Those of you who drop by my blog from time to time may have caught my occasional gripes about the increasing number of authors who write in the present tense. I have long been mystified by this apparently spreading trend, but now I think I know one source of its popularity. The answer is --- screenplays. Just last week, I was killing time in a local Borders Book Store, and found the script of a screenplay that had been adapted from some popular novel. Don't ask me which one; I can't remember the title. Just the fact that everything in a screenplay --- like a stage play, only with somewhat different directions --- was written in the present tense!
The reason for this had its beginning about ten or fifteen years ago, when a lot of aspiring writers got the idea that they could make money, and lots of it, by writing screenplays. This just happened to coincide with the widespread adoption of computers and their associated technology; there is now screenplay-writing software on the market. Previously, most "present tense" writing seems to have been confined to some of the more "extreme" literary novels. Now this technique seems to be proliferating everywhere.
Before I get into a more serious critique of this phenomenon, I would like to point out that the venue of a novel or short story is somewhat different from that of a play or a movie. Plenty of stage plays have been "translated" into film, but even that takes some "rearrangement", since, unlike a staged play(for better or worse), the action is continuous; it isn't broken up by intermissions between acts or obvious scene changes. The action simply flows from one scene to another, or so it seems to the moviegoer. "Translating" the written word and fitting it into a film script is even more of a leap; it takes longer to read a sentence than it does to watch actors performing an action on screen. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these particular media. They are simply different ways of telling a story. But anyone who works with these things has to take the differences into account. I've seen some very good adaptations of novels into film; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and all of the Lord of the Rings films are good examples. But seeing these books "translated" into film is a very different kind of experience than actually reading them. And, siginficantly, both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both wrote in past tense.
Now one might object that these authors are an "older genration" that never thought of writing any other way. They would be correct, of course. But you could also argue that any narrative is a retelling of past events, even if the past events being retold are about the reactions, say, of people who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center by al-Qaida operatives. In other words, the kind of "you are there" immediacy present tense suggests is at best a device to "get you there".
This works in certain situations; it might work well if the writer is trying to recreate the reactions of those who witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers, as opposed to the reactions of those who smashed their aircraft into them, or US Muslims who didn't know what to think, for example. It also works well in some books aimed at "young adults", especially if it's about contemporary problems, or purporting to be someone's diary. But I'm not sure a "you are there" technique works quite so well in fiction that is set in some past historical period, yet I've seen an increasing number of authors using this technique, presumably imitating the "immediacy" of a screenplay.
For one thing, it takes a really good writer to pull this off in a compelling way. I haven't, so far, at least, seen any writers who are completely able to do this, with a few partial exceptions. One of them was a novel about a young girl who is thought to be dead, but is really in a coma. While in a comatose state, she starts to become an angel, and does all kinds of things, including influencing the terrorist who threw the bomb that supposedly killed her. Here, a present-tense narrative actually works quite well; the girl is a spirit floating about the city where she was bombed.
But then, a number of historical writers are jumping onto the "present tense" bandwagon. Some of them are trying to be more "literary" than "genre". Others just seem to want to "make history real" by using "screenplay" techniques. What these latter(and perhaps some of the former) writers forget, however, is that narratives from Beowulf onward, were really narrating a slice of the past. In other words, you don't really need this kind of "immediacy" to get people engaged with whatever your character is doing. As long as you, the author adequately describes what the character is doing, with reasonably appropriate motivation, the reader will probably be engaged, if they get past the first few pages(even the first fifty). "Immediacy" is nice, but generally unnecessary in most writing, besides which it can annoy some readers. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up an interesting-looking historical novel, only to put it down because it takes place in some past era, but is written in the present tense. To me, this just gets in the way of the storytelling, and intrudes on the character.
Obviously, the writers who do this, don't feel this way. But I think in the end, writing a book like a screenplay probably won't work as intended in the long run, except, perhaps, in some literary novels and books aimed at young people. Besides, too many writers just don't know what they're doing, but somehow manage to get published anyway. But that's another story, I suppse.