Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tense and the Reader

I'm blogging a little early this week since I'm about to go on a business trip and will have limited (i.e. no) opportunity to do so, much to my dismay. I haven't quite wrapped my head around the concept that I am not allowed to use my "work" laptop for any other activities. Since I object to carrying two laptops on the airplane… Well, you get the point.

This week I'm addressing something I ran into last night. It really bothered me. Tenses.

I'm hardly an expert in grammar—heck, I often forget how to spell the word 'grammar'—and I'm sitting here with a grammar book in front of me to make sure my rant is correct. Pathetic, true, but it does not negate this issue. And that issue is: use of simple present tense—or worse—present progressive. Or present perfect progressive.

Ah, you will say—you're writing that way yourself—right now. I know. But this isn't a piece of fiction and I'm not expecting you to get into the head of the main character—i.e. me. In fact, I recommend you stay out of my head, completely.

Now, I'm probably an old fuddy-duddy, so I admit that up front. Nonetheless, I've read a lot of experimental fiction, Science Fiction, and other just plain weird stuff and I've never run into any issue where the writing actually made my head hurt. I've read books I had to reread a few times to understand all the implications, but the writing was fine. It was invisible so that you could concentrate on the story and the concepts and not the author's use of verbs and tenses.

But just when you think it's safe to go in the water, you pick up a romance and/or a mystery and some author takes a hammer to your head.

About two years ago, I picked up this really, truly famous author's most recent book. I had never read her work before, but I'd listen to her speechify about writing and there were a series of movies based upon her books (mostly geared for young ladies). I thought, this ought to be a lot of fun. And wham, I read the first page and got a headache.

There was a bit of dialog followed by this sentence: The girl in the dressing room next to mine has a voice like a chipmunk.

I thought, well, okay, maybe it was just me—the reader. So I continued. There were a few more bits of dialog, and: I hear a sales clerk come over, his key chain clinking musically.

And I freaked out. My head started throbbing. I was like: What the heck tense is this and why is this author doing this to me? STOP IT—THE AGONY IS KILLING ME! However, grimly determined (because this was SUCH a popular author and I wanted to learn) I managed to suck up the pain and finish the book. But I only finished it because it was about 80% dialog and I just skipped all the action/narrative stuff. And I swore never to read another of her books. I've been true to my word.

That author, my friends, used present tense and it was horrible torture for the reader. It really put me off. I kept thinking—I am not there—I am not in the room with this bimbo narrator and I'm not seeing this. Who the heck is she talking to and when is this actually occurring. The writing got in the way of the story.

Writing should be invisible. You should get so absorbed by the story that you don't even notice the writer. In fact, Jenny Crusie has a rule that you shouldn't even use anything other than "said" for dialog tags because anything else makes the reader pause infinitesimally. (That may be going too far into the "make your writing invisible" but it does illuminate that dark corner a bit.) But here was this author that made me pause for every single verb.

Anyway. Maybe, I thought, this one book is just a fluke or weird thing this popular author is doing and no one else on the planet is writing this way. Because if they are, God Help Me, my reading days are numbered.

About two years passed. I went on about my business, reading and writing quite happily. Then I stumbled upon this wonderful mystery series on BBC America and I searched all over for the author of the books the series was based on. I found one book, and although it was not related to the series, it was so exquisitely written that I rushed out again and bought two other books from this author.

Last night I plucked one of the two books from my shelf and curled up in bed, planning on enjoying myself. And I read: London. A stifling early September afternoon, the sun beating down.

A little unsettling, to be sure, but I went with it. Then I got to the following sentence: Overnight bag and briefcase in one hand, handbag over her shoulder, Fran plunges down into the arguably worse hell…

Suddenly, for me, the reader, I start having issues with temporal displacement. I not only can't get into this, but I'm faced with: Who the Hell is she talking to and when is this taking place? Because it sure isn't now. But she says it is NOW. ARGH!

