Breaking the rules – Talk About Tense

July 17th, 2011 · No Comments »

I am such a rule breaker. Once I had a cookie just before I went for a swim, I didn’t even wait before getting in the water. Another time I ate dinner with two forks and no knife. I’m crazy like that. I’m out of control!! See the way I just used 2 exclamation points even though most people would consider even the use of 1 as wrong. Somebody stop me!!!!

So, while we’re on the topic of my bad boy status, let me tell you about another rule I recently discovered I have potentially broken. Whilst working on the second draft of my current manuscript, I thought I would check the internet to see if there were any rules about writing 1st person present tense prose.  We’re talking this type of thing: I wake up and get out of bed. It’s cold so I do the Macarena to warm myself up …

It turns out this is quite a controversial way to write. I have unleashed Pandora’s box.

There are many people out there who HATE authors writing in this way.  I traipsed through hundreds of comments both in favour and against present tense writing. Now I’m worried if this manuscript ever gets published I will have eggs thrown at my house from angry literature lovers. I may have defiled the ancient art of writing.

The FOR argument

  • it gives the writing a sense of urgency
  • the reader feels like they are really there in the action
  • for young readers it is a similar experience to watching a movie

The AGAINST argument

  • it takes some readers out of the story, making them constantly aware of the writing
  • it makes some readers’ heads go red and steam come out their ears
  • present tense writing is restrictive and technically hard to pull off well
  • it is just plain annoying

It seems that a lot (but certainly not all) of the people opposed to it are of an older generation (like, OMG, people over like twenty and stuff). I know quite a few younger people who have been reading 1st person present tense narratives and haven’t even noticed they’ve been doing so. It is becoming more and more common and whether for good or bad, it explains why a lot of children’s and Young Adult fiction is being written in this style. They also say it is easier to do on a shorter novel than a lengthy one – the style is hard to sustain and requires a strong protagonist (by which I mean someone with an engaging voice, not someone who can lift elephants).

There definitely are challenges with this style, the biggest one being that because you are writing in the moment, it is often difficult to skip periods in time. You can time jump forward but if you do that too often the writing will appear jumpy and jerky. This style of writing really works best when there are a lot of things happening in a relative short timeframe.

You will also notice in 1st person present tense fiction people rarely go to the toilet. This act is not considered interesting enough to be included but I bet it would if the toilet blew up or if your protagonist’s brother had put glue on the seat forcing your main character to live in the bathroom forever and give up their dream of joining the circus and lifting elephants for a living.

So why choose to write in this style if it is so controversial? I tried the first chapter of my manuscript in 3 ways: 3rd person past tense but it felt too distant; 1st person past tense but it just didn’t feel energised enough; and then finally 1st person present tense and it felt just right – I’m like Goldilocks only I don’t like porridge and although I’m a rule breaker, I don’t break into people’s houses and definitely not houses that belong to killer animals.

In past tense often you are writing what has happened but also passing judgment and commenting on it at the same time. Here there’s not always time for that. You hear thoughts as they occur without censorship. That doesn’t always make your character likable but it does make them feel real, volatile and vulnerable. Although you can tell by how many pages are remaining that they are going to stay alive at least until the end of the book, there’s no guarantee that the last line won’t be them dying … there’s slightly less predictability that everything will turn out alright or that something HUGE (like an elephant) might not be thrown at them at any moment.

I don’t know if it was the right decision yet – I may one day have an editor tell me to change it to past tense and I might find that I can easily make it work that way but for now I like the feel of it as it is.

If you are interested in this style of writing, I suggest you read any of the following young adult novels: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (uses more than one tense), Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

And they are my thoughts on the matter … the thought of a rebel …

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