Wednesday, October 01, 2008

the conundrum of the present tense

I'm developing a rhythm with Part II of TSL of alternating present tense backstory with past tense ongoing narrative. It's the reverse of how I tensed the first part, and I've been logging thoughts on what tense buys and what it costs. Clearly, there is an unprocessed quality to present tense. A self-consciousness that is all too often flat sounding, particularly in first person. The I-verb sentence structure, for instance, can grate with its solipsistic whiney victim sound.

E.g: I pick my youngest brother up by his armpits. I take him to the bathroom sink.


Not to mention the "I say," assignation, a personal pet peeve: i.e. "Yeah, right," I say.

There is this sense that a microscope is following the character/narrator around inspecting every activity. There's a tedium. A boringness. You are running the risk of putting your reader to sleep, as though you're an indulgent shut-in and it's visiting hour and you have decided to punish your relative who's there because he is obligated to make the rounds.

As the writer of a long present-tense, first person passage, I become the shut-in as well as the bored relative. It's an exercise in self-loathing. But enough about me. What do you think about me?


I'm not throwing in the towel, however, because there are some big-picture benefits. First: present tense is good for amping up tension. It can be emotionally risky for the narrator, which is to say, engaging for the reader. The sense of doom is easier to pull off in present tense. Second: present tense is a great way to manipulate time—to stretch it out. And in the overall pacing of a book, a blend of present and past tense can provide temporal texture. Third: present tense tends to make your character seem more vulnerable, ergo, more likeable. Frances, in her past tense smart-assness, can be somewhat cocky and glib and sarcastic. It's part of her voice. The present tense passages help soften her some, thereby creating empathy.

So. I'm going to have to iron out some of the wrinkles (actually, create more wrinkles out of the too ironed sounding narrative) of the first draft. And I will. But before I do that, I need to finish.

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