Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is it Happening Now?

When I am critiquing someone else's writing, I periodically come across a story written in the present tense. This is difficult for me, as I have a bias against present-tense stories. And I always admit, right up front, that I have trouble understanding how I can be reading a story that is in the midst of happening. It's kind of like having the point of view character giving me a blow by blow account by phone as he lives through the situations. If the point of view character changes, the person on the other end of that phone line changes, too, which is more grating in present tense than in past tense. How can the author foreshadow anything that might happen, since it hasn't happened yet? I just don't get it. My mind can wrap itself around a number of complicated ideas, but that isn't one of them.

Consider this: "Joe stubs his toe on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He wonders if it's broken, realizes it's his little pinkie, not the big lug, and doctors won't do anything for a broken pinkie toe, so what does it matter? Little does he know how inconvenient the pain of that toe will be in the days to come."

Okay, that was present tense, so we, as readers, were actually there when Joe stubbed his toe. Why were we in his home in the middle of the night? Why were we headed to the bathroom at the same time that he was, because if we weren't, how is he telling us about the toe as he stubs it? And the last sentence – which would make sense in past tense, and would do a wonderful job of making us wonder what's coming up – makes absolutely no sense. Of course he doesn't know how inconvenient things will be; he hasn't gone through it yet.

What do you think? Does present tense not bother you? It is frequently – and erroneously – used in common conversation, so you might be used to it. How many times have you heard someone say something like, "…And he says, 'what do you mean by that?', so I say, …" That's present tense verbs, even though the person is obviously talking about a conversation they had in the past. It grates on my nerves, but others find it normal, and if I comment on it, they stare at me in complete non-understanding.

Eventually, present tense may be the accepted norm for writing. But I'm not in any hurry to get there.

See ya next week. Trudy

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