The ‘squeaky wheel’ of illogic: present tense with first person

Squeaky wheel of illogicWhen a writer wants to draw attention to language without seeming too ‘literary’, first person present tense (FPPT) can seem a handy tactic. It’s almost a mainstream device nowadays.

But what authors gain in casual literary kudos they can also lose in character and depth. Look at this popular effort:


When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

We’re right in the narrator’s head from the start, with scant use of voice and wordplay to show persona. This is serviceable prose, and its pared-back tone suits the material, but I find such a stark entry into another person’s headspace alienating.

Of course, The Hunger Games sold fifty million copies at last count, so it didn’t alienate its target readership. After all, it’s been widely noted that teen readers want main characters who are like themselves; they want a close personal perspective without preamble; and they want serious tones and situations to reflect their angst, the more dystopian the better.

But does success mean Collins’ opening works as well as it could? Let’s consider what the opening is actually doing by examining first person and present tense together. What are these devices about, and are they well used?

Aside from its literary feel, the form is often used to invoke immediacy. While behind every past tense story there’s a teller who has pre-organised the telling, in present tense there’s no sense of organisation or premeditation; there’s just ‘now’. If you can’t sense a storyteller putting events into order and perspective, it’s harder to know what to expect of the tale.

However as a form of narration, first person present tense (FPPT) is always and demonstrably a big lie. It maintains that events occur at the same time as the writer writes and the reader reads. Even after long familiarity with the form, the reader is aware of its impossibility.

It’s this easily disproved lie that gives FPPT its silghtly edgy feel, and makes it so capable of ‘defamiliarising‘ storytelling. However when you make narration strange or unfamiliar, you also trouble immersion. Thus at openings and scene changes, FPPT narratives can push readers away, especially those readers who don’t already know and love the form.

For the above reasons it makes sense for writers to find ways to make beginnings to FPPT narratives more familiar, thus smoothing the way to immersion. When the narrative gets into full swing defamiliarising tactics are far less risky.

With that in mind, ask yourself whether Collins’ opening could have been more effective if written something like:

We seldom get up before dawn, in my house. A few times a year maybe, when ashes of harvest cloud the afternoon sky and we’ve all gone to bed at dusk. But this morning I wake in darkness. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress… etc.

I’m not pretending my wordcraft is essentially better than Collins’; only that I’ve paid attention to the form’s weakness and addressed it in a conscious way.

As you can see, this ‘conscious way’ means starting with a generalisation.

Generalisations are observations, and they intend to have future impact, so they always use present tense. ‘My cat is an exceptional hunter.’ ‘I like to wear orange.’ The familiarity of a generalisation helps the reader accept FPPT in the narrative proper, because its tense and perspective are the same. It’s FPPT without the defamiliarising.

Of course, generalisations don’t stand on their own. If you want the story to be interesting you need to subvert or add surprise. ‘All cats hunt, but mine hunts other cats.’ ‘I like to wear orange because it hides the burns.’ But that boils down to your own personal intent.

Here’s a published example of the style I mean (but using second person rather than first):

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

— Jay McInerney, Brights Lights, Big City

Can you see how McInerney’s intitial sentences add a comforting familiarity of form before he plunges into FPPT proper? Beginning with a natural use of this perspective encourages the reader to hang in there past the opening.

By borrowing a familiar use of FPPT during openings or significant scene changes, you can shepherd readers safely past points where immersion is most troubled. By the time readers hear the squeaky wheel of illogic, they’ll be gripped.

The ‘strange’ art of writing unforgettably

Orwell's clock.

Consider the opening: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ (1984 by George Orwell.) What makes the sentence grip a reader is that most striking clocks (at least when the book was written) only went up to twelve. By twisting that one thought, this masterful writer twists the world, and gives us the assurance of a striking story to come.

However it’s not only a story’s world that can be twisted and made surprising by a writer’s word-use. Think of how the best ideas cause the mind to linger, going over and over what was written, either because it was unexpected in its phrasing or because its ideas felt surprisingly new.

Your eyes can glaze over a cliché, but they definitely have to take time with this: ‘The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here’ (Sylvia Plath: Tulips); or: ‘The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.’ (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

While poetry and comedy don’t have to use sensible imagery, think how a perfectly familiar idea such as seasons passing can startle the reader simply by being unfamiliarly put within ordinary prose:

She looked out of her window and, in autumn, she saw a blazing hill of corn and orchards where the trees creaked with crimson apples; in spring, the fields unfurled like various flags, first brown, then green.

— Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains

With a single eloquent image — ‘unfurled like various flags’ — Carter makes us see the change in seasons freshly, and with startling clarity. Such imagery helps build the theme, because in her novel individuals as well as tribes are constantly warring under an empty symbology.

