When the literary historians of the year 3000 write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature. Whereas present-tense narration was once rare, it is now so common as to be commonplace. In 1987, Robie Macauley and George Lanning dubbed it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction,” and since then, it’s appeared with even greater frequency. Although there are signs that its use is diminishing among established writers, it’s becoming the default choice for many younger writers.
—By David Jauss
Recently, I asked one of my talented undergraduate students why she wrote all of her stories in the present tense. “Isn’t that the way fiction’s supposed to be written now?” she said, then added, “The past tense makes a story seem kind of ‘19th-century,’ don’t you think?” Why, I wondered, did a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction suddenly lose favor? What made the past tense passé? And why was the present tense now omnipresent?
The best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense. Many of us, however, do not. Present tense has become something of a fad, and we often use it even when past tense would serve the story better. Whatever the causes for the prevalence of the present tense in today’s fiction, it is important that we understand its advantages and disadvantages so we can better decide when to employ it.
ADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense. Past-tense narration is of course “immediate” in a way, since the events of the characters’ past are happening in the reader’s present. But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story’s climax can be both more immediate and intense.
2. Present tense can contribute to the characterization of a work’s protagonist. As Joyce Cary said, he chose the present tense for his novel Mister Johnson because its title character lives in the present and he wanted his readers to be “carried unreflecting on the stream of events,” just as Mister Johnson is. “As Johnson swims gaily on the surface of life, so I wanted the reader to swim, as all of us swim, with more or less courage and skill, for our lives,” Cary said. Many of the most successful present-tense novels and stories deal with characters who, like Johnson, are “boxed in the present.”
3. The present tense can reflect not only a character’s nature but a work’s theme. One major theme of Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love is “the presentness of the past,” and therefore the use of the present tense when narrating past events makes excellent sense. Whereas the character Charlie Baxter fears the erasure of the past, his friend Bradley feels the present is, at times, less present than the past and therefore more subject to erasure. “The past soaks into you,” he says, “because the present is missing almost entirely.”
In Bradley’s view, the past is eternally present in memory. As he says, “That day was here and then it was gone, but I remember it, so it exists here somewhere, and somewhere all those events are still happening and still going on forever.” Bradley does more than merely state his view that past events continue to happen in the present; he demonstrates it. At one point, after two young lovers, Chloé and Oscar, have been housesitting for him, he hears the sounds of their lovemaking coming from the basement. He goes to investigate the source of the sounds, and once there, he says, “I felt the two of them passing by me, felt the memory of their having been physically present there. …” And then the narrative, appropriately, shifts to present tense: “I follow them up the stairs. I watch them go into the kitchen and observe them making a dinner of hamburgers and potato chips. They recover their senses by talking and listening to the radio. I watch them feed each other. This is love in the present tense. …”
4. Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships, of course, but there’s something to be said for this kind of simplicity. For example, when we’re writing in present tense, we can simply shift into the simple past when a flashback starts and then return to the present when it’s finished.
DISADVANTAGES OF PRESENT TENSE
1. Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration both work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back from an indeterminate present at many past times, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense, when the narrator is speaking from and about a specific present.
2. It is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense. While it is certainly possible to create complex characters in present-tense fiction, it’s more difficult to do so without natural access to the basic techniques that allow us to manipulate order and duration. These techniques allow us to convey our character’s subjective experience of time and thereby achieve more psychological depth and realism. They also help us complicate a character by placing her in a larger temporal context. The more we know about a character’s past, for example, the more we can understand her present. Without the kind of context flashbacks provide, our characters tend to become relatively simple, even generic.
3. The present tense can diminish suspense. Because present-tense narrators do not know what is going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events. The narrator of Doctor Faustus provides a good example of this kind of suspense: “The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell. …” Carolyn Chute, author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, laments that we have to sacrifice this particular kind of suspense when we use present tense. What we gain in immediacy, she says, we lose in tension. Present-tense fiction can create another kind of suspense, of course—the kind we feel when no one knows the outcome—but not this kind.
4. The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time. As a result, a present-tense story sometimes seems, in the words of Macauley and Lanning, “less the work of an author than an unedited film.” Take, for example, Kate McCorkle’s slice-of-life story “The Last Parakeet,” in which for no apparent reason we watch the “Today” show with the narrator while she eats a bowl of Rice Krispies. The principle of selection can be applied more readily, and ruthlessly, in past tense.