Thursday, November 17, 2022

Slow boil

I started reading “The Chain,” by Adrian McKinty, recently, and I’m loving it. The premise alone is riveting, especially to a parent, and even more so to a parent who is active on social media.

More than the riveting plot, though, I find the book captivating because it’s written in present tense. I’ve experimented with present tense previously, to varying degrees of success (probably more losses than wins, if I’m being honest). I recently finished writing a novel featuring a first-person narrator and chapters featuring other third-person points of views (no one’s done the bounce between first-person speaker and other third-person voices as well as Tony Hillerman).

I even have one chapter told in present tense. My present-tense chapter is an action scene, a shift from past tense to present to propel readers through a climactic scene in a way that I hope isn’t too jarring. We’ll see.

As my agent prepares to submit that book, I’m starting the sequel, and have toyed with the idea of writing it in present tense. Which begs the question: How does one decide if their story should be told in present tense?

For me, the decision is about consistency and pace.

My protagonist uses the first person. Present tense wouldn’t be appropriate. But more than that, I love the novels of Ross Macdonald, and those books aren’t thrillers; they’re detective novels. The pace is a slow burn, low heat that warms to a boil. Those are the novels I grew up with and still turn to often. And they are the novels I want to write.

You can't talk about POV without John Gardner's "Psychic Distance" chart from his book "The Art of Fiction":

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
Rule of thumb, according to Gardner: You cannot move closer that the point at which you start. (I tell students to try to read the list out of order to understand that.)

I’d love to hear from other Type M authors and readers: What are your thoughts on the use of the present-tense narration?


Anna said...

As a reader I refuse (usually) to read a novel written in present tense. For me, present tense does not make the narrative more immediate; it wrecks the fictional dream. I need that displacement, or "otherness," of time just as much as the otherness of place and character and action to facilitate my immersion in the story.

Sybil Johnson said...

I have read a number of very good books written in present tense. It's a bit jarring at first but for those books it worked.