Thursday, 31 October 2013

Historical Headaches 3 – Present tense or past?


I recently read an interesting forum discussion, which started in 2005, on the pros and cons of writing in the present tense.

A wide range of opinions, often contradictory, was aired about the virtues and vices of using the present tense as the main narrative tense in fiction writing. One viewpoint in particular made me wince, from Emma D, as I recognised that I was guilty of having used the present tense as a superficial device to provide more ‘immediacy’ in a novel about a siege during the English Civil War. My editing and re-writing had not examined fully enough the effects of the change of tense (I had originally written it in the past) and I realise that it would have been preferable to have worked harder on sharpening the style of the original draft. I cringe when I think of how I simply converted the text. If I felt it was dull I should have found ways of enlivening it!

The general advice seems to be as follows:

· Readers of genre fiction are less keen on a present tense narrative

· The use of the present tense has to be a justifiable and deliberate literary choice integrated with the writer’s voice

· The present tense appears superficially easier to use, but in fact requires more skill than the more ‘traditional’ past tense narrative style

· The tense often isn’t noticed if the novel is engaging enough for the reader

Evidence of the complex ways in which successful writers use the present and other tenses can be found in three examples of historical novels. As always, the more you examine writing strategies, the more complicated they reveal themselves to be!

Sarah Bower, in The Needle in the Blood provides an accomplished model of the use of the present a a consistent narrative tense, with such seamless fluency that the reader is almost unaware of this deliberate choice of tense. The dialogue is particularly well handled and avoids the awkward repetitious ‘she says’, ‘he says’ which somehow seem more glaring in present tense narratives.

Julian Barnes in Arthur and George weaves present and past tenses with great subtlety. The switching seems to reinforce various aspects of the narrative and the characterisation. For example, the narrative dealing with George’s childhood and youthful experiences are conveyed in the present and seem to indicate his inability to recall and reflect upon his early experiences, the limitations of his imagination and his simplicity and naivety. The parallel narrative from the young Arthur’s point of view, provides an interesting contrast, reflecting his intelligence and insight and is notably told in the past tense. Later in the novel, switches in tenses mark changes of events and pace and produce greater or lesser degrees of intensity and immediacy in the characters’ experiences. In the hands of a less skilful writer, these techniques would be very risky!

In Burial Rites Hannah Kent often conveys the condemned woman Agnes Magnusdottir’s thoughts and reflections in the present, which seems to provide a deepening presentation of her character, strengthening the reader’s sympathy for her. Past tense and present tense are sometimes interwoven, for example in Chapter 2, where Agnes’s awareness of her physical state is integrated with her narrative of her removal from prison to the farm where she is to be held until her execution.

They have taken me from the room and put me in irons again. This time they sent an officer of the court, a young man with pocked skin and a nervous smile. He’s a servant from Hvammur, I recognised his face. When his lips broke apart I could see that his teeth were rotting in his mouth. His breath was awful, but no worse than my own: I know I am rank. I am scabbed with dirt and the accumulated weeping of my body:blood, sweat, oil. I cannot think of when I last washed. My hair feels like a greased rope: I have tried to keep it plaited, but they have not allowed me ribbons, and I imagine that to the officer I looked like a monstrous creature. Perhaps that is why he smiled.

It could all have been related in the past, but the intensity of Agnes’s suffering might in this case have become more distanced. Her telling of the events allows her narrative to slide naturally into the recent past with the perfect tense, have taken, have tried, have not allowed and into the simple past, sent, recognised, broke and, later in the novel, into the more distant past, using past perfect and simple past as she recalls events and recounts them to other characters. Agnes’s point of view is thus presented in a stylistically complex way, which is reflective of the complexity of her character. The points of view of the other major characters are presented as more straightforward past tense narratives.


1 comment:

  1. Yes, it's true that writing in the present tense can convey a greater immediacy, but it's also true that it's quite difficult to achieve. I think if you begin in the PT, rather than try to convert from one device to another, it may be easier to get it right. What you have to remember is that some events still need to be conveyed as having happened in the past, and it takes great skill to know when to choose, say, the simple past or the pluperfect (eg he said or he had said, for instance). But I also agree that if the reader is fully engaged s/he barely notices the tense, and engaging the reader is what we should be trying to achieve above everything else.