Thursday, January 22, 2015

Issues with Present Tense

I usually post quotes that strike me on my Goodreads account when I update the page number I've reached in a particular book I'm enjoying, usually just to remind myself to go back and read it at a later point, but I always get annoyed by the word limit. Seeing as such just happened with my read of Steering The Craft, I might as well start posting more quote on my revived blog.

Here's a fairly short quote regarding Ursula K Le Guin's opinion on the present tense. This is from an extended opinion section of Chapter Six (yes, this post is likely leading into a pending post of Exercise 6) - I really like how Le Guin made the decision to separate her opinion into sections, so as not to preclude discussion of the chapter focus (like say how Sol Stein on writing certainly does...) but still allow herself to share what she's found true over the years. Anyway, the quote to consider:

"[...] A narrow focus isn't more immediate: it merely leaves out more. By avoiding temporal context and historical trajectory, present-tense narrative simplifies the world [...] This avoidance of complexity leads away from inwardness, either of the characters' or the author's mind. So it may gain vividness, clarity, a linear simplicity, at the cost of a great deal else - including real, felt immediacy.
"Neither Schwartz nor I argue with the maxim 'Show, don't tell' if it means that it's better to narrate through examples not generalities, to be vivid not vague. But we both question the maxim when it's extended to mean: List actions and objects, but don't interpret, lest you be seen as judgmental; don't show emotion, lest you be seen as unsophisticated; keep your voice impersonal, lest you risk a genuinely immediate relationship to your reader.

"By suppressing the shared past the connects writer and reader, and by its tendency to relate actions externally, the present tense flattens the affect of the writer's voice. From this flatness derives the curious sameness of present-tense narrative. It all sounds rather alike. Perhaps this sameness explains its popularity. It's bland, predictable, risk-free. All too often, it's McProse."

Good points. I do enjoy first-person narrative, especially when it's used to deeply explore the psychological issues of the narrator, but this is an excellent point about the danger of using first-person.

And now for Exercise Six: The Old Woman, practice with the use of first person versus third person, and with mixing present and past, I went ahead and moved it to a separate post.


  1. I found your blog looking for an Ursula K Le Guin reference to McProse. There is a group at Scribophile which is currently going through the book now, and just reached this particular chapter. I look forward to your example

  2. I was just thinking of reviewing this book again and happened upon your comment. I need to review this again backed with new knowledge from my time with Wulf Moon's challenge group. He advised against first person as well, as editors were more likely to be turned off by it--perhaps for this McProse reason?