Rules for writing seem counter-intuitive, if you really think about them. The best writing seeks to live within these rules, for the sake of others actually engaging with the text, and yet prose of the highest level should feel like it is escaping its own constraints. High school teachers are perpetually employed under the dictum of understanding that The Great Gatsby is a perfect novel. While others may ask, “Perfect how?”, their job is to accept its perfection and defend it, so that thousands of students are willed into the same literary future as their fathers and so on.
Far from being a knock on F. Scott, the public school system, or modernism, their necessary defense of Gatsby is important. Teaching children that there aren’t rules to writing encourages slam poetry, mawkish accounts of artificial feelings, and the anti-authoritarian belief that you can’t tell them when they’re being static, man. It fosters disrespect for the idea of writing – you know, the whole dumb monkeys-and-Shakespeare argument. This is a long-winded way of saying I’ve abandoned my novel because I could no longer fight against one rule in particular, and I hope, after reading this, you will be in agreement with at least one rule.
Those last two paragraphs happened in the present tense and, unless I’ve changed my mind during the line break, they continue to be true. Because novels exist in a complicated realm, there are circumstances where the present tense is deployable; but I wish I had a time machine to tell myself that mine was not the case 40,000 words ago. I would discourage others from using the present tense in their novels, with the exception of the geniuses who know how to use it (and coincidentally don’t read this website anyway), for these reasons:
1. You are under oath with every sentence you use in the present tense.
When John says something, he does not say something. He inhabits that something. “I love oatmeal,” John says. Harmless, really. He could or could not love oatmeal for the rest of his days and no one would be affected. But rarely are books written about breakfast preference. When John says, “she makes me sick”, he must be repulsed by the woman in question for the foreseeable future. If he said, “she makes me sick”, there is the possibility for change, for romance, for growth between the characters. Even more, there could be great, tragic reasoning for why he said that. Maybe he was drunk, maybe he contained his emotions for too long until they all burst out. Not so with says. Assuming an honest narrator, if we were to go back into John’s life to discover why he will always be sickened by ‘her’, what would be the point? We are going to arrive at the truth anyway — and all too soon — because of something as simple as tense.
Harry, for instance, can’t hate Voldemort as much as he does until he learns the extent of the damage Voldemort brought upon his family, his family’s friends, and the wizarding community.
Harry hates Voldemort.
Will those degrees of hatred strengthen or weaken as the book progresses? Because, in that case, it really isn’t the same hate at all, and the implication of one ongoing hate becomes disingenuous.
2. You are committing to a bullet train
Look, man, writing is hard enough without promising big things right off the bat. And, unconsciously, I believe that’s what the present tense does. Put a line break, two line breaks… hell, put three blank pages between text in the present tense and it won’t matter. Like cursive, the present tense has to flow into itself. Gone are the luxuries of awkwardness in the room, the sharp pangs of a bad decision, or any sort of breather for your reader. You can create all of the above in the present tense, but it probably won’t feel like you want it to come across, like it would in real life. An important moment, whether it is ten pages or one hundred, will have the feeling of being rushed even when everything is explained in detail. If I tell you a story in the present tense, your mind naturally begins to look ahead, as the story is not calcified as something that happened but rather something that bears significance with me, right up to the very hour. Thus, the story has a harder time standing on its own; it needs une raison d’être. Don’t be offended, but not every fucking sentence in your book has its own raison d’être.
A story in the past tense, however, operates from an end point, and it is up to me to decide what to make of it with that in mind. And why not take my time with the dissection? I have plenty, now that the story’s not going anywhere. I know, technically, when a book ends in the present tense, you have time to think about it; but that’s not really the experience I get while reading it, so, logically, why should it be my experience after its conclusion?
3.You’re probably underscoring a lot
It’s rare for me to be sentimental about the past, but damnit if I’m not one to tear up from a telegraph.
I have taken the kids. Stop. We’ve reached the end. Stop. It’s best for them. Stop.
You’ll notice that the telegraph is in the present perfect, but its delivery feels distinctly un-present. Now, if someone wants to write a book in the present tense with ‘Stop’ placed between every sentence, I’m sure some art blog will comment on it, but I sure as hell won’t read it. Fortunately, we can achieve the same romantic effect by using the past tense in fiction.
The thing about une raison d’être is that you’re usually never sure when you’ve reached it. It’s the literary equivalent to asking God why we’re here on Earth. Am I supposed to care about this sentence? Or is the sentence that led into it the real clincher? Perhaps I should check my emotional investment until the next sentence. When you lose the standalone quality of syntax, you throw a wrench in the whole system of words. I, as the reader, need to know when people are undergoing change, where we are in the story, and what effect the given situation will have on future situations. When he says, she does, they think… Goddamnit. Is anything even important? Is there a singular action that hasn’t been predetermined? You can’t be deceived so long as you still think something. You can’t be hurt so long as you still trust someone. “I thought I could trust you” is practically the crux of storytelling because it means they made an incorrect assumption about an individual based on intimate relations. I hated the Twilight series because everyone tried so damn hard to be flawless, and the present tense is essentially the same when misused: it grammatically disallows the capacity for error.
4. It confines the characters to a certain type
But Chris, you are surely saying, there have been many great books written in the present tense. Books with tumult and searing agony and profound revelation. Again, I agree, and these are masters of balancing effect, tempo, and continuity. But here’s where the large majority of present tense novels wind up (like, sadly, The Hunger Games, for example): Katniss, from the get-go, is fully aware of her feelings and how she is being shaped by the circumstances around her. She is the bold heroine who knows how to maneuver past death precisely because of her acute awareness of the significance of others’ thoughts and actions. Her reactions are immediate – they have to be, because of present tense – and her retrospection (the bread and butter of literature) is limited to what she has experienced thus far.
“That’s life,” you say. “That’s why I’m reading, instead,” I say.
And bear in mind, The Hunger Games’ author, Suzanne Collins, is bound to the same rules as Katniss with regard to the present tense, so the first-person perspective isn’t the limitation here (although that’s another essay entirely). Literature requires more than just the Han Solo/Katniss Everdeen type who’s always got a cool head in dangerous situations, is articulate enough to be a raconteur, and does not have a personality that impedes the narrative. I’ll posit this: if The Hunger Games were told in the past tense, meaning Katniss had to start the story by recounting all the bloodshed, there would be some serious fucking PTSD. All in all, the present tense was good for the economy, since life according to the Travis Bickles of the world has never shattered any box office records.
5. It’s usually dishonest
How do you circumvent the need for a character like Katniss to tell a present-tense story? You can be upfront with the reader about an unreliable narrator (the Humbert Humbert type); you can watch the reader cackle with delight as a dumb narrator tells the story truthfully, but fails to understand the reality (the Catherine Moreland type); or the writer can straight-up ignore plausibility (the New York Times-bestseller type). There’s a scene in Street Fighter where Chris Klein is talking to some FBI people in a trailer and, despite absolutely any cause for alarm, yells “BOMB!” and evacuates before the thing is blown sky-high. This scene is immortal among my friends, and it’s just as laughable when it happens in literature. When there’s a story about a precocious child (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) or a plot that unfolds so predicably that you can see the dotted “cut here” line running across the chapter (everything by James Patterson), I think “BOMB!” When a writer stops caring about whether or not a character has the knowledge and wherewithal to actually think/know/do something as the moment is happening, I think “BOMB!”
There is a list of moments when I love the use of the present tense, but I’m a greedy bastard and I want another page for ad clicks. (Not really. I just haven’t written it yet.) Until then, here’s hoping page one of my book, now in the past tense, is better after having realized all this.