I really struggled through the first page, almost crying. My head throbbed. It only got worse. Because not only is the author using present tense, but the character suffers from flashbacks or memories (whatever you want to call them) where she explains who she works for and her circumstances. And it's all in the present tense which makes it really like some drug-induced hallucination where you can't keep straight what is happening for real, right now in present tense, and what isn't really happening but she's just thinking. Or really—isn't really thinking but it's the author in a God-like way explaining the heroine's job—but she's using present tense as if she's Fran, but not really, because why would Fran be thinking all this background sort of stuff?

I don't even know how to explain how confusing it was. Or how it really made me feel quite ill trying to read it and understand WHEN anything was happening. And to make matters worse, she didn't just have this character walking through the here-and-now in present tense, and sort of not remembering but thinking somehow in present tense about her job, employer and family, but…she also introduces actual memories. And the memories start out with a few sentences of past tense and then drift around between past, present and perhaps even a few progressive forms of past and present tense. Leaving you completely unable to get into the story because you're so busy trying to figure out what is going on, to whom and more importantly, when.

And as you can see from my own casual use of tense, I'm not perfect. But hey… This is a blog. Not a book.

So—here is what I, as a reader, did out of self-defense. I started to skim so that where the author had a phrase such as: Fran makes a run for it, I mentally substituted: Fran made a run for it. It was hard work. However, I got to the end of the first chapter.

Then the author switched point of view to another character and adopted the standard past tense we all know and love. THANK GOD. But by that time, I was shaken and mentally disturbed. Could I trust the author to now STAY in past tense or tenses like: past, past progressive or past perfect/past perfect progressive? Those, I can handle. I can even handle a few future tenses (future, future progressive, future perfect, future perfect progressive—whatever).

Now, this evening, I'm looking at this book and I'm thinking: why was the first chapter written that way? (And why did I just write that in present progressive—the very thing I hate? Ah, human frailty…)

However, back to my question. There was no—absolutely no—reason for it, particularly since in chapter two, the author adopted the more common and easy-to-read past tense. I read the blurb on the back of the book again and it says that first character is the book's heroine. And now I'm scared. I'm really scared that the author only moved to the comforting past tense for other characters and when she moves back to the heroine's point of view, she'll use that brain twisting present tense (and all it's ugly related brethren: present perfect, present progressive, & present perfect progressive).

I've lost my trust and faith in this author and she has scared me enough that I'm thinking I may not read any more for fear of running into another chapter of temporal displacement. And I'm sadly looking at her other book I purchased and haven't read yet. I'm having buyer's remorse. And yet there was that one, magical book she wrote which was so perfect. It's hard to believe she fumbled so badly on this other one.

Or maybe it's just me. Maybe this is the new "thing" and I'm just not getting it.

Finally, before I get back to my packing, I have only this to say: If you're an author, I'm begging you to avoid present tense (& its related forms) for the sake of your reader. Unless you have a really, really good reason—and frankly—I can't think of one.

Oh—that wasn't my final word. For those of you who are grammatically impaired (like me) here is a quick reference:


Present - He walks to the store

Present Perfect – He has walked to the store

Present Progressive – He is walking to the store

Present Perfect Progressive – He has been walking to the store


Past - He walked to the store

Past Perfect – He had walked to the store

Past Progressive – He was walking to the store

Past Perfect Progressive – He had been walking to the store


Future - He will walk to the store

Future Perfect – He will have walked to the store

Future Progressive – He will be walking to the store

Future Perfect Progressive – He will have been walking to the store

Have a good evening!


Sonja Foust said...

Hee, I've read the book you refer to above (the first one) and I didn't even notice the tense, that I recall. So I guess that means it wasn't jarring at all for me.

It may be a difference in what I read as a kid. I read a lot of Choose Your Own Adventure which is present tense. ("You find that you have come to the end of a tunnel. Do you: A) call for help, B) tap the wall, C) turn around")

I also did some role-play chats in my teen years, which is present tense. ("She enters the room, auburn hair billowing behind her like a cape." Heh. Seriously.)

