present complicated

Let’s skim over the fact that I haven’t posted anything here for yonks, and talk about present tense instead. I am so over my love affair with the present simple. I really wish everyone else would get over theirs, too.

I know why people like writing in present simple so much – it’s because it automatically gives you a ‘voice’, a style. Used in conjunction with short sentences and a few too many conjunctions, it creates the impression that you are actually writing. She looks up. The bird circles, its wings outstretched like grey sails. It soars and dips and lifts upwards and she thinks she can see her own reflection in its shining eyes and beak. Then it poos on her head. (Sorry. I am a child.)

The trouble with this is that it isn’t really writing. It’s a cheat. Sounds poetic and deep and meaningful, but in exactly the same way that everyone else’s present-tense prose sounds poetic and deep and meaningful. It’s a formula. And behind the formulaic prose is hidden, I sometimes suspect, an ignorance of how to write any other way.

It is surprisingly easy to write a short story in the present tense, but I am not sure it is often justified. I’ve written plenty of things that read more or less like the example above, and so has almost every other writer I know. Why? Because it’s so easy! Your writing seems all beautiful and metaphorical, and you never have to sit there and work out why you’re doing it. Why does this need to be told in the present tense? Why am I not using any of the other 11 tenses in the English language? (Or is it two tenses with various voices, moods, and aspects? No need to answer that, grammar police, as I don’t actually care.) And, an especially interesting question: why doesn’t it bother me that my prose reads almost identically to every other writer’s present-tense prose?

People claim that the present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but in fact it does exactly the opposite. It creates an atmosphere of distance, timelessness, fairytale-ness and ungrounded-ness (which are all completely real words, thank you very much.) In everyday life, we use the present simple to talk about things that are usually or always true, facts, things that stay the same for a long time. We might use it to accent a story, or even to tell a whole one, if we are particularly dull speakers, but more often we use it to give instructions, lectures, describe the workings of the internal combustion engine. If you want immediacy in your writing, the present simple will not do. It will bog you down and keep pulling you back to its same voice and everything you write will sound the same as everything else you write and everything else that other people write. It will inevitably fall upon the spectrum of mild to gross pretentiousness. And you will never learn how to control your storytelling using all the tools that are available in the language.

Of course there are stories which demand distance, timelessness etc. But not every story does. A writer has to make choices about tense, not just default to present simple without considering the needs of the story.

Yes, there are a few writers who can make any prose brilliant, and there are several stories written in present simple which I love unreservedly. So there’s no need to accuse me of being some kind of tense-fascist, even though I might be one. Of course there is a place for the present simple in all kinds of prose and poetry. In general, however, I am far more impressed with writers who deploy the full range of tenses, who can use four or five tenses in a paragraph, and who do it so skilfully that you don’t even notice, or you do notice and it makes you swoon. That is hard to do. That takes craft and application and a huge amount of failure. That is a level of mastery to which I aspire.

Feel free to tell me how much you disagree with me in the comments.

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7 Responses to “present complicated”

  1. Hannah says:

    11 tenses???? I had no idea.

  2. george says:

    Some say there are 12 tenses, but others would argue that there are only two (past and present) plus various moods and voices.

  3. Ilan Lerman says:

    I understand what you’re saying, George. I think we all have a love affair with present simple when we first hear how it makes our writing sound, and as a result I see a lot of people using it as a default mode. I hope I’ve reached a point where I use whatever tense suits the story best, and if that is present simple then I make a more striking use of it. I’d be curious to hear a recommendation of a writer who uses four or five tenses in a sentence, because I’m not sure I can picture what you;re saying.

    There are some places I’ve seen as many as 17 tenses mentioned as existing!

  4. george says:

    Four or five tenses in a paragraph! Not in a sentence. I mean, you can use two tenses in a sentence easily, but four or five would be insanely complicated. Or maybe someone will prove me wrong!

    Yes, it’s the unthinking default mode that bothers me. Choose the best tense for the story – I like your comment that if it happens to be present tense, you make it more striking, make good use of it.

  5. george says:

    Oh and on how many tenses there are – my personal opinion is that it’s hard to put a definite number on it. What do we categorise as a tense in its own right? It’s useful for language students – I think – to be able to study tenses in this way, but the rules are actually pretty arbitrary. But again, maybe someone would like to prove me wrong :)

  6. Ilan Lerman says:

    I feel it should be a mission to write a sentence with at least four tenses in it.

    There was one thing you said I didn’t completely agree with. That it’s easy to write a story in present tense. I understand why you’re saying that, but I think many beginning writers have no grasp of poetic rhythm or how to use potent but restrained imagery. It can come off as an incoherent mess, striving to be profound in its use of sentence fragments, but in the end being unreadable.

    Actually, I think it’s quite difficult to write in present tense. You have a quite natural, unforced poetic voice to your writing, George, whether you agree with that assessment or not, and I think that you probably find it easy to fall into that mode and would like to challenge yourself a bit more.

  7. george says:

    Maybe I am being too scathing about the present tense. It’s just that it’s everywhere! When it’s done well, it can be really beautiful, but too often it is the wrong choice for the story, and it contains the writing in a particular way that I am beginning to dislike.

    You’re right to intuit that this post is directed mainly at myself, though! I really would like to have more control over this aspect of my writing. There’s a lot you can do to manipulate the flow of a story if you can get the tenses right. Something I read recently by A L Kennedy did this really well. Will lend it to you if I ever see you again! ;)