I try to exercise on my stationary bike for 30 minutes three times each week. It’s a goal I often struggle to achieve. It’s not so much the “no pain, no gain” aspect of the exercise that causes me problems. Pedaling’s really not that strenuous. The main complaint I have against such regular exercise is the mindless boredom. It’s a motivational problem. So, I chose the stationary bike because it frees up my hands to hold a book. Reading a good mystery novel makes the time pass quickly and relatively painlessly.
This past Monday, I needed to find a new book so I wouldn’t have an excuse to skip my afternoon stint on the bike. Lately I’ve been having pretty good luck buying and downloading books to read on my Kindle. So, I logged onto Amazon to search through the bestseller lists. As I browsed through the titles and reviews, I decided I was in the mood for a story with a little atmosphere, set in either an unusual location or a long ago time. A murder mystery by an English author caught my attention. The protagonist is an archaeologist who lives on the edge of the Saltmarsh near Norfolk in Great Britain, the site of real excavations of mysterious mummified bodies from the Iron Age in Europe. I read a few of the online reviews to see what readers thought about the author and her book. I quickly discovered a repeating theme in the opinions. Readers seemed to like the setting and main character, but several were put off by the fact that it was written in present tense. One reviewer even said that he wouldn’t have bought the book if he had read the sample on Amazon first.
I went ahead and downloaded the book. I’ve been reading it and regularly pedaling for a couple of days now. I find that I am enjoying the atmosphere and the rather surly protagonist is a hoot, but there is something about the present tense style that does bother me. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe it’s just not what I’m used to reading. To me, telling a story usually involves describing something that happened or could have happened. It doesn’t have to start with “once upon a time,” but I do seem to expect past tense verbs. Present tense makes me think more of someone telling a joke. You know, like, “This kangaroo hops into a bar and …”
With the current novel, I’m getting used to the style and have continued reading, but it leaves me wondering why the author made that choice. I remember reading an opinion somewhere that present tense can be used to add “immediacy” to the story. The reader feels like the action is happening right then. I guess I can see that reasoning, but in this particular story it doesn’t seem to really accomplish that. In fact specific past dates (1998 and 1999) are mentioned in the plot. To me the present tense narrative just feels slightly awkward and meandering. And “she says” somehow tends to jump out at me more than “she said.” Other than that, I can’t seem to put my finger on exactly why this style of story-telling doesn’t work as well as past tense for me. Judging by the numerous complaints among the book’s reviewers, I don’t seem to be alone in this.
There may well be certain circumstances where making things happen in current time is more appropriate than describing past events. Any thoughts?
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.