Saturday, December 19, 2009

Persons and Tenses

I don’t mind reading a book or story written in first person present tense.  I’ve actually read many pages of a novel before it dawned on me that the story was occurring in the moment.  In the comments to John’s post, below, Dana mentioned Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series being in first person present.  I’ve read all of the books in Hallinan’s series, and Dana’s statement startled me.  I immediately got up and retrieved The Fourth Watcher  and Nail Through the Heart  from my bookshelf to check, and lo and behold, they are present tense. 

This says to me that if you are a skillful enough artist, you can pull off anything.  The point, as John noted, is that the writing should be invisible. If it distracts the reader, this is a bad thing.

Yet style is incredibly important. The voice, the vocabulary, the immediacy of present tense, the intimacy of first person, the distance of past tense, or the slight remove of the third person all contribute to setting the scene, creating atmosphere, creating the world of your novel.  Second person might even be the most intimate voice of all, since, if well done, the conversation would be only between the author and the reader and exclude the entire rest of the world.

The author creates a universe with her choices and invites a reader in.  If the writer is really good, the reader is enveloped in the story and moves through it without being quite aware that he’s in a made-up world.  The writing is all-enveloping, but unseen.

I’ve quoted this before, but it‘s to the point.  The very best writing reminds me of one of my favorite Zen sayings :  The fish is not aware of the water it swims in. 

That’s what we writers are shooting for.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Hallinan is so good I remembered noticing the present tense while reading one of his books, and still had to open one before posting the comment to be sure. It's that unobtrusive.