The Pros and Cons of Present Tense

Image: rows of brightly colored Jell-o shots
Photo credit: soultoasty on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Submit your first page for critique.

First Page

Tonight is no ordinary night on the UNC academic calendar. Tonight is the night after classes end and the night before exams begin. A night of relief over what has ended and anxiety over what is yet to come. A night when the libraries and frat parties will be equally crowded.

I close my Intro to Marketing textbook with a thud and try to rub the tired out of my eyes. My roommate, Rachel, left our dorm room door open on her way to the bathroom to join the others. P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass” blasts from a speaker a few doors down. The girls on my hall sing along with the words and rock to the beat as they scurry back and forth to the showers filling the air with floral scents from shampoo, perfume, and hairspray.

I stuff my textbook into my backpack and hoist it over my shoulder. Marketing is my best subject. I’ve helped my parents think up ways to market the apples grown on our orchard for years, ever since the local applesauce plant closed. But rumor has it that my professor awards very few A’s. To keep my nearly perfect GPA, I need to ace the exam tomorrow. I wade into the hall and navigate my way upstream through the flow of pastel-colored robes.

Most of the faces I pass don’t know me, probably don’t even recognize me, but I recognize them. The girl who sings in the shower. The girl who plasters animal rights bulletins all over her door. The girl who sneaks guys into her room. Some of them nod politely when I catch their eyes. The rest probably don’t know what to make of me except that I’m the quiet girl who studies all the time.

My backpack accidentally bumps one of my hallmates and knocks her out of her huddle with her besties. We both stumble sideways. “Sorry!” I call over my shoulder to her. She shoots me the side-eye and returns her attention to her friends.

At the stairwell, I reach for the door handle. The bathroom door swings open behind me. “Shots! Shots! Shots!” Rachel’s loud party voice echoes down the hall, followed by the clink of glasses and laughter.

The ache in my heart returns.

With all my attention on my grades, I haven’t spent much time on my social life. So here I am. The only one left out of the fun.

Top grades will get me a top job—in corporate finance perhaps or maybe investment banking. A job where I’d never have to worry about money. A job where I’d have plenty left over to send back home and help save the orchard.

But… in two years, when I walk for graduation, I don’t want to have any lingering regrets.

I return to my room, throw my backpack on my bed, and cross the hall to the bathroom to be a part of the high-pitched excitement.

I excuse my way through the crowd, wash my hands, and sneak a look in the mirror. I’m not that different from them. Shoulder-length hair. Average height. Average size. Even though I’m not wearing a lot of makeup, I hold my own. I’m certainly attractive enough to go to a frat party.

“Oh hey—Jolene—” Rachel finally notices me.

“Where’re y’all going tonight?”

“Ummm, Phi Delt.” She cocks her head at me.

“Sounds like fun—”

“Oh, it will be.” She returns to the mirror and puts the finishing touches on her makeup. “Everyone’s soooo ready to party tonight.”

“I’ve never been to Phi Delt. Is it nice?”

Rachel flashes me the duh-look. “You’re so funny. It’s a frat house party. Believe me, it will be trashed.”

“It can’t be that bad—”

Rachel shakes her head with a laugh. She gathers her makeup and shot glass and crosses the hall to our room.

First-Page Critique

With classes over and the semester near its end, a habitually studious undergraduate faces a decision: to party or not to party? That’s the plot question raised by this opening.

But for me this first page raises a more intriguing question, one to do not with plot but with technique, namely: why the present tense? What are its advantages and disadvantages? Why is present tense so enduringly popular especially among younger writers? Has it usurped the past tense as the tense of choice for storytelling?

To answer those questions, it pays look at the history of the present tense in works of fiction.

Though its use can be traced as far back as Virgil and The Aeneid (59 BC), and it made many cameo appearances in between, it wasn’t until the first installments of Dickens’s Bleak House were published in 1852 that present tense was employed extensively in a full-length fictional work, with whole chapters of Dickens’s novel narrated by that means. Thirty-six years would pass before French novelist Édouard Dujardin used the tense exclusively in Les lauriers sont coupés, arguably the first stream-of-consciousness novel, and a primary influence on James Joyce’s Ulysses, published a generation later.

