The Problem with Present Tense (in which I tacitly pimp Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS)

Let’s be clear: I do not encourage new writers to write in the present tense. It is, by and large, not for the faint of heart – and certainly not for the faint of grammar. Present tense works in one situation and one situation only.

ImageWhen the action is driving, when it’s relentless, when there’s no time to breathe and certainly no time to reflect. No flashbacks, no extended ruminations, no squishy introspection, and certainly no third person POV switches.

Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM series. Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS (Miriam Black series). What do these books all have in common?

They all punch you in the face and give no fucks about what kind of trauma they leave behind.

We’ve all (probably) read THE HUNGER GAMES, so I won’t go into plot. I will say, however, that these books would have been poorer for a switch to past tense. The immediacy, the desperation, the clawing, driving need to survive and not die, not fucking die, would have been sacrificed a bit with a tense switch. Collins doesn’t waste time on flashback, and all of Katniss’ introspection is actively desperate – about Prim, about Rue, about the redheaded Avox, about Peeta and Gale. The action, the tension, never lets up. Regardless of what anyone has to say about any of the books, the admission must come that the verb tense that Collins went with is a huge element of the story.

SANDMAN SLIM: A magician crawls out of Hell to seek revenge against those who wronged him. It’s a revenge plot – at least the first book is. And it’s got the same desperation in it, the same heart-pounding thriller pacing, the same bitter force behind it. Unlike THE HUNGER GAMES, I think Kadrey could have gone with past tense without losing much in the way of tone and pacing, but I personally prefer the choice of the present. I like the immediacy. I like the desperation.

I’m barely a quarter of the way into Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS, but I’m going to mention it anyway. It is, in fact, the impetus for the discussion. (I forgot to bring the book I was reading to work today, and discovered BLACKBIRDS hadn’t made it out of the car yet. Moral of the story? Never been so glad to have been dumb.) The narrator is Miriam Black, a young woman who plays fast and loose, and also sees people’s deaths. Whenever there’s skin/skin contact, she watches you die, behind her eyes, knows all the intimate details and medical conditions. But when she meets Louis Darling, a trucker kind enough to offer her a ride, she shakes his hand – only to see him murdered, his last word her name.

This book is amazing so far. I’ve had a hard time putting it down – reading books like this on workplace lunch breaks really is the best plan (or the worse), as it forcibly limits the time I spend with it. And despite the fact that it’s got interludes, obvious time jumps, and dreams, the present tense still works. You get the impression that Miriam is less concerned with leaving a legacy than she is with living.

And maybe that’s what it is. Maybe there’s a certain Don’t Give A Fuck that the protagonist has to possess for it to work. Because all three of these narrators certainly have that in spades.

Which brings me to my own work: I write in present tense. I also write in past tense. This is fine, I think.

The manuscript that is being queried right now is in past tense. The narrator of that piece is introspective, spending a lot of time considering her own fate, her own humanity. The manuscript in the pipes to be queried in the future is in present tense, and I think the narrator has a lot more in common with Katniss, Sandman Slim, and Miriam Black than with anyone I’ve written – she’s all out of fucks to give, and she’s trying to keep the world from falling down around her ears. Her world, and the one at large.

It’s a hard thing, I think, to pull off present tense, mostly because it’s a hard thing to pull off that level of desperation and hopelessness. I mean, you have to really, really hate your narrator.

Now, that? That’s the part I’m good at.

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4 Responses to The Problem with Present Tense (in which I tacitly pimp Chuck Wendig’s BLACKBIRDS)

  1. Like I said at lunch the other day – Wendig’s prose is the psychotic love child of the anal rape of Chuck Palahniuk by Hunter S. Thompson. Blackbirds is awesomesauce, and the tense works there. I can’t write present tense for shit currently, so I leave it to the experts.

  2. Redhead says:

    must. read. blackbirds.

    really, it’s as simple as that. present tense is nearly impossible to do right, but man, when it’s done right, it’s done RIGHT. as a touchy-feely tactile obsessed person, i think it would be fun (or fucked up) to read about someone who has terrible experiences everytime she touches someone.

  3. Pingback: 20 LINES A DAY – an exercise in discipline

  4. lizzdreamer says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way about present tense. Done well, it is freaking powerful and cool. Done poorly, it confuses and irritates me. I started reading a Pathfinder novel (geeky and not ashamed of it!) and nearly stopped reading it after the first sentence because it was written not only in present tense, but in third person present tense. WTF? It is the weirdest thing I think I have ever seen. Why would anyone do that? My only guess is it was supposed to make it seem like a table-top roleplaying experience or something. Or they do not know what they are doing. Maybe what I’m saying is that everything you do as a writer makes an impression on your reader, whether you mean to or not, so think about what you are doing, authors!

    Incidentally, I read two chapters and quit for real because someone gave me Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (which is written in the much safer past tense, and is by the way, amazing) for my birthday.

    Thoughts on Mockingbirds – I have $10 left on a Kindle giftcard. . . . . .

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