Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Verb tense, that is.

As a reader I have an aversion to the use of the present tense in fiction. I feel like it is often used as a gimmick to generate cheap energy through a sense of immediacy when vivid and singular writing in the past tense would do that more authentically. Sometimes when a writer uses the present tense it feels like a patch up to disguise the shortcomings in the writing such as there not being any active verbs, probably because the writer doesn't really know what's going on in the scene. Perhaps they've failed to get in touch with it.

There are plenty of counter examples and many many novels I've enjoyed that are in present tense -- usually pulling me in before I've had to become aware of technique. So, probably the most accurate thing to say is that in my opinion present tense is a technique that can have an interesting effect but that is overused. (I also feel that same way about first person -- that the technique is sometimes used to hide the shortcomings in the story behind a clever voice. I could go on forever about the neglected virtues of the third person, especially the third person limited.)

So I usually rely on the plain vanilla techniques of past tense and third person, my present project included. But . . . when I was drafting the other day I found myself slipping mid-scene into the present tense. Where is that coming from, I asked myself.

It actually happened during a parenthetical remark in the narration that explains some context about what is going on in the story. When I thought about it more closely, I realized that parts of this project might actually benefit from switching between present and past tense in an organized way.

To explain this I might have to give away more of my story than I usually like to do on this blog. How do I put this? Let's just say that in the abstract that the story takes places in two different "realms" in terms of time and space. Think of it as inside the castle and out in the forest, to use the romance model. The characters move back and forth between these different realms for big portions of the book -- several chapters in one, several chapters in another, etc. There are about 6 -8 switches total.

Up until my accidental switch to present tense, all of the book, on both realms, had been narrated with the same past-tense technique. ("The hero discovered this and decided that.") But I've been thinking that the changes in realm could be signaled with a change in tense. When the characters are in the castle, I would use past tense, and when they go into the forest, I would use the present. ("The hero discovers this and decides that.")

One advantage would be to heighten the distinction between the two realms. Another is that it would clarify for the reader where we are in time and space. Another is that the change in general and the use of the present tense in particular in those spots would reinforce some of the thematic structure of the story, but, again, to explain that I would have to give away more than I want to.

So, I'm experimenting with that. I wrote the rest of the section in the present tense. Even though it has the advantages I listed, I'm not sure I'm crazy about how it sounds. I have a theory that the present tense gives up some subtlety of meaning that the English language is capable of, and this material I've drafted feels that way to me a little bit, though it's hard to put my finger on exactly how.

Also, if I'm going to do this, it will mean a lot of tedious revision in about a third of the book changing all the saws to sees and wases to ises and saids to says. Just doing that for the 10 pages I already had done in this section about bored me to death.

So we'll see. This book has bigger problems that I need to figure out, so I'll be stewing on this in the meantime. In any case, it shouldn't affect any more of the drafting, because I'm past the last trip into the forest. It will affect rewrites and revisions.

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