So, yeah, not jarring for me.

C.T. Thieme said...

Excellent blog, and most helpful in clarifying a question I had concerning a short story I am working on. Thank you!

Interesting. The storyteller vs. the role player. Excellent point, and there is value in both perspectives. I personally skipped that genre. Instead I read Gary Gygax books for the mythological content and never found the incentive to pick a character and role the dice. It may not be jarring for those used to putting on the mask and playing first-person. For those of us raised on campfire tales, the wonder of the story is not in making the present take a facade, but in raising the dead of the past to walk again.

Anonymous said...

What are the rules on present tense regarding the thoughts of a character in third person? How far can I get away with first person thoughts? I have a good reason for wanting to use extended first person thoughts occasionally by a single character who is not the main character.

Amy said...

The good news is that there are absolutely no rules. You can do whatever is necessary--as long as it makes sense.

Extended first person can be fine for thoughts if the scene requires it, but the thing can seem like endless "gazing at his belly button" so doing extended thoughts tends to drag things down. That's bad. You end up with the dreaded "telling and not showing".

So frankly, you need to think about how much belly-button gazing your character really needs to do and how it is going to affect the pacing. That is probably more important than whether you're using first person for that purpose, or not.

And regarding present tense, again, you can do it if you are doing it well. But be careful of temporal displacement problems and awkwardness. Present tense is good for dialog. It's absolutely TERRIBLE for description and/or action.

Can you imagine a character using present tense while on a trip to the ocean? It is awkward, unnecessary and horrendous to read. While it sounds vaguely poetic at first, after a few paragraphs, it just sounds stilted and awkward. E.g.

I see the ocean. The waves rush to shore. I dip my toe into the water. The water is cold. Goosebumps spread over my skin.
Sounds vaguely moronic, too.
Okay, so I'm not a big fan of present tense. I love it in conversation and blogs. Love it for informal writing. Love it for poems. Can stand it in a short story. Loathe it in a long novel unless there is 99% dialog and almost no description.

But that's just me.

Unknown said...

You realize that this problem is entirely yours and has nothing to do with the writing, yes? Lots of wonderful books have been written in present tense. It is a legitimate artistic medium. If you can't handle it, that's fine--don't read it. But don't blame the tense.

Amy said...

I realize it is partly me--but it's mostly the writer. Very few, if any, writers can write so well in present tense that it doesn't distort time and cause the reader to perform mental gyrations.

Particularly in descriptive passages.

It's true that one or two writers have mastered it well enough to make it as invisible to the reader as past tense. But that's only one or two out of literally thousands. And even with those two writers, the descriptions bogged down and caused a few issues. It's just that they included so few descriptions that it wasn't very noticeable. (There are also issues with action passages, but there were very few (in one case, none) of those passages, so it read more smoothly.)

So yes, you could *say* it's my problem, but the reality is, most writers aren't good enough to pull it off. And if those same writers had written in past tense, they *could* have pulled it off.

It ain't just me.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I just mostly chalk it up to style, especially if it's fiction. That's not to say that writers should be lazy about their tense usage, but following strict grammar in fiction can lead to really clunky, essayistic kind of writing. That's like writing a whole novel without a single fragment. Fragments have their place and they can work beautifully. You're right that if a story is tripping you up because of its grammar, then the writer has failed. But there are times when it's necessary. Example: I read a lot of novels where the default is simple past tense (this is the default tense for most storytelling), and usually in a flashback, the tense doesn't change, but remains simple past. Now and then the writer will clue you in that it's happening in the past, but to continually use "had" before every verb would be tedious. It would probably be correct usage, but who'd want to read a lengthy flashback scene in awkward past perfect? Can you imagine the dialogue? "He had said" and "she had said" over and over? Yikes!

Amy said...

What you said!
Yes--you are absolutely correct. Good observations.

Anonymous said...

Read Christine Brooke-Rose' theory of literary criticism as well as her fiction. Present tenses have a place - the problem is not the form, but the content.