Of course the above are mainly literary works. Would thematically-drawn imagery written in a startling way feel right in a book about heroes fighting one another on a colossal battlefield? Or in a novel about divorce? Or in a children’s book? Hell, yes. I can’t think of a single kind of literature that couldn’t use startling imagery or surprising turns of phrase. And yet in terms of modern writing, the art of making us see things freshly is perhaps the least consciously applied technique of all.

The father of the notion of ‘defamiliarisation’ (making things seem strange) is Viktor Shklovsky, whose essay ‘Art as Technique’ suggested that familiar things are only perceived automatically, so the job of art is to interrupt this process by making the familiar seem strange. In artistic terms, such ‘defamiliarisation’ slows down sense-making and draws attention to meanings that might otherwise be overlooked. However if making us see things freshly is the mark of a great writer, it’s also a mainstay of general prose. Aren’t we all told to avoid cliché? In essence Shklovsky’s technique is about resisting the ‘dead’ feel of clichéd representation.

Another writer who provides striking (indeed at times bizarre) description is Mervyn Peake (the Gormenghast trilogy). Here’s Peake’s description of a man’s head: ‘His skull was dark and small like a corroded musket bullet and his eyes behind the gleaming of his glasses were the twin miniatures of his head.’ Or firelight: ‘When Titus awoke the walls of the cave were leaping to and fro in a red light, their outcrops and shelves of stone flinging out their disproportionate shadows and withdrawing them with a concertina motion.’ In the case of the firelight Peake takes pains to slow the description down, only at the end of the long sentence showing that his comparison is to a concertina, by which time our brains are highly primed for recognition. Peake might well have been channelling Shklovsky in this slowing-down effect, because it certainly makes us dwell on the comparison involved.

Within the constraints of a novel’s style, defamiliarisation can be either overt and lavish or understated and subtle. Clearly Peake falls in the ‘overt’ class, particularly in his descriptions of elderly character Flay, whose arrival in a scene is often presaged by the present characters overhearing ricochet sounds (which are his old knees popping as he walks). But any time a phrase rings in mind, it’s worth asking yourself: ‘Why does this phrase work so well?’ You may find it’s not because the ideas are new or striking in themselves, but because the phrasing makes them seem sharper than expected.

We write and work in a world in which styles, characterisations and indeed entire storylines can quickly become gallingly clichéd. Whether you wish to attempt a feat of novel-length defamiliarisation or write a fantasy adventure novel, understanding how to twist an idea or concept just enough to make it seem new is in a very real way the art of all fiction. To that end, techniques like delaying meaning, increasing sentence length at an unfamiliar time (e.g. during a supposedly fast scene), or searching for fresher imagery at strategic points can help underscore a mood, tone or theme, and are always worth the effort if you want your work to rise above the morass of everyday writing.

Meanwhile one of the greatest pleasures in reading is surely the sense of discovery when a familiar meaning is newly and aptly put. It’s like a bolt of lightning that strikes the whole brain. If so, call me Frankenstein’s monster, but I want more!

Adding style with language and syntax

There are few better places to start when discussing language and syntax than William Gibson’s first line in Neuromancer:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Here the writer uses short, punchy syntax and flat — almost atonal — language. This is cool, deadpan, economical storytelling that tells in one line all you need to know about place, so the author can cut immediately to action. You could easily feel reminded of the way a detective might describe a crime scene.

At first glance there’s a similiar flatness to Angela Carter’s opening line in Heroes and Villains, using the ‘hook’ of contrasted emotional extremes:

Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful but her father loved her.

However the language and syntax swiftly become longer and more complex, with few pauses and strong reliance on metaphor:

Marianne sat at table, eating; she watched dispassionately as the hands of the clock went round but she never felt that time was passing for time was frozen around her in this secluded place where a pastoral quiet possessed everything and the busy clock carved the hours into sculptures of ice.

As you’ve probably realised, the lack of commas or pauses actively embodies the monontony being described. Time is apparently slowed down for the reader, just as it is for the character.

This altered syntax also, as it happens, draws attention to the constructedness of the narrative. For some readers this comes at the expense of immersion. However for Carter’s intended audience, there’s an extra pleasure in unpacking the levels at which the writing works.

While Angela Carter pays lurid attention to the workings of language as such, Gibson, no less aware of meaning, prefers to shock and move on. Rather than using extended description and underpunctuation to make single moments linger for a long time, Gibson delivers information like body blows. Yet in both cases each writer uses language and syntax extremely effectively to deliver setting and mood.

