Lots of jokes start something like this — “So a guy walks into a bar …” — and away you go, into the story, often 3 sentences, and then the punchline. Ha-ha … hee-hee … guffaw-guffaw.
So why are jokes written in the present tense? Two thoughts on that, and shorter than any joke: Action — Immediacy.
Now for the big question: How many novels or short stories have you read (notice the tense) that were written in Present Tense Prose? Not many, I’d venture to guess. Most “stories” have already taken place, and the narrator is recalling the events, complete with insight, self-argument, the long-look-ahead-while-death/love/birth-suddenly-happens-in-the-past-of-the-story. Pheew! Take for example this sentence: “I didn’t know it then, as John dug the ring out of the thick shag, but twenty years later I realized he had known who I was all along.” That’s saying a lot, past, present, and future.
Stories told in the present tense have a certain immediacy to them that gives writers lots to work with, and also allows them to leave things out that cannot be known; may never be known (unless there’s a sequel). Likewise, the use of verbs in present tense manages to convey strong imagery: “A man pushes through the waiting crowd, climbs the stairs two at a time, and walks into the bar…” We readers see this vividly because of the activeness of “pushes” and “climbs” and “walks.”
We writers see the vividness of present-tense verbs all the time, as we write, because we invent the story as we see it happen(ing) in our minds. So why do we take that active moment and change its tense when we get to the page? Perhaps this is tradition. Perhaps the story is a reminiscence and therefore requires past tense. Or perhaps there are a half dozen or a dozen more reasons. Ask the writer. He or she may know, or may not know exactly. It’s often a feeling.
Which is to say, then, how you feel the story takes hold of you might be the impetus behind trying a narrative form you haven’t tried before. See what happens between what you see in your mind and what happens on the page. Feel for the verbs that work and those that don’t work as well. This is always a battle anyway, so if you’ve been on the battered side once more often than you’d like, try a different strategy.
In my present Work-in-Progress, I am writing the “present” story in present tense, while for two stories-within-the-story that give the two protagonists time to reflect, to tell the story of their lives together, I’m writing in the past tense (these are stand-alone pieces that follow a meandering chronology). This structure is how I am able to keep the many balls in the air for this particular juggling act. And the narrative forms allow me to shape the story in a way that the reader will know what’s happened in the past, but not know exactly what’s happening in the present (thought they’ll have teasing guesses). The characters experience this same riddle, which mirrors life far more than we often give it credit for: Do you know what’s in store for your life tomorrow? Do you understand all that is happening to you right now? Are all your memories “correct,” “right,” and “true”?
These are the questions that authors struggle with on a daily basis. The WHEN of the tale is integral to the HOW.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.