Over the last week, I’ve been writing flash fiction. This is pretty new for me, but I had a whale of a time doing it – hopefully once the pieces find their way to publication I’ll be able to share one or two on here.
As part of writing those pieces (five in all), I had a bit of an epiphany about tenses. The choice of tense (usually past or present) is often key to a piece of writing. A few years ago, the present tense became so trendy (especially in SF), that it went full circle and has started to become frowned upon again. Past tense, in the third person, has always been the ‘default’ for fiction, and to be honest has always been my favourite mode of writing. In fact, fiction written in the present tense put me off. Fiction written in the first person present would cause me to drop any given book like a hot (and mouldy) potato.
Although these prejudices still stand on the novel, to a point, my mind was opened by flash fiction.
I began to write these pieces – which amount to around 1,000 words or so – in the usual third person past. I varied it up by writing one in the first person (I’m such a rebel). But then a weird thing happened. I slipped into present tense. I didn’t realize it until the pieces was almost done – it was subconscious. The story wanted to be written in the present tense. At the risk of sounding arty-farty, I listened to the story, and rewrote parts of it accordingly.
This made me go back over the other pieces. Sure enough, it suddenly made sense to me, in the framework of flash fiction, to write a few more of them in the present tense. It lent the stories a sense of immediacy. It restricted the viewpoint and forced me not to delve into backstory or external events (integral if you want to keep the word count low). It forced me to think about my character’s voice. I even wrote on in the first person present, feeling a little sullied at first, but warming to the idea with every cool phrase that my protagonist uttered ‘in the moment’.
Now, all of those benefits, which work so well for flash fiction, have equal and opposite drawbacks. Present tense novels always feel disjointed to me – each chapter reads like a short story, not revealing as much of the world or history as you’d like. The dénouement of each scene is rammed home more forcefully, because it’s compensating for its own relentless immediacy. And if you also write in the first person, this is only exacerbated. Despite this, I have recently started to read the acclaimed novel, Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, which is written in the present tense. The style is almost alienating, and it took me about fifty pages before I got to grips with it and started to engage with the story, but I'm glad I did. It's like retraining your brain!
My experiences this week have taught me not to be so judgemental about my own style and voice. Listen to your own stories. Be flexible as a reed in the wind, and hopefully your work will remain fresh and engaging as a result.