Friday, September 28, 2012

Why So Tense?

The fierce fight over the present tense
Taken From Salon
I've been struggling in my manuscript over whether to write in present or past tense.  I'm a flip flopper.  I started writing certain parts of the story in past tense and then re-wrote the whole thing in present tense and now I am thinking about going back to past tense.  This may seem like a ridiculous back and forth with no meaning, but it actually changes EVERYTHING about my book and I can't make up my mind!

So, I decided to research what it actually means, in a literary sense, to write in present or past tense.  What the technique of present tense implies and vice versa with the past tense.  I am hoping that, as with everything in my life, writing it out and analyzing my choice will help me come up with a final decision.

According to The Editor's Blog one of the first things a writer should do is "decide the when of the story."  I think I'm getting hung up at this basic and fundamental step.  I can't decide the "when" of my story.  My story covers several years...over a decade and a half, really, and part of me feels that it lends itself naturally to the use of past tense because of that aspect only. 

But another part of me feels as though using the "simple past" tense is too easy and, for a story about young people, removes the immediacy of the action, emotion, and conflict between the characters.  Or rather, using the present tense intensifies the immediacy.  But, is that really true?

This is a highly contested debate within the literary world.  Philip Hensher believes the use of present tense has become cliche'.  In an opinion piece for the Telegraph, he wrote, "Where has it come from? In some cases, such as Helen Dunmore, from lyric poetry – English poetry has always been written in the present tense (“A drowsy numbness pains/ My sense…”). In others, perhaps from reading too many celebrity interviews. (“John Travolta opens the door of his Malibu home himself. He is really quite short.”) Probably the most prevalent influence is that of the film treatment, which is always written thus. Some novelists, evidently, like to meet Hollywood halfway."

Maybe that's why so many young adult novels are written in the present tense.  Because young people are a part of this highly fashionable "now now now" world of instant gratification and the present tense is a metaphor for their lives.  I agree, I do not believe I have read any recent YA fiction that is not in first person present tense.  The best example is obviously The Hunger Games.  In The HGs, the use of present tense is used to underscore the "reality tv" aspect of the plot/theme.  The use of present tense is a necessary literary device that furthers the theme of the entire story.  So it totally makes sense for Suzanne Collins to have used present tense in writing The HGs, but does that mean I need to use it too?

I appreciate the way Deirdre Baker at the Horn Book examined the debate.  She writes that using the past tense implies that the story has already been developed, therefore offering authority and "responsibility for the way the story is told" and that the narrator has examined why the events happened as they did.  In contrast, she writes, "the present tense is reportage or live drama: every present tense verb is a step into nothing, into a tale that must make itself up from moment to moment. A Tweet, perhaps. A Facebook comment. Or even reality TV—happening right before your very eyes."

And that may be the difference between contemporary/commercial fiction, where the intent is immediate gratification -- and literary fiction which attempts to be timeless.

Hmm...tick tock...what to do?

I think I have figured out my conundrum, but I won't say what my final answer is for sure.  Hopefully, one day you all will find out when you read the book.  But no matter which tense I choose, it will no doubt be a deliberate and intentional choice.