Third Person Present-Tense?

I never stop wondering why so many authors take issue with third person, present-tense. I can understand that the claim that writing in present-tense is more demanding, for the reader as well as the author. Should that persuade any author to avoid writing in this way?

The idea that present-tense restricts handling of time may be valid, and so is perhaps the difficulty of creating complex characters. In my opinion, much of this depends on the structure of the narrative.

Is it true that the use of present-tense encourages the author to include trivial events that serve no plot function? I don’t think that this must necessarily happen, but it forces the author to strip down the text to essentials. Personally, I don’t think that is a bad thing.

Is it difficult to create suspense in present-tense? Naturally present-tense narrators don’t know what might happen and that could have an effect. On the other hand, there are authors, who deplore the same thing in first person, past tense, because it is instantly clear to the reader that everything already happened: the narrator is safe and sound. The question remains how we create suspense. I believe that it is possible to do it in both tenses.

In Dr Faustus, Thomas Mann writes: The reader is already used to my anticipations and will not interpret them as muddle-headedness and disregard of literary conventions. The truth is simply that I fix my eye in advance with fear and dread, yes, with horror on certain things which I shall sooner or later have to tell; they stand before me and weigh me down and so I try to distribute their weight by referring to them beforehand.

So much for already lived through disasters. In present-tense there’s a need for other measures. The suspense must spring out at the unwary or it can sidle up to the reader as it overwhelms the character. Here’s an example from The Time traveller’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger:

The pain has left but I know it has not gone far, that it is sulking somewhere under the bed and will jump out when I least expect it.

And another from Rabbit Run, by John Updike:

…he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men […] In the hush his entrance creates, the excessive courtesy the weary woman behind the counter shows him amplifies his strangeness.

Perhaps the real question is, how to present immediacy in past-tense. If a protagonist is dying and relives his or her life in dreams and nightmares, it isn’t possible to write this in first person, because it suggests that the character survived. It can’t be told in past-tense, because the person is already dead in that scenario. Who’d want to write this kind of story though?

The novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco may spring to mind:

I am traveling through a tunnel with phosphorescent walls. I am rushing toward a distant point that appears as an inviting grey. Is this the death experience? Popular wisdom suggests that those who have it and then come back say just the opposite, that you go through a dark, vertiginous passageway, then emerge in a triumph of blinding light.

At the end of the day, it depends on the author to make his or her writing work. It isn’t a matter of tense, present or past.

© HMH, 2018

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