Are our storytelling tenses getting too tense? YOU decide!

Have you been reading a lot of books during coronavirus lockdown? I have – my particular favourite genre (not exactly intellectual but provides what I need as a light-hearted break…) crime and psychological crime fiction. Yum, yum.

The current fashion in high-anxiety fiction like this is to tell it in the present tense…presumably to increase the dramatic speed.

Fine for a film or TV synopsis. But a whole, 80,000 words or longer novel?

I suppose this should be OK with me, largely because I spent years working with film and TV synopses in which it’s customary to describe the main action in the present tense, using the past and other tenses to suggest action movements in the story other than what’s happening right now.

But do I have enough lung power to keep up with the breathless pace of present tense narrative in these best-selling contemporary fiction hits that fester within my Kindle? Am I already so old and doddery that I can’t figure out what’s going on if some of the action is in the present tense and some isn’t?

Tell you what: why don’t you decide?

Here is an excerpt from a wonderful thriller, The Guest List by Lucy Foley.

First, as the story is told by the author, featuring the present tense which is in italics:

The wind has stopped, finally. The Irish police have arrived. We’re all gathered in the marquee, because they want us in one place. They’ve explained to us what has happened, what they found. We know that someone’s been arrested, but not who, yet.

It’s amazing how little noise a hundred and fifty people can make. People sit around at the tables, talking in whispers. Some of them are wearing foil blankets for the cold and shock, and these are louder than the sound of voices, rustling as people move.

I haven’t said anything at all, not to anyone, not since he and I stood by the clifftop. I feel like all the words have been stolen from me.

All I’ve thought about for months is him. And now he’s dead, they say. I’m not pleased. At least, I don’t think I am. Mainly I’m still just shocked.

It wasn’t me. But it could have been. I remember how I felt the last time I saw him, cutting the cake with Jules. Seeing that knife … The thought was in my head. It was only for a couple of seconds. But I did think it, feel it, strong enough that a part of me wonders whether maybe I did do it, and somehow blanked it out. I can’t catch anyone’s eye, in case they see it in my face.

And now, with the same sections in the past tense:

The wind had stopped, finally. The Irish police had arrived. We all were gathered in the marquee, because they wanted us in one place. They’d explained to us what had happened, what they found. We knew that someone had been arrested, but not who, yet.

It’s amazing how little noise a hundred and fifty people can make. People sat around at the tables, talking in whispers. Some of them were wearing foil blankets for the cold and shock, and these were louder than the sound of voices, rustling as people moved.

I hadn’t said anything at all, not to anyone, not since he and I stood by the clifftop. I felt like all the words have been stolen from me.

All I’d thought about for months was him. And now he was dead, they said. I wasn’t pleased. At least, I didn’t think I was. Mainly I was still just shocked.

It wasn’t me. But it could have been. I remember how I felt the last time I saw him, cutting the cake with Jules. Seeing that knife … The thought was in my head. It was only for a couple of seconds. But I did think it, feel it, strong enough that a part of me wonders whether maybe I did do it, and somehow blanked it out. I couldn’t catch anyone’s eye, in case they saw it in my face.

Don’t get me wrong, by the way: I loved this book!

Please do buy it – it had me on the edge of my seat right until the end and I am due to download Lucy Foley’s other titles very soon.

What intrigues me, though, is what (if anything) the use of the present tense adds to the impulsion of the story.

Please decide which you prefer, and why, then share in the comments below and/or on social media!

I will be fascinated to know… Sz xx

 

 

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. AfsaraRahman Prapti says

    I liked present better

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m still not sure which works better for me … do you not find that sometimes the present and past together can be a little confusing?

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