When I first started telling stories almost all third-person fiction (and first-person for that matter) was written in the past tense:
Carlos went into the dealership and looked around. He knew the salespeople would descend on him soon, and it was all he could do to stand his ground.
Past tense means the events happened some time ago, and you’re writing about them as such. The story already happened, and you’re telling it to someone at a later time.
For fifty years prior to my own apprenticeship, everyone who had any interest in telling stories also secretly aspired to writing the Great American Novel. You weren’t a real writer if you didn’t have an unfinished novel in your desk.
At about the same time that I was learning my craft, however, something was happening in Hollywood that would change all that. Directors like Coppola and Spielberg and Lucas were breaking out of the classic Hollywood production pipeline and bringing wildly entertaining and successful movies to the screen. The documents they worked from — the scripts — were also becoming literary properties in themselves. Writers were starting to sell scripts outright, and some of those scripts were selling for what anybody would call a chunk of money.
Almost overnight — by which I mean the five year span between the early and late 1980’s — writers went from having novels in their desks to having screenplays in their desks. When Syd Field published a book called Screenplay the gold rush was on.
Now, what’s interesting about screenplays is that they’re all written in third person, present tense, as if the action is happening right now:
Carlos goes into the dealership. He looks around, spots a salesman. The salesman flashes a white-bright smile and steams over. Carlos looks for a place to hide.
I don’t know if anyone has ever documented the influence of pop-culture screenwriting on the world of fiction, but in the early 90’s I had the distinct impression that third-person, present-tense fiction was becoming more and more popular, while third-person fiction written in the past tense seemed to rapidly fall out of style. And I don’t think that was a coincidence.
One reason I make this point (whether it’s been made elsewhere or not) is because it reveals an ugly and constant truth about the world of fiction. Many (if not most) of the stories you read at any given time are written not in the pure service of craft, but at least partly in the service of trends. Some of these trends help break molds, of course, but others are simply cliquey conventions.
The main reason I make this point, however, is to show how literary trends can work against authorial goals. It may at first blush seems as if third-person, present-tense fiction is no different from third-person, past-tense fiction, but that’s not the case. Choosing one over the other is not simply a preference, it’s a craft choice, and the effects of each on the audience are different.
Third-person, past-tense stories have the advantage of being more natural. From the time we’re children we learn to tell about the events of our lives in the past tense, because that’s quite literally the way in which such events plays out. We go to school, we get beat up, we go home, we tell about it in the past tense because it happened in the past.
In fiction, this imitation of the natural, logical method of telling about events that we all use in our own lives helps facilitate the reader’s suspension of disbelief. It takes little effort for the reader to believe that the past-tense fiction they’re reading is believable precisely because the point-of-view technique being used mimics the way in which they hear stories from all sources. For example: almost all newspaper reporting is in the past tense precisely because the events being reported have already transpired.
Present-tense fiction does not have this advantage. Instead, present-tense fiction mortgages a bit of structural familiarity for a hoped-for increase in tension. The goal is very much like the difference between a story printed in the newspaper the next day, and a live on-the-scene report of something that is happening in real time.
Except…no reader thinks that what’s being told to them in present-tense fiction is actually happening at that moment. This in turn creates a disconnect: the reader is asked to believe that something is happening right now when it clearly isn’t — and the reader knows it isn’t because what they’re reading had to be printed at some earlier point. Yes, suspension of disbelief can solve this problem, but it’s a problem that past-tense stories simply do not have to solve.
To be sure, people are more comfortable reading present-tense fiction now precisely because it has become more common. Just as the jump cut in film used to elicit confusion in the theater, but can now be interpreted by almost anyone of any age, new techniques become part of the storytelling lexicon as mediums evolve.
The takeaway here is not that you shouldn’t use third-person, present-tense point of view. Rather, it’s that you shouldn’t use it simply because it’s what everyone else is doing. That’s not writing, that’s following the herd. (Admittedly this kind of herd instinct may make you more publishable at any given moment, in the same way that having the right buzzwords in your resume will mean you’re more likely to be hired. But it’s a given on this blog that writers shouldn’t be interested in how to suck up to people in power. They should be interested in telling the best stories they can tell.)
When you set out to write your next piece of fiction, whether it’s flash or a thousand-page epic, consider the craft choices available to you, then make the choices that are best for your story. There are plenty of people out there eager to take the next open spot in the literary clique. There are no people out there who will say what you have to say in the way you would say it if you had complete freedom to do so.
You have complete freedom to do so.
— Mark Barrett