in the Temple of Silver do men and women gather for a reason other than warmth.

The evening arrived on a chilling wind. And there was sleet that sent the people of Vylenaar scurrying from the streets as the sun failed. Shutters were locked, fireplaces lit. Families huddled together. Only in the Temple of Silver did men and women gather for a reason other than warmth.

13 comments:

Lucas Pederson said...

I like the present tense version much better. It has a sense of urgency about it, and it's easier to read. Yeah. I think I could read the entire book in the present tense. Definitly. That paragraph has got me hooked already. Very good.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I like the present tense here. It gives things more immediacy and speaks to the reader in a more intimate manner. However, I am not sure about it being used for an entire narrative.

Most of the time when I've seen it used, it's used as an introduction to a chapter, or a segue of some kind.

Steve said...

I'm with Stewart here. Present is popping up here and there again in fiction, mostly due to that sense of immediacy.

Most effective uses of it I've seen are in short passages: introductions, segues, brief visits into the mind of the killer, etc.

I've read a couple of novels that stayed present tense throughout, and for me the effect was cloying and annoying. Especially the action sequences, which kept reminding me of those 'choose your own adventure' books from my bygone youth.

On the other hand, those novels were published and bound and found their way from the shops to my hands, so someone must've thought it was nifty.

Sidney said...

I like your present tense portion best.

I think present tense started in "literary" narratives, but I may be wrong. I can remember a few mystery short stories from the '70s in present tense.

I think it provides some interesting opportunities for mood and--as Stewart and Steve note--urgency.

One novel that jumps to mind told all in present tense is "Lost Girls" by Andrew Pyper which I enjoyed. "Presumed Innocent" is also all present tense, I believe, and in its day was sort of a bridge between literary and thriller.

Erik Donald France said...

Present tense and "the sense of immediacy," true. You can try it both ways or mix it up with the right framing. I like both versions, but the present tense one is spookier b/c it drags the reader along without the comfort of sensing there'll be a resolution.

Sphinx Ink said...

I agree with the previous commenters: the present tense gives a sense of immediacy and even urgency to the text. I've seen it used mostly in literary novels in the past. I tend to dislike it in extended narratives--I could read a short story written in present tense, but would hesitate to embark on an entire novel so written.

I believe European writers use present tense in their genre fiction more than Americans have done. Of course, when I read European fiction, it's usually been translated from another language, so I'm only guessing--e.g., Smilla's Sense of Snow, originally in Danish, was translated into English. (A terrific book, by the way, and much better than the movie made from it.) I assume, however, that the translator is faithful to the author's original use of tense.

I personally still prefer past tense in novels, for the most part...but I'm not an editor or publisher. I'm also rather old-fashioned in my reading tastes. (Remember, we Sphinxes have lived long lives....)

Susan Miller said...

I pick present tense, also, and again because of the urgency.

H.E.Eigler said...

I tend to use present tense for short, flash fiction pieces. I don't think I'd enjoy reading a whole book written in the now but that's just me. Great paragraph though, it makes me want to continue on.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

hey, charles. i agree with just about everybody else, even my arch-enemy sternberg. present tense works well, and the passage you provided shows the immediacy, as lucas wrote. i think it is difficult to write in present tense for long periods without losing that sense of belief in the actions of the characters

Kate S said...

Same as everyone else: liked the present tense in this paragraph; not sure I'd want to read a whole book in it, though. But I'd like to see where this one is heading. :)

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'm seeing more and more present tense in short stories and it works quite well. I'm not so sure it will work as well in a longer art form.

the walking man said...

The present tense works better for me as well. But it seems as if everything I write is in present tense.

The challenge is making everthing that happens believable in the moment. for me I can go back and write of a memory of the character but that memory always reverts to the present.

Danny Tagalog said...

Yes: me too - the present tense has an eery edge to it.