The Spark of the Present

Manageable versus immediate is one of the most common trade-offs in narration. Many first-time authors choose the omniscient past-tense voice because it enables them to tell the story efficiently. Beyond their reach is the more literary approach of the first-person, present-tense narrative. Yet they can sample the style in order to develop a better feel for their main character.

How does that work? To begin with, a short phrase can provide access to a string of thoughts. “That works” is a very common term that doesn’t sound right as “That worked.” Rather than be frustrated, an author can let it be. That’s the way it came out. Now what? You run with the idea: “That works” leads to . . . You continue for the next sentence or more, letting the thought run out. You can convert the rest of the thought into the past tense later. That’s because a full sentence more easily transmutes from the present. For instance, “That works. She could see how that would be a big advantage. Sure, she would be willing to try it.”

If you use the present-tense interjection only once, it will stick out like a sore thumb. But if you incorporate it into your style, using it maybe 100 times during the book, always with the same character, it is another tool. You use its immediacy to impact the reader.

You can take the further step of leaving the related thoughts in the present-tense. This is often seen in books that use italicized thoughts. Using the above example, the phrase could run: “That works. I can see how that would be a big advantage. Sure, why wouldn’t I want to try it?” This technique is best suited to short bursts like the example, both because your dominant style is past-tense and because italics are different from regular text. I also see it usually associated with passages dominated by dialogue, where it functions as commentary—unspoken text, if you will. Think what would happen if you did that 100 times.

Use of the first-person, present-tense has another tremendous advantage. You can use its natural ease as a way to access the character’s thoughts. Once you start writing that way for short bursts, you may find that some of the strings run longer. You’re developing fluency in penetrating the character. That’s the name of the narrative game.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for past-tense thoughts by the protagonist. When you find one that seems too distant, start with a simple phrase. You’re punching it up. Now look at the text that follows. Does it work with your new present-tense phrase? If not, could you run off a new string of text that does? Now compare the two and see which one illuminates your character better.

“We see past time in a telescope and present time in a microscope. Hence the apparent enormities of the present.”
—Victor Hugo

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.