Tense and Tension

You may end up filing this one under rants, because it’s just my thoughts on the use of tense in a novel to generate tension. You have been warned.

What I want to talk about is the trend toward present tense in novels. In short, I don’t like it, and I’ve spent a long time trying to decide why. Until recently, if asked, I’d reply, “Cause I don’t.”

What brilliant logic.

I just knew I didn’t like it. And, to be honest, the explanation I have now isn’t all of it by any means, but at least it gives me a little bit of a (quasi) logical argument. I understand the reasoning behind writing in present tense: it gives a sense of immediacy, as if you’re standing right beside the character, involved in the events. And when you add in that all the ones I recall seeing were also written in the first person POV (should I add a page for all these abbreviations I use? You tell me), that only adds to the tension. It’s a reasonable logic chain, and it has merit.

But when I open up a book and see that it’s in present tense, probably nine times out of ten it’ll go back on the shelf. The word “Blech!” goes through my mind and I make a mental note to not pick that book up again.

You’ll notice I say nine times out of ten. Ever heard the old saying that there’s always an exception to the rule? Well, it’s true here, too. If the plot of the book is sufficiently appealing, chances are I’ll go ahead and read it. Case in point is Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. I wish I could post an excerpt from it so you could see what I mean, but since I don’t particularly want to be sued for copyright infringement, I think I’ll pass. All I can say is, if you like gritty urban fantasy, go get this book. It’s about James Stark, who was a hitman in Hell for eleven years—before escaping back to LA. James is a magician of sorts back in LA, part of a group that actually ended up killing him and sending him to Hell. So now he’s out for revenge. Some of the things I like about this book are details like the fact that he gets in fights and actually has to change his clothes because the ones he’s wearing get messed up. And he’s always struggling for money, mostly so he can buy new clothes. Sandman Slim is written first person, present tense, and I almost put it back on the shelf.

But then I read the first page (I always give them a fair chance). And the gritty, in-your-face style hooked me within the first paragraph. I had to have it. And I don’t regret reading it. Can’t wait for the next one. Go Richard.

By comparison, there’s the book Mind Games by Carolyn Crane. Unlike Sandman Slim, Mind Games is set in a fictional city named Midcity, which is located somewhere on Lake Michigan (I’d say think fictional Chicago, but that’s just my opinion). I had a hard time getting interested in this book (I’m currently about halfway through it, give or take) because it’s first person present tense. Worse, the female lead, besides feeling a little ditzy to me, is neurotic: she believes she is going to die from something called vein star syndrome (I haven’t checked to see  if this is real or not) because her mother died from it and she’s always imagining she has the symptoms of it. It’s hard for me to identify with a character like this. The ditziness I could handle. The neurosis is a little harder. I don’t quite understand being a hypochondriac because I happen to have something of an aversion to practitioners of the medical arts. It seems to me that they’ve still barely graduated from sticking leeches to my skin to cure me of everything, except now they attach the leeches to my wallet.

Anyway, I keep reading it because I’m doing a comparison of it and another book. If things work like I expect they might, you’ll hear about it in a future post, so stay tuned. We’ll be back right after this commercial break. Mind Games doesn’t have the same in-your-face style that Sandman Slim does, despite being written in first person present tense. I’m not sure why. Maybe Kadrey is a better writer than Crane, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just that James Stark is a badass I can identify with better than I can with Justine Jones, Crane’s protagonist.

Now, here’s the basic argument I have against the present tense (as a reader, I don’t mind first person in the least. As a writer…well, I can find it restraining): if the page I’m reading right now is the present, then what the heck is that page fifty pages in from here? Or one hundred? That should be the future, so why is it written down? I should be receiving this book via real-time downloads instead of holding it in my hand, kinda like that scene in Spaceballs where the bad guys go out and rent the movie so they can see how it ends and end up watching themselves watching themselves on TV (confused yet?).

When I brought this point up a couple of days ago, a friend of mine countered by saying that it wasn’t a valid point because it is in present tense—for the protagonist. I suppose that’s a good point, but it doesn’t work for me, because I’m the reader, and, as a reader, present tense throws me out of the story. In other words, unless it’s done really well, I realize I’m reading a book’ I’m not getting immersed in the story, which is the goal of the writer. We want to get you so wrapped up that you’re reluctant to put the book down, because when you finally do, you tell friends and we (hopefully) get good reviews and even better paychecks.

Well, I’m spinning this out kinda long, so I better wrap it  up. FYI, Mind Games has gotten a bit better. Justine’s neurosis is a part of the plot in that she hooks up with a group called “highcaps” (high-capacity mental gifts such as telepathy, etc.) who use their neuroses to, as they put it, crash and reboot bad guys to cut down on crime. There are elements of this book I still don’t like much, but I can handle it. And who ever read a perfect book anyway?

So that’s my rant. Let me know what, if anything, you think of either first person or present tense.



PS. I forgot to mention that a woman in my writer’s group vocalized the reasoning I give above for not liking present tense. I’m horrible with names, and wouldn’t give it without her permission at any rate, so you’ll have to do without that.


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