01 June 2007

Why I'm tense about tense

The other day Sir Talkalot asked me to look over an assignment he'd written. Now, it was a creative piece, and he considers himself a reasonably talented writer -- he is of course very modest, as all good children are! Anyway, his story wasn't bad, but the tense was all over the place. This is something I sometimes see in my students' writing, and it is usually when they are trying to write in present tense, because they like the immediacy of present, yet they somehow keep falling back into past, and they don't understand why. In fact, they don't even know they have done it until I point it out.

I explain that it's because so much fiction is written in past tense that it's our natural fallback position. Most of us can write in past without even thinking about it. But try to write in present, and those who are not as strong grammatically yoyo between tenses faster than you can "walk the dog" (old yoyo trick, for the uninitiated). And that's before we start thinking about the differences between present perfect and past perfect.

When I said this to Sir Talkalot, he looked at me a bit puzzled and said, "But I was trying to write in past tense."


This I hadn't expected. But it made me speculate about my whole concept of fallback positions -- not because I think I'm wrong. I don't. (Perhaps proving that I can be just as modest as my son!) But because my concept is based on the fact that in the past most fiction *has been* written in past tense. These days authors, and especially, I think, children's and YA authors are writing more and more in present tense. This means that our younger generations are being more and more exposed to present tense writing, and consequently to less and less past tense writing, though I would think past tense would still win out.

When I was at Clarion a few years ago, one of the tutors despaired at how much present-tense writing was around, and said how noticeable it was. And I said that surely it was only noticeable because there is so much past-tense writing around that present-tense still sticks out as something different. We are so used to past that it is an invisible tense in a way that present can only aspire towards. Present tense calls attention to itself. It feels edgier, and so many writers, for this reason, choose to use it. Frankly, I think that to use this as your sole justification for writing in this tense is as specious as to argue that we shouldn't write in it because there is too much of it around (when clearly it is visible because we're so used to past tense -- though maybe this ignores the question of whether there might be a reason that past was the favoured tense for so long).

But what does this drift towards present-tense in published material mean for writers? Will young writers with more exposure to present tense come through their reading with a better handle on tense or a worse? Will that lack of a fallback position strengthen or weaken them? Without doubt, the grammar geeks will be fine. But what about the others? It certainly bears thinking about.


Anonymous said...

So tracy, is it right/ wrong to write in past tense/present tense for fiction stories ?

Tracey said...

Hi, and thanks for your question. It's neither right or wrong to right in either tense, so long as you're consistent. I think most writers find it easier to stay in past tense, consistently, than they do in present tense, but those with a good grip on tense should have no problems with either.

Sometimes, I think the complaints that arise about use of present tense come because the edgier feel of present tense in a story has masked some underlying story problem -- there may not be enough conflict or characterisation or something, but the story has been published because of its immediacy, and then tense is picked on for being the problem when, in fact, the problem has nothing to do with tense. Does that make sense?

So, my advice is that if you do have a good grip on tense, you go with whatever "feels" right for a particular story, but you do have to consider, too, when the story is being told from. And what happens at the end -- if, for example, your point-of-view character dies, this is going to present a problem in past tense unless the story is being told from beyond the grave.

If you're a bit dodgy on tense, you're probably safest to stick with past.

Hope that helps!