It goes without saying, questions of syntax and language are strongly tethered to audience; you’d hardly employ multisyllabic words and complicated syntax for a young readership. But you can certainly work magic within such boundaries, and it’s always a pleasure for any reader to know the writer has constructed meticulously.

There are many ways to use syntax strategically. For instance, can you deliver a fight scene more powerfully if you use shorter words and cut more swiftly between moments or ideas? Or does such brevity itself become a sort of stylistic cliché?

Perhaps you could render something that happens quickly in a slowed-down, jellified way. What would this say about the situation, the characterisation and the narrative? For instance, it might hint at your character’s extremely methodical, planned way of fighting, in which we have time to see him or her measuring each action and reaction before the next blow. Alternatively, slowed-down description might hint at a character for whom fighting is utterly alien and therefore every moment seems preternaturally heightened.

Whatever you do, varying syntax is as vital to reader engagement as any other single device (even characterisation). If Carter’s underpunctuated floridity continued for page after page, even the most dedicated literary believer would start to drift away. If Gibson never departed from clipped, staccato language in favour of more intricate description he’d have driven readers away too. If you find a scene is flatter than it should be, consider how varying sentence length and structure (e.g. adding or deleting punctuation points) can help increase the writing’s energy.

In the end, writing that ignores the ways syntax and language affect mood, setting and reader engagment might as well be tuned to a ‘dead channel’. But when these devices are used consciously to create an effect — and especially when they draw links to ideas or themes — the writing can live both on and off the page.

Exposition and The Big Sleep


The Big Sleep
Penguin edition: The Big Sleep.

Exposition is a mode of rhetoric, and as Wikipedia notes, its purpose is to ‘explain, inform or even describe’. Since a novel without explanation, information or description would resemble a car crash, let’s talk about why exposition in fiction is such a no-no.

Firstly, consider Chandler’s Marlowe:

I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

At face value this passage simply imparts information. Marlowe tells us he’s a private detective; he tells us he’s clean and tidy and sober; he tells us he’s here to meet with wealth

Why, then, is it not exposition?

The answer is that it also tells a second story. Beneath the image of Marlowe in his washed, shaven sobriety lurks the image of the character as unwashed, unshaven and drunk. By the simple ruse of emphasising his clean sobriety, Marlowe reveals that this is not his usual state. Furthermore, since the reason for the change is four million dollars, we can deduce that the character has a keen eye for money.

In other words there’s more to the writing than what’s said. There’s also the manner of speaking: just note the clipped phrasing and dry, asentimental language. All these elements reveal character without resorting to lists of facts.

By not stating character traits directly, Chandler allows us the pleasure of interpreting for ourselves. Indeed interpretation becomes a motor for continued reading. We read to ‘find out’ the truth of the story, which after all is little more than a ’tissue of lies’.

Even the most plot-driven works find ways to deliver basic information without telling. Have you read any Stephen King? Think of the ways mood and tone are suggested through frequent depictions of minor perplexity or domestic incapacity, and how these foreshadow bigger crisis-stricken moments to come. On one page a character will be struggling to get the damned phone to work; down the track he’ll be fighting signal-warped zombies who used to be his neighbours and friends. King doesn’t need to say a character ‘felt terribly apprehensive’ because his story builds apprehension at every turn. You can bet that if he did feel the need to say his character felt terribly apprehensive, it would come across through a prickling of the nape hairs or something else the reader has to interpret — a physical response, sensory imagery, not an explanation.

The problem with exposition is that it only conveys one message: what the writer wants to the reader to know. Because fiction works by concealing its information behind devices like characterisation, imagery and voice, telling the reader what they’re meant to know instantly breaks the spell. Pop! All that lovely spellbound engagement falls away.

I’ve heard it said that a certain amount of exposition is necessary in fiction, but I’d rather argue that a certain amount of informationtelling is requisite. The trick is to couch it in a way that rewards interpretation rather than kills it.

Meanwhile, embodying characterisation in voice, telling by what’s left out, foreshadowing, setting mood through scenery, using sensory details the reader has to unpack, showing characters acting and reacting — these are just a few of the many ways you can avoid exposition to build better work. I’ll go into more detail on how to do those in a future article.

When is telling really showing?

An old adage of fiction writing, oft-quoted, is ‘show, don’t tell’. But what, then, to make of this novel opening:

I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.

I’m totally pissed at my old man who’s somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don’t know where. The check wasn’t in the mailbox today which means I can’t go to school Monday morning. I’m on the monthly program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything […]

It’s Story of my Life by Jay McInerney, and it’s pure telling. But notice how full it is of devices: figures of speech (‘this shit’, ‘totally pissed’); tone (aggrieved); rhythm (punchy, fast, with sentences lengthening and punctuation reducing to suggest increasing hostility)? Can’t you just see the character in her late 80s pre-slacker nightshirt and leggings, fiddling with the phone because her Dad’s secretary has put her on hold?

