There has been a recent spate (well, a trickle) of readers who have asked me why some of my work is written in the present tense. (I think the usual implication behind the question is that I should stop this weird and irritating practice). I have also heard it said that writing in the present tense is the ‘in’ thing to do these days. I don’t buy that at all; I believe that tense is one of the key tools in the toolbox (person is another) which are available to help the writer tell the story in the best possible way, and the good writer will vary it according to the needs of that story.
Only this morning, for example, I was reading David Nicholl’s excellent novel One Day, and I noted a sudden shift of tense from the prevailing past to present. It was done to relate a key incident in the novel (I won’t spoil the story by telling you what it is) which needed to be sudden, immediate and urgent. The switch in tense acted like a gear change in the story.
Let me briefly justify my own choice of tense with two examples from my work.
The stories collected in We Never Had It So Good are set in the past, in the late 1950s, but apart from an introductory paragraph or so to each story, written in the past tense, I have used the present tense throughout. The main reason is that the stories are heard through the ‘voice’ of a boy going through his junior school years in a northern mining community. The shift from introductory past to default present is the signal that takes us from the author reflecting on his past to the boy he was then – the present tense puts the reader into the action with the boy while he is having these experiences. Also, when the boy takes up the story, his style is informal-colloquial in the narrative, matching the dialogue. In a working class community, when someone tells a joke or a story, it is more often than not told in the present tense: (I’m waiting my turn and this guy comes up to me, and he says...) The style I have used echoes that tradition.
If you’d like an example,click the button for a typical passage from one of the stories in We Never Had It So Good.
The day of the Gala we have to line up in the boys’ playground two by two with our dance partners as if we’re going into the ark. I’m as scrubbed and tidy as I ever get and Judith is the bonniest lass in the yard in her polka dot dress, white ankle socks and new sandshoes. As we parade out of the school gates Miss Stephens is shouting up and down the line, “Hold on to your partner’s hand. Everybody must hold hands.” Judith’s had mine in hers for the last quarter of an hour.
We stream along the middle of the road with grown-ups and toddlers watching us from pavements. At some corners we have to stop to let another school join the flow.
“There’s the Holy Rollers!” one lad shouts and a chant starts up, “You Catholic bugs, lift up your lugs…” till Mr Thain hauls somebody out of the line for a strapping and nips it in the bud.
We have to go the long way past the Central Hall. By this time we’ve even got a brass band heading the parade and I’m swinging Judith’s arm to the beat as we turn into Alexandra Road. Then we come up against a tailback as kids queue for their half dollars at the gates of the Welfare. At last we arrive at the row of tough-looking men in flat caps dishing bright silver out of cloth bags, like they’ve just robbed the rich to give to the poor. It feels weird to be taking a coin at the entrance instead of handing one over to get in.
Kids, teachers, parents and bandsmen are swarming all over the sports ground yet somehow the man with the megaphone gets everybody organised for stagecoach races, egg-in-spoon races and what the man calls “foot running”, which as far as I can tell is the same as ordinary running. Our Malcolm is second in his age group for that and wins a certificate. Me and Alan Chisholm are down for the three-legged race but we’re not well-matched for size and he has to drag me along like a limp until I fall over and we get disqualified.
I’m not so clumsy when I switch partners. The country dancing is the highlight of the day, with the whole of the main field taken up with sets from every school and the outside railings crowded with parents jostling for a good view. Judith takes charge of our group, arranging us in a circle and getting us to hold hands and smile at each other while we wait for the first piece. In the moment before the music starts she stands perfectly poised, just the edge of her dress fluttering slightly in the breeze. I can’t see where my mam is but I can guess she’s looking at Judith and saying, “That lass has been here before,” meaning life not the dancing.
My novel 11:59 is also written largely in the present tense, and again in the first person. We see through the eyes and hear the voice of Marc Niven, the central character, who is a late-night DJ and phone-in presenter on local radio in the North of England. 11:59 is a contemporary thriller. It’s very important to convey a sense of immediacy. I want the reader to feel that Marc is experiencing the action in the here and now, not as reflected upon later. Also, the present tense allows me to leave the end of the story hanging on a number of possible resolutions for the reader to conjure with, particularly in relation to a closing event that will affect the fate of Marc and his friend Oliver. The present tense helps to offer the idea that the characters in this story have a future that the reader can speculate upon, and perhaps that the writer may return to.
If you’d like an example of writing from 11:59, please click the button.
I’m too pissed off to suffer the tedium of the drive home before I apply myself to the booze, so as soon as I’m back in the car the cap is off the wine and I spend the next twenty minutes alternately tilting the bottle and staring listlessly through the windscreen across the car park. In fairness to myself I have to point out I’m sipping not swigging, taking careful stock of the fuddle factor. Don’t want anybody supposing I’m some kind of reckless drunk.
At the far side of the square is a row of huge lorries and transporters parked up for the night. My mind is idling - playing with the notion that these truckers might be fans of mine, our station on pre-set for easy tuning as they rumble through the region around midnight – when the offside door of a DAF container swings open and a pair of decidedly untrucker legs come into view. An arse-hugging skirt rucks up further as it scrapes past the footplate. I sit up and take notice as the figure slips below the door of the cab and lands short stilettos precariously on the tarmac. She has to duck slightly, stumbling away from the rig as the door swings shut over her head. A fair-skinned woman, a girl really, as she looks barely eighteen, appearing even more frail against the backdrop of the giant trucks.
She wobbles slightly as if there’s a wind sweeping across the car park and she looks about, unsure of her bearings. Then, unexpectedly, she takes off in the direction of the petrol station, running as fast as those unsuitable heels will let her. After a few yards she pauses to tear off her shoes, then takes flight again, carrying them in one hand like a baton.
It’s clear she’s in some sort of panic. I’m hurriedly screwing the top back on my wine bottle intending to drive across and offer her help, but someone else is quicker off the mark. There’s a screech of wheels and a silver BMW loops round from behind the line of trucks. It accelerates past the girl then cuts in front of her, braking hard to block her escape route. As she switches direction a big bullet-headed black guy springs out from the front passenger seat and grabs at her. The girl, wailing, tries to beat him off with her shoes, but she’s no match at all for this guy who simply swamps her with his great arms, tugs open the back door of the car and bundles her inside, following her and hardly getting the door closed before the driver starts up again.
I have no idea what I’m about, but I lob my bottle onto the seat beside me, fire the engine and roar after the Beemer as it hurtles towards the exit. The bad guys are easily ahead when they reach the main road but I keep my eye on the direction they’re taking and I’ll swear I’m gaining on them when smack - my wheels hit a vicious speed bump. There’s a bang as the car stalls and a crash as the bottle launches off the passenger seat and hurtles into the dashboard. “Shit!” as I look down on the red stain spreading across the floor-well. By the time I raise my head the BMW is out of sight.
My first instinct is to reach for my cell phone to let the police know what I’ve witnessed, but even as I’m unlocking the keypad I’m watching the wine seep into the carpet and trying to calculate how much of it I’d actually poured down my throat before this thing kicked off. The car stinks of alcohol fumes. Besides, those guys are well away by now. I put the phone away, turn the engine over and drive carefully home.