Tenses, past and present are a vital part of any narrative. Some say you should never write in the present tense as it is a sign of amateurishness. Say that to Hilary Mantel, Charles Dickens and Ian McEwan.
Still, there are many who dislike the use of present tense. Philip Pullman is one such author who frowns upon it because of its limitations, in his opinion.
‘I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.’
You can read the full article here:
I have to say that on the whole I agree with him. Personally, I’m not a fan of novels in the present tense, without some past tense in the form of flashbacks or memories. That being said, I believe the present tense can be used well for short story writing. I then thought, oh no, present tense!
A horrible memory came back to me. A creative writing tutor once shamed me in front of the entire class when I submitted a present tense short story, written in the first person, by saying, ‘Never write in the present tense. Only amateurs and bad writers do that. Don’t write in the first person either, that shows a lack of imagination and arrogance. Let’s face it, no-one wants to listen to your voice, you are nobody.’ His words hurt and I vowed to never write in the first person or the present tense again.
Until a year later after gaining a Creative Writing Diploma and winning a short story completion with a piece written in the first person present tense.
‘The world will not end because I close my eyes. The sun will still shine, so too the stars. Yet the darkness behind my drooped lids tells me otherwise. I see a macrocosm made up of swirling silhouettes and geometric shapes that aren’t strange to me at all. This is where I live now, in x-ray blackness. There is peace in this non-colour. A stillness that demands quiet.’
This story is now part of my anthology – Glimmer and other stories – and is getting some brilliant 5* reviews.
‘A stunning collection of highly original short stories, written with verve and style. They do not glimmer they sparkle!’
‘Glimmer and other stories’ is a miniature treasure chest of jewels. I absolutely loved these short stories. As I was reading, I fell into a trance of adjectival excess… they were mesmerising, masterful, original, eloquent, lyrical, clever…’
With Mr. Pullman’s article fresh in my mind, I decided to write another short story in the present tense, with past tense mixed in. Then I thought, oh, does it work? Why not write the whole thing in the past tense and be done with it? No one will criticise me and…well, I did and I didn’t like it as much. The tone and narrative voice works better in the present tense, for me, anyway.
What do you think?
Below are two short extracts from the beginning of the story The Shivering Oak. Inspiration for the story came from a painting by Marc Chagall.
To conceal yourself up a tree like a rat.
I do not hide. I am here for all to see. Lounging larger than the low roof I recline upon.
At least, that’s how it seems to me as I raise my chin to the sky and let the sun kiss it. Yes, even the heavens are on my side.
I will wait.
I do not grow tired or hungry. I am nourished by the warm May winds that gently stroke my bare arms and lips, which are red. I painted them the colour of blood. But, now that I glance at my reflection in the darkened window of the building opposite, I think they resemble the hue of the roses on my dress. Or perhaps they are nearer the shade of the berries on the bush growing below your dangling feet. I notice the soles of your shoes are worn. Is that a toe, that pink protuberance sticking out from the emerging hole? The twitching thing is making Genghis yank at his leash.
I sit up to get a better look. You struggle to maintain position on the creaking branch. One hand wrapped around the frail wood, the other clutching onto your fiddle. The same violin you used to seduce me at the Christmas concert.
The village hall was crammed that night with the young, old, and those in between. Forced to stand at the back, I peered over the shoulders of the tall men. I didn’t mind, though. It was good to be in the world again after all those years cooped up with dad.
Concealing yourself up that tree like a rat.
I did not hide. I was there for all to see. Lounging larger than the roof I reclined upon.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me when I raised my chin to the sky and let the sun kiss it.
Yes, even the heavens were on my side.
I did not grow tired or hungry. I was nourished by the warm May winds that gently stroked my bare arms and legs, which were red. I painted them the colour of blood. But, when I glanced at my reflection in the darkened window of the building opposite, I thought they resembled the hue of the roses on the dress I wore. Or perhaps, they were nearer the shade of the berries on the bush that grew below your dangling feet. I noticed that the soles of your shoes were worn. Was that a toe, that pink protuberance that stuck out from the hole? The thing that twitched and made Genghis yank at his lease.
I sat up to get a better look. You struggled to maintain your position on the creaking branch. You had one hand wrapped around the frail wood, whilst the other clutched onto your fiddle. The same violin you used to seduce me last Christmas at the village concert.
Thank you for reading. Any comments about which tense works better for you, would be very much appreciated.
Glimmer and other stories will be on a Kindle Countdown deal from 6th June. So, if you want a copy at a bargain price, just head over to Amazon.