Though Damon Runyon and Joyce Cary both favored it, only after 1960, when John Updike used it for the first of a series of novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, etc.) did the present tense gain in popularity—to the consternation of some, including author and literary critic William Gass, the title of whose 1987 New York Times essay (“A Failing Grade for the Present Tense”) makes no bones about his feelings.

Gass’s beef with the present tense came down to there being “too much of it going around.” “What was once a rather rare disease,” he wrote, “has become an epidemic.” Along with the first person and the declarative mode, Gass blamed the present tense for “that major social and artistic malaise called minimalism”—the literary movement inclined toward brevity and intensity as epitomized by Raymond Carver’s short stories and dominant when Gass’s essay was published.

Though more than thirty years have passed since then, the present tense remains as trendy as ever. For some writers—in particular students in graduate writing programs—it is the default choice, the past tense being, in their view, along with steam engines and bustles, a relic of the nineteenth century.

Apart from its ubiquity, there are good reasons to be wary of the present tense. Unlike the past tense, which allows narrators unrestricted movement between the past and the present, the present tense locks us into each moment, allowing for little if any reflection. And while the past tense lets us expand, compress, or bypass events according to their dramatic import, since in the present tense everything is happening here and now, it tends to treat all moments equally, however important or not, so a headache gets as much attention as an earthquake.

Since bringing the past into the present is crucial when it comes to evoking them, the present tense also greatly constricts the complexity of our characters, who must be evoked mainly if not strictly through their present actions. The present tense likewise restricts descriptions of settings and characters, limiting them to fleeting impressions.

Not that the present tense can’t be used effectively. For a sense of immediacy nothing beats it. Screenplays traditionally avail themselves of it. It is the most cinematic of tenses. But like the movie cameras that it replicates, it can feel icily impersonal. As for trendiness, at the risk of alienating two-thirds of my readership, for my money present tense passed from trendy to tiresome some time ago.

Of all the disadvantages of the present tense—and I’ve only touched on some here—perhaps the biggest is the inability to generate the sort of suspense that only comes with hindsight. The best example of this is provided by the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. He posits two scenes in which a bomb hidden underneath a table explodes in the board room of a bank. In the first scene we have no idea the bomb is there when suddenly—BOOM!—it goes off, murdering everyone in the room. However surprising, that, according to Hitchcock, isn’t suspenseful. The second scene is identical to the first, except at some point we cut to the bomb ticking away under the table. Thus the element of suspense is introduced.

Back to our first page now. However competently written, thanks to the present tense, it fails to show us the “bomb ticking under the table,” i.e. to create suspense. Though we’re told at the start that “Tonight is no ordinary night,” the narrator, having yet to live through it, is in no position to say how truly extraordinary the night will turn out to be. As far as she knows, it’s only as extraordinary as the same night has been every semester since she started college.

Imagine the same opening written in the past tense. Instead of promising us what boils down to routine, it might have pointed toward a momentous, possibly life-changing experience. As it stands, I meet that first paragraph with a mental shrug, and keep reading, anticipating some event, an anticipation modestly satisfied when the narrator decides to throw off the shackles of academic servitude and join the frat party set to rage at Phi Delt. If not quite suspenseful, this at least lays the groundwork for suspense—or it would, if only the stakes were higher; if the narrator’s decision to join the party weren’t arrived at so glibly, with scarcely a second thought, and not even against her better judgment. Not only is the party in question routine; the narrator’s decision to attend it is, or seems, nonchalant.

Your First Page SelginI’m reluctant to tell authors what tense to write in. It’s so personal, like telling someone what brand of stick deodorant to use. Still, and though it wouldn’t entirely solve the problems with this opening, re-casting it in the past tense would go a long way toward solving them. Unlike the present tense, whatever else it does or doesn’t do, the past tense carries with it the assumption that there’s a story to be told, one that has already happened.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.) Here’s how to submit your first page for critique.

Note: The publisher of Your First Page is offering free shipping if you order the book directly from their site. Use code YFPfreeship.

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