Present Tense in Fiction: aaaaaagggh!

It reads, “Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Arimathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of aaaaaagggh.”

What?

…The Castle of aaaaaagggh.

What is that?

He must have died while carving it.

Oh, come on!

Well, that’s what it says.

Look, if he was dying, he wouldn’t bother to carve “aaaaaggh.” He’d just say it!

Well, that’s what’s carved in the rock!

Perhaps he was dictating.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Any reading of literature or watching of films involves a little suspension of disbelief. Even though you see who the author is (and the author is rarely the narrator) and that the book is fiction, you imagine or pretend, as you’re reading, that the book is “true” and that the narrator is, in fact, recounting events that happened. This literary contract I can live with… as long as the narrative recounts events as having happened in the past tense.

I have a hard time suspending disbelief when I try to imagine someone jumping off a building, being raped, or giving a speech while writing it down at the same time (“I leap off the roof. My heart is pounding as I reach for the ledge on the other side. My feet are tingling”). I can, however, easily imagine someone saying that it happened in the past (“I leapt off the roof. My heart was pounding as I reached for the ledge on the other side. My feet were tingling”). Aliens invading the earth? I can do that. A narrator knowing the innermost thoughts of all the characters involved in the plot? Sure, that I can buy. A villain giving a long speech while the hero finds a way to escape? No problem. Imagine that someone is carving the word aaaaaggh while saying it? Sorry.

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

  1. Heh, true. I played ‘Oblivion’, and it had this guy that was following a god called the ‘Sunken One’ (don’t ask). I keep finding these little journals of his writing, and he is describing that he is dying. What? He says ‘I have obviously not satisfied this god’s needs, and now he is killing me’ (or something like that)

    So, he is writing this down while he dies?

    Nice quote, btw.

  2. Simple past tense is the accepted form of writing for ages now. Present tense just doesn’t feel right even if you ignore the realism issues, it is just awkward even from a literary viewpoint.

  3. st33med that wasn’t the best example, because a god could slowly kill you, like a poison. but yes its just awkward and doesn’t work that well.

  4. There’s a conceptual error: the narrator is not the author. If a first person narrator says “And I, after Mary had trespassed my heart with the knive, died” (sorry for this ridiculous example… I’m a writer, but in Spanish!), he’s not writing it down… And usually, unless you’re reading a very experimental author that makes dead narrate, after “I” dies, the story will end there or narration will be taken by another character.

    Present tense is used to create a undefined time. For example, when telling the world’s beginning or any cosmic event…

  5. I actually never said the narrator and the author are the same (please note the Monty Python quotation, especially the part about dictating).

    I’m able to suspend disbelief in The Great Gatsby and imagine I’m reading something Nick Carraway wrote (in the past tense), even though I know Nick Carraway is fictional and that the book is really written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    If Nick Carraway “wrote” in the present tense, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the book.

    I understand (note the use of the present tense here) that the present tense can be useful in certain situations denoting a continual action, but that cannot apply to a series of varied actions recounted in a several-hundred-page book.

  6. Well, your last paragraph show the conceptual error I mean. (“I have a hard time suspending disbelief when I try to imagine someone jumping off a building, being raped, or giving a speech while writing it down at the same time”)…

    Let me clarify a bit: the character doesn’t dictates to the narrator, nor writes anything. It is said that the narrator watches the action and that watching can have different degrees of focusing w/respect to the characters. (Maybe this is related a bit to a theory that says everything in a story is place you go in or out… like in Linux, where everything is a file!)

    When using the so-called “zero” focus (any omniscent narrator), you’re almost forced to past tense unless you’re telling a cosmic event, like I said before. But, when making the narrator to “invade” (internal focus) the character (cannot find an example in English…), you must enter the character’s perspective during the action, so present is needed. The limit case is the first person narrator: it is internal but after supposedly having done the action, so that forces you to a past tense but not because of the focus but of the simple reason everything is in the past! (but there are first person narrators in present, usually with Stream of Consciousness/Internal Monologue, that show you everything he does/thinks in “real-time”).

    But, I must agree present tense is a bit more experimental and non-academic writing. Also, nowadays you can’t sell a book that it’s very difficult to read, so it’s very rare to see the things I say in a new work. Today the trend is to write realistic fiction and “enjoyable” plots, with some intrigue and mistery… a bit esoteric and a bit erotic sometimes too; funny: those were the same resources used in the 18th century and that made that century a dissastrous one for fiction litterature (and led into the over-dense, over-dark, over-philosophical 19th century).

  7. It would be an intersting challenge to write a book that is not utter drivel and completely in the future tense.

    As for past vs. present, did you have a particular place you read this? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a published work write in present tense… it’s just too different for most of us to feel comfortable reading. It essentially demands you stop using you imagintaion to put yourself in the story, and accept the author’s description of the event as an actual experience you are having. It’s like the literary version of an movie adapatation, only, still in writting.

  8. Obviously you weren’t reading it closely enough. It’s *irresistable*!! How could you not love this?? I actually can’t detect any sense in it at all – and you can take that any way you like. I wouldn’t say it’s written in present tense… it’s just annoying.

  9. I know this is old but I just saw it again having read the books I refer to below.

    I agree with you in some respects, most books I’ve read in the present tense have been very distracting, but I recommend you read the knife of never letting go and It’s follow ups. I find that in those books the author really gets it right with the present tense (all though I think this is helped by the fact that the main character is not very good at spelling or grammar). Regardless of whether you like the POV and tense it’s still worth a read. It’s an excellent book.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *