The Narrative Present

After writing my last post I was curious to see that I had, without making any conscious desire to do so, framed the narrative in the past tense. This I assume is, of itself, unremarkable. But I later found in telling the tale, and writing it down elsewhere that as the event became more distant in the past my narrative voice shifted from past-tense to present.

Instead of ‘the car sped through the intersection I am suddenly telling people that ‘this car speeds through the intersection’. I’m describing the driver, I’m reporting the dialogue with the woman in distress, I’m explaining that ‘she just walks off’ after she denies the need for further assistance. All this in the present tense, as if it were happening as I spoke. The astute among you may have noticed that I’m doing it now in recounting these past tellings of the tale.

This is not a new, nor even entirely unexpected phenomenon, but it was one of which I was not even conscious.

Literary theorists would describe this as the Narrative Present Tense, but linguists might be more likely to describe it as the Historical Present Tense, and it’s use has been becoming more common, to the point that in 2010 The Guardian ran an article on its prevalence in that year’s Man Booker Prize nominees and Phillip Pullman’s apparently scathing rebukes (Pullman later responded).

The Historical Present Tense is quite rightly used in non-fiction – such as for accounts of history, or in journalism – such as in headlines. In conversation and other spoken modes we seem quite at ease slipping into the Narrative present to tell stories and relate anecdotes of our day.

‘So I’m walking past the shops when suddenly this guy jumps out and he asks me for a lighter…’ or some such. Note the verb forms: ‘walking’, ‘jumps’, ‘asks’. This type of story telling conveys the action as something immediate and ongoing. This is not a completed event, relegated to memory. This event is suddenly alive again. It is being played out ‘in real time’ as it were.

But does it have a place in written fiction?

The narrative present does bring the past back to life. A ‘revivification of history’ as it were. It can also mark a change it the narrative, using changes in tense to separate different segments, such as a character in the narrative relating dialogue in the narrative present. It can provide a ‘now’ – a present moment in the ‘life’ of the text – which separates that particular scene from those that come chronologically before or afterwards.  All of these things are useful, and if skilfully used will add to the quality of the writing, but as Pullman warns its overuse can denude the writing of the desired effect. By striving to be expressive, we rob our writing of the variegations of expression.

The Editor’s Blog has a good discussion on the pros and cons of both the past and present tenses as they apply to longer narratives (such as novels).

In the end, the important thing is to write good fiction and write it well. If the tense helps to make your fiction more powerful then so much the better. If it makes it seem that you are constantly shouting for attention, then you have a problem. Of course knowing the problem makes it that much easier to solve.

For my part I tend to prefer the past tense for extended pieces, but I’m playing around with the present for flash length fiction and shorter stories. The most important thing I’ve found (and most will agree) is to be consistent. Perhaps I’ll be able to polish something up into an example of how to make the narrative present  work for your readers.

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