I was experimenting with writing my next novel in the present tense. For a while it went well. The present tense felt more immediate, a little fresher, and was appropriate to the story I was trying to tell.
But gradually I began to feel constricted. The present tense seemed to work well for describing scenes as they were happening, but not for filling in the gaps between the scenes. My novel was becoming a slightly repetitive series of mini-stories with no clear link between them. I found it difficult to step back and give a broader sweep. The attempts to do so felt forced and clunky.
Another thing I noticed was that I was describing every little thing that happened in more detail than usual. When we’re talking about things in the past, we naturally skip over some things and spend more time on others. Time is stretched and distorted, and it feels natural because we are used to describing things that way. When I’m writing in the present tense, on the other hand, jumping ahead within a scene feels odd. Time in the present tense moves at a fairly steady, plodding pace, and unfortunately my present tense novel was moving at that same steady, plodding pace. I was describing every cup of tea, every step that every character took to and from the kitchen.
It was a very boring novel.
So I switched to past tense, and suddenly everything began to flow along nicely. I could easily jump around and tell the reader only what mattered. I could control the pace and tell the story in what felt to me to be a more natural way. I began to approach my writing each morning with eagerness rather than dread.
My experience with present-tense narrative, then, was quite short-lived. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea, of course, but I know that it didn’t work for this novel. I have used it successfully in short stories, and can see it being useful in small segments of a novel. But I won’t be trying to write a whole novel in present tense again any time soon.
And as I thought about it more, I couldn’t think of many good novels I’ve read that have used the present tense throughout. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey would be one, and the present tense definitely worked well there, but I’m stuck for any others. What about you? Have you read any good present-tense novels? Have you written one yourself? Let me know.