Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tense Writing, Day 2

Yesterday I started talking about the book I'm currently reading, Elisha's Bones. There were two comments from yesterday.

Robert- There is plenty of suspense and the reader is left hanging at the end of chapters a lot, but that wasn't what I was looking for.

Mark- Ding, ding, we have a winner!

We get so used to patterns and techniques that we may not always notice a difference. It took me a few pages to realize why I was a little unsettled by Elisha - it was written in the present tense.

Think about it. Most fiction writing is done in the past tense. Other tenses come into play with conversations or other situations, but it is rare to see a book in a first person point of view (POV to all the writers out there) moving along in present tense. First person POV gives more intimacy to that character's thoughts, but I'm finding in Elisha that using the present tense gives even more immediate reaction. The past tense gives the impression that the character is relating something that's already happened back to the reader. Present tense puts the action right now, and offers up opportunity for surprises (like when the main character gets whapped in the nose).

I mentioned yesterday that we are creatures of habit. It took a few chapters to fully get comfortable reading this book. Sometimes I think it creates some awkward sentence structure, or isn't fully true to how life works. When the POV character gets hit in the nose, he has a couple of thoughts before the impact. I don't think we'd really be cognizant of all that was happening before such an impact.

Overall, I'm really enjoying this book. The different tense is comfortable now, and the writer is doing a good job of using it to his advantage. It was hard yesterday to write my one paragraph in present tense, so I can't imagine writing a whole book that way!

For another example of risk-taking in Christian fiction, I can also recommend Travis Thrasher's novel Blinded. It doesn't involve tense, but POV. He writes it totally in second person POV ("You saw the beautiful blonde approach the table. You manage to not lose the contents of your drink as your hand shakes.") This is generally considered a huge no-no, but according to novelist Brandilyn Collins, he pulls it off. I haven't read it yet, but it is on my list of "when I get caught up enough I'm going to get it" books.

It's great to see different tactics that pay off. I hope people don't stumble over different techniques, because so far Elisha is a winner. I'll have more on it in the blog tour for it in April.

1 comment:

  1. That's fascinating, Jason! A present tense novel? Wow.

    My daughter claims that you can mix past and present tense to get the best of both. You use past tense the majority of the time, but you switch to present when at a highly exciting part, and that ratchets up the action.

    At first I thought this made no sense, but if you think about it like a story-teller standing in front of an audience, he can switch like that and hardly anyone notices.

    Just a thought!