2016-10-21: Present Tense Storytelling

In a tips-for-better-story-telling article, Kat Boogaard recommended using present tense for more interesting stories, indicating that the tip applied both to verbal and written stories. In some commentary, Heather Yamada-Hosley had the following to say:

This can be true for IRL storytelling, but is absolutely not true for fiction. Unlike IRL, fiction relies on a narrator to present the events to the reader, in effect, making mere details into a performance. IRL, the speaker can take the place of the performance aspect, but in a novel, Present Tense hamstrings the narrator in several ways.

When I try to explain that Present Tense makes narrative sound more like exposition, denies the narrator the ability to condense and explain, forces the character to discover every tedious detail, makes scenic and other narrative introductions impossible, and blocks other narrative techniques that enhance the writer’s ability to convey the experience of the POV character’s events, I often get pushback examples of authors who have produced successful present tense novels, like, for example, Neal Stephenson. But IMHO, these novels succeeded in spite of being in present tense and not because of it.

There is also an intuitive but completely unfounded belief that Present Tense increases the sense of ‘immediacy’ in a story. But let’s consider that notion by examining the two most common POVs. One of the key differences between First Person POV and Third Person POV is that the former is told by the POV character from the story end, relating events as they recall they happened. This has the advantage of being more directly personal, in that we are directly in a single person’s mind. The reader does not have to switch emotional connections with characters and knows with deep understanding what the character feels and thinks. Assuming the storyteller is not unreliable, or noticeably more biased than a normal person, this provides a close emotional connection for the reader. But, First Person is distant in time. Intuitively, this would make First Person less immediate. The ‘current’ action is still described as though it just happened, but it is tempered and perhaps imperfectly remembered, so could seem a bit more distant. Third Person POV, on the other hand, is considered less close emotionally since the reader has to switch their emotional connection with each character POV change, but it is related just after events have occurred. ‘Current’ action in Third Person is told just after it happened.

But readers mentally adjust the action to whatever ‘current’ is for the story, distant for First Person or recent for Third Person. To the reader, ‘current’ is whatever they just learned. If you just learned your best friend had murdered someone a year ago, you would likely still react to this ‘news’ as strongly as if it had happened much more recently. Maybe there would be some difference if the difference was decades. But would it be any different if the murder occurred seconds vs minutes?

Changing from First Person to Third Person may make a story seem marginally more immediate since it is a change from the end of the story to recent events. But shaving a few seconds or less off to change from Third Person ‘just happened’ to Present Tense ‘happening now’ throws out a lot of narrative tools for no gain whatsoever.

A writer wanting the closeness of First Person without sacrificing any illusion of immediacy would be better off writing in Third Person, but with a single POV. Nothing in Third Person says that there must be multiple POVs or that the narrator cannot be the character looking back from a wiser time, just as First Person normally does.

I found these comments interesting, and expect to revisit them as I do more writing.


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