Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Brief Essays on Genre, Part 20: On the Present Tense



On the Present Tense


It is at least a decade ago and I am teaching a class on writing. I no longer do this. Even then it is rare. But this time I am. Earlier in the class, I state that in fiction the present tense should only be used when there is a compelling reason to do so. Otherwise, the past tense is best.


Now a student objects, “But present tense is so much more immediate!”


“The word you are searching for,” I say, “is distancing.”


--Michael Swanwick



Philippe said...

In French the présent can be used as a (subjective) rythm accelerator in a story written in passé simple -- the usual narrative tense. It creates a supplement of immédiateté which can accelerate the heart beat of the reader. I thought at first that this trick would seem too obvious, and artificial, vulgar, but the fact is that it works well, in a very natural way, and smoothly even if you notice the transition. And when you are immersed in the story you generally miss it. I realized later that I had read many novels using it and I hadn't even consciously noticed the change.
I'm not sure I saw it in English; I wonder if it works.
Best regards

Michael Swanwick said...

Philippe, that's extremely interesting.

I've never seen that used for that purpose in English. I have my doubts that it would work. But since I haven't seen it, I could be wrong. Maybe someday somebody will import it into English to brilliant effect.