I mostly write fiction in narrative tense. I have experimented with present tense, although my first experiment wasn’t, in fact, fiction but an account that I wrote as a blog post. I don’t recall why it occurred to me to change that blog post from past to present but the rewrite was closer to reliving the experience and more cathartic than merely recounting.
But we write stories to engage our readers, not to soothe our souls.
I have experimented with tales in present tense, where the tense seemed to fit the story. I can’t deny, the present tense gave a more ‘immediate’ sense of being there, but (at the risk of alienating serious writers who may have stumbled accidentally across my blog) it sounded, to me, a tad pretentious – as if I was striving to be ‘literary’.
I prefer to read stories in narrative tense. When I choose to read a story in present tense, it is in spite of its tense, not because that has attracted me to the story. Once I’ve started, I will probably not even notice the tense; a good story is a good story, whatever tense (or point of view) it’s framed in. But narrative tense is called that for a reason. It’s for narrating tales as if they actually happened. It is the tense of the storyteller.
Having written that, I recalled a favourite TV series of that name that aired when my children were – well – children.
Jim Henson’s The Storyteller featured John Hurt (wearing elf ears) retelling European folk tales beside a roaring fire, watched by a large, confused dog. The Storyteller would, indeed, begin the story in narrative tense, but once the players had appeared, acting out events in the tale, Hurt would narrate over the action in present tense in between actors’ dialogue. The shift was seamless.
When I first watched the series, this shift in tense didn’t register; I wasn’t aware it was happening. But when imagining such a storyteller in action for this blog post, I heard the story in my head being told in present tense in a vaguely rural accent. I went back to videos of the programmes to check my memory wasn’t deceiving me.
And I can understand why travelling storytellers would bring their listeners into the drama with them by using the present tense. Listeners at the fireside discover what happens next at the same time as the characters in the tale. But in this scenario, as in the TV series, the main character is the storyteller.
Balladeers and storytellers of old were performers, to be rewarded (or not) at the close of their performance. By taking listeners into the tale, they made their presence – and expertise – clearly felt. The story wouldn’t be the same when listeners retold it to others.
Today, we are advised by writing gurus that an author should do the opposite, removing their presence from the readers’ experience of the story. We are not ‘up front’ in the same way as the storytellers of old.
But advice has nothing to do with my gut feeling that when writing a story in present tense, I feel as if I’m doing it for effect.
Writing for effect is poetry.
Although I sometimes compose a rhyme, I am no poet, so should probably stick to narrative tense anyway when storytelling.
Now all I have to do is think up some stories.