Past vs. Present

Something I find interesting about the past-vs-present storytelling debate: despite the perceived/actual dominance of past tense in novels, many stories and anecdotes people tell each other face to face are told in present tense, even though these events obviously happened in the past.

This isn't a perfect example, but if you listen to this interview with my grandfather – – at 8:11 or so into the interview, when he's talking about going fishing with hand grenades and starts telling the story, a lot of his phrasing is in present tense.

The captain says, "I need you to get these men out of here…"

The sergeant says to me, "We can take em fishing…"

So we toss in the grenades, and they stun the fish, which just float up to the top of the water…

As I said, it's not consistent in this example, but my recollection of stories told among family and friends is that they often almost lapse into present tense naturally, to draw the listener in, perhaps, or put them in the moment, or just because it's more comfortable for the speaker.

Come to think of it, jokes are often told in present tense, too.

A man walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder…

Anyway, the point of this musing is that I don't personally think present tense is as unusual in storytelling as some of the essays I read seem to imply. I certainly don't think past tense is any more (or less) the 'natural mode' for such things.

Homefront South Dakota
HOMEFRONT: South Dakota Stories Russell Testerman, veteran. Miller. Russell Testerman, 2007. Audio interview. Listen to the following interview sections by scrolling forward to the time cue. 0:00 Drafted into the military at 18. Married and a father 3:14 War is over 6:14 90 day wonders …

4 Replies to “Past vs. Present”

  1. An interesting observation. I'm pretty certain that past tense has been preeminent in fiction writing for some time, but I could see a sea change happen that shifts the majority of new work to present tense.

  2. Using present tense sounds somehow… rural… to me. Like that's how a farmer would tell a story, or somebody from the backwoods. Even my kids tell stories in the past tense, and have since they were like 6 years old. Almost certainly because that's how I told them, and how the novels I read to them read.

    Frankly using present tense sounds illiterate to me. Which, if it's the right story told the right way at the right time could be great. But it would probably bother me to read most novels if they were written this way.

    This may well be an unfair prejudice on my part. But there it is.

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