Why I Hate(d) Present Tense


I'm not a huge fan of creative writing that's in present tense; it has its time and place, but I'm of the opinion that it's overused.  If present tense writing is done well, you don't even realize it's in present tense; when it's done badly, it sticks out and is often jarring.  Past tense has been the default for so long that it's naturally invisible in most cases.

(Kind of an aside, but one could argue, if present tense is invisible if done well, and past tense is invisible regardless, why pick the former over the latter?)

The primary argument for using present tense is "immediacy," in the sense that you are right there along with the character, seeing everything unfold minute to minute.  I would argue that the primary reason for just how much present tense writing there is out there right now has less to do with immediacy, and more to do with what happens to be in style. I have written in it before, and still do occasionally, but my own default is past tense and I find myself irked when I'm reading something in present tense that does it badly. (Another peculiar thing is how often you catch a writer writing in present tense lapsing into past tense.)  While there are present tense genre books, as someone who passes between genre and literary fiction, it seems like there's way more present tense being used in literary fiction.  I think this is because it was solidified as part of the hyper-realistic style that dominates in litfic that we were all taught in creative writing classes from emulating the classics (see: the post WW2 white writers, typically males)  Present tense "sounds" more literary, in part because on a line-by-line basis there's something that makes it sound different than "standard" storytelling. 

Good present tense writing is immediate and never jarring.  But oftentimes when it isn't done so well, it isn't immediate at all, is sometimes grammatically confusing (or just incorrect), is often dishonest; in which case you'd think, why not just write in past tense?  (whisper: because it isn't literary..)

Historical present tense

Historical present tense makes the most sense to me.  We lapse into colloquially when we're talking about something that's already happened, e.g., "So I met up when them, and like, I go in, and everyone there is wearing rabbit ears, and I'm like, what?"

a strange recurrent instance of Bart Simpson speaking in historical present tense.

It works well for things that are extremely grounded in moment-by-moment details:

JFK and Jackie are sitting in the back of the convertible, waving. Suddenly he jerks forward, grabbing at his throat with both hands.  People scream. The car speeds up.

Although really, I could argue, is this that different from:

JFK and Jackie were sitting in the back of the convertible, waving. Suddenly he jerked forward, grabbing at his throat with both hands.  People screamed. The car sped up.

Minor lapses in immediacy... Forgivable, or moral travesty?

Here's where it gets weird, at least for me.  Take the following conversion from simple past tense to present tense.

The dog barked all afternoon until someone took pity on it and let it out.
The dog barks all afternoon until someone takes pity on it and lets it out.

The first sentence, in simple past tense, actually has two senses of time: a longer period where the dog is barking, and then a more specific time point when someone lets it out.  (You could also convert this to present perfect tense: The dog had barked all afternoon until someone let it out. In proper usage "had barked" is someone that occurred in the past-past until someone interrupted it--letting it out, which is in simple past. I can't imagine that there is any reason for past perfect tense even existing except for the fact that humans have been telling stories in past tense for centuries and our language developed that way.)  The present tense sentence violates any sense of immediacy to me--because of that span of time, I'm not "in the moment," I'm summarizing over a series of moments.  That sentence probably doesn't bother a lot of people, but I'd argue that it's more of a stylistic choice, than a choice made because it is more immediate. "Immediate" should be point-by-point, like the JFK example.

Major lapses in immediacy

Sometimes you need to summarize over large swathes of time. This is fundamentally "telling," and has to occur sometimes in regular writing, and in exceptional writing can be just as captivating as "showing". (See Italo Calvino or Gabriel Garcia Marquez).  Take the following three examples in, respectively, past tense, past perfect tense, and present tense.

Mordor recruited troops from distant lands for ten years before marching on Osgiliath.
Mordor had recruited troops from distant lands for ten years before it marched on Osgiliath.
Mordor recruits troops from distant lands for ten years before it marches on Osgiliath.

The marching on Osgiliath part is the most "immediate" part here.  You're not "there" as much with the ten year recruiting part.  In the JFK case, I'm literally describing the second-by-second of the Zapruder film. With past tense, in some cases summary is merely background information that provides context for the more important, immediate part of the sentence.  In other cases, it is a thing unto itself: the thing you are describing is so large across space or time that it can't be handled except in summary (e.g., the descriptions of the progress of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind) or you are for stylistically referring to something "large" in simple terms ("The universe expanded" or "Rome fell." --this reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.)  The reason that present tense doesn't work well for summary is that lack of immediacy (this would be the part of the movie that is a montage of ten years of recruiting troops, as opposed to moment-to-moment), but also the timeline getting messed up.  Mordor can't be recruiting (for ten years) at the same time it is marching on Osgiliath because both are in present tense.  Unless you want to say that ten years passes after you read the word "years."  This is weird. 

Present tense memoir?

If you think of it, memoir is composed of four separate things: 1, a personal recounting of something that happened, 2, a best recollection of one's emotions at those points in time, 3, time-of-writing reflection on those events, and 4, time-of-writing emotions about those events.  Human memory is very much fallible; memories are constructed more than they are recalled like videotape that is played back.  1 is hard enough, and I find it hard to believe that 2 is really 2, and not 3 and 4 influencing 2.  I find it hard to believe that they don't.  To write about what happened to you in the past in present tense, for the sake of immediacy, is to ignore that all the time that passed between then and now isn't reflected back in that writing.  As if it isn't altering the very way you tell the story itself.  This view may be extreme.  I don't care, I'm just writing random shit on a blog. 

One thing that more justifiably drives me crazy: extensive summary and violation of one's own personal timeline in memoir.  Take the following:

It's Christmas.  I am unwrapping my three presents: a yo-yo, a watercolor set, and a My Little Pony with long eyelashes. My family does not have a lot of money. 

So far so good.  Not really though--the yo-yo promptly broke.  But then:

In 1970 my parents meet in Bombay at a tea shop.  They are different castes.  They get married and move to America.

Wait a minute.  I wasn't even alive in 1970. Worse still:

In 1978, I am born.

Dude.  No.  Not unless you are David Copperfield.  There is no immediacy to the moment of my birth.  I have no memory of it.  Changing the words and content around, I have seen this in personal memoir and it makes me want to gouge my eyes out.  These things are subjective and things will move in and out of style. 

For the love of god what does future tense in present tense even mean?

Again, this is referring to memoir.  It drives me crazy every single time because sometimes there isn't context to understand whether the meaning is literal or figurative.  Example:

My fifth year into my PhD program it occurs to me that over the rainbow, there might not be a job. I study statistics.  I do some schmoozing networking even though I don't like it.  I will get a job.

Does "I will get a job" mean that literally, in my future a job will be there?  In other words, in the past (told in present tense) I am saying that I know (in the future) the fact of what will occur (that I will get a job.)  I don't know, isn't that motherfucking cheating?  Or is the statement "I will get a job" more figurative, like me making a declaration of will or intent. (Which, literally, every time I think about this issue, makes me think of the below scene from Wayne's World.) 


In sum, if your writing reminds someone of Wayne's World, you have probably failed.