Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Present tense again

I've grumbled before about writers using present tense for no good reason in fiction. 

I'm not unreasonable. I'm prepared to admit that sometimes it's okay. I've just reread Mortal Engines, and though most of the novel uses past tense, occasional passages are in present. Unexpectedly, this works. I first read the book before I began to write, and didn't even notice. 

I've used present tense myself. In my short story, Mr Conway's Heaven, the protagonist narrates, and the whole point of the story is that he doesn't know what is coming to him.

But what's rattling my cage right now is trendy historians on radio and television using present tense to describe historical events, when historical events by definition happened in the past. This invariably has me gritting the teeth and muttering, "Henry VIII is not marrying Anne Boleyn now. It happened nearly 500 years ago! If that doesn't merit the past tense, what on earth does?" 

Where will it all end? Do we face a depressing future when any tense bar the present is quaintly old-fashioned and used only by pedants?

Researching the topic, I see I am not alone. The modish Melvyn Bragg was criticised for abuse of the present tense this summer, and quite right too. Grrr.


  1. Surely it's just a style choice by the author? Tense doesn't necessarily relate to the timeline of events. I write stories set a little in the future using present tense, but by this argument, I should be writing them in future tense!

  2. Michael Frayne actually did write a book set in the future in the future tense, A Very Private Life which begins, Once upon a time there will be a little girl called Uncumber.

    Present tense may be a style choice by the author, but it's a choice that turns off a proportion of readers. Of course that proportion may well diminish over time.

  3. Well, according to Wikipedia, the use of the historic present isn't new - it goes back easily as far as David Copperfield. I suspect that like any other stylistic device it's not so noticeable when it's well done.

    I have to say that sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn't, whereas writing in the past tense is usually completely unnoticeable because it's so expected.

  4. You are as ever the voice of reason, FH :o)

  5. You are welcome to come here and be annoying any time you like, FH.