05 June 2011

Dickens and present-tense narration

In the past I have expressed the opinion that one should never use present tense narration without a very good reason for doing so. I still think this. Present tense narration is tiresome, especially when it's done because the writer thinks it's the new thing to do (it isn't).

In David Copperfield, Dickens uses a little present tense narration. It occurs in what he calls "Retrospects," sections in which he describes a vivid memory of something fundamentally important at the emotional level. In this novel, these sections serve to set off these three or four retrospects from the main body of the novel, narrated in past time. This is a good use of the technique because it serves a particular purpose the author had in mind.

Beware of the present tense trap. Don't let it dominate you, or the language will end up impoverished.

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