Charlie Laidlaw is an author and tutor at Creating Writers
Some books use the present tense, others the past tense. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
However, before putting pen to paper, it’s best to decide what tense to use because changing tense once you’re half way through your manuscript will be time-consuming to edit. It will also, no doubt, affect the structure of your book.
Writing in the present tense gives a sense of immediacy. Also, a sense of intimacy. But it’s not the tense that we’re instinctively used to.
Until recently, use of the present tense was rare – despite its use by Charles Dickens (Bleak House) or James Joyce (Ulysses). It seems now to be in literary fashion – maybe because we’ve become more sanitised to its use through the immediacy of TV and the cinema.
Modern examples of present tense novels are Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Consider this example from Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone:
“There is nothing rational about it nor even entirely sane and this is the great attraction. He’s been travelling half the night east and nobody has seen him – if you keep your eyes down, they can’t see you. Across the strung-out skies and through the eerie airports and now he sits in the back of the old Mercedes.”
This is writing that draws you into a journey that hasn’t yet been completed, and you want to share the journey and see how it ends.
Or take Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a Booker prize winner. She said later that she “was writing as I saw it. It was only a little later I became aware of what had happened and saw that I’d made two important decisions very quickly – tense and point of view. And they are inextricable.”
David Jauss says in On Writing Fiction:
“The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function and simply because such events would naturally happen in the naturalist sequence of time.”
In other words, think carefully! In my next blog, I’ll have a look at past tense.
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