It channels Holden Caulfield, of course (‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’) and sounds like a conversation overheard on a bus, but isn’t that the point? The work is telling, but inside the telling is so much characterisation, it doesn’t just narrate the story, it embodies it.

Of course, the novel itself is full of incident and irony — it’s hardly a work that could be accused of using voice to paper over shortfalls in story. The narrator’s moods change, events affect her, she alters inflection and swaps anecdotes midstream; but underneath it all is a tale of urban self-destruction propped up by the nostalgic wish for myths of true love and happily-ever-after to prove real. This same thematic content could have been delivered in myriad other ways, such as through the arm’s-length third-person story of a young woman living at the edge of wealth with no real means to keep herself afloat and surrounded by a peer group bent on drug abuse and sexual uninhibition, something like:

Alison thought: ‘I don’t believe this shit.’ She studied the phone before pressing redial again and waiting, tapping a foot against the skirting board. One of her flatmate’s Givenchy heels stuck out under the bed next to a condom wrapper.

…but it wouldn’t have had the same feel, immediacy or freshness as it did (at least in 1988), and probably wouldn’t have seemed as real back then, either.

McInerney’s work shows us the value of enhancing ‘voice’ in narration, particularly when delivering details of characterisation and situation that might have seemed over-told and static if delivered in any other way. It shows that you can reveal as much or more about character simply through the expressions they use. Meanwhile one of the drawbacks of first person narration (that it’s harder to plant irony) falls by the wayside: of course there are ironies when a character is so caught up in the vicissitudes of a subculture and in staying ahead of the moment that she doesn’t notice her own self-destruction.

Thus it’s true that, in this case, telling is showing. That is, we learn as much about the character’s life from the way she speaks as by the content of her narration. Can you employ any of these tactics without a first-person narrator? Are any of the above devices useful inside other forms of exposition? That’s something for another article.

But for now, when using first person narration, remember that voice can turn ordinary telling into unbeatable showing.

simple metaphor tool

woolIt’s easy to come up with metaphors, but do they work? Let’s try.


Make two separate lists of words and word-groups. On the left, list tangible things that easily spring to mind. Now cover it while you work on the second list (or your brain, if it’s anything like mine, will try to cheat by making concepts that suit the terms you’ll be borrowing). On the right hand side, list intangible things and complex ideas.

It’s good if your tangible things are also very visual, by the way. Of course imagery can incorporate concepts, sounds and smells, but let’s go with visual for now.

Try not to ‘intend’ anything; the point is to try to surprise yourself when it comes to matching terms to ideas.

An example:

kitten ambition
tin whistle attraction
sock drawer political expediency
wool togetherness
hinge the art world
termite politics
shark suburban life
bus old age
castle preventive medicine
Siamese twins marriage
pebble envy
cellophane solitude
chocolate summer
onion death
zipper hesitation

When you’ve got your two lists, read across the page and try to find links between them.

Can ambition be represented by a kitten? It’s hard to know, so let’s see:

The kitten of his ambition toyed with the wool ball of her… Oh, crikey. That’s dreadful.

Still, I’m thinking there could be a link if I use ‘ambition’ to mean ‘desire to pursue romantically’.

He found himself studying her wool as she jerked another length out to knit with. The ball danced in his vision, tantalisingly out of reach. He wanted to grasp it, to stop her knitting, but instead he only mewed: ‘I want you.’

There’s a kitten there, surely. And ambition. And also (another word in the list!) a ball of wool. So I’d say I’ve been somewhat successful, wouldn’t you?

What can you come up with out of my list words or some of your own?

It’s fine to jump around each list, by the way. There’s no need to feel you absolutely have to stick to reading across the page, though I have to admit, ‘tin whistle of attraction’ might have something going for it.

But what can you do?

metaphor and tone

bridgeAnyone can make a metaphor. We do it all the time. For instance, we say things like ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ when we want to delay handling an issue, or ‘muddying the water’ when someone is trying to complicate an argument.

Metaphors borrow something tangible or easily understood to represent something intangible or difficult to express. Of course there has to be some thread of commonality — some sense in which this ‘borrowing’ is able to supply meaning.

For instance, you can’t successfully speak of ‘the orange rind of peace’, because there’s no  way in which the peel of a round orange fruit can be used to express harmonious coexistence.

By contrast, ‘the mouse of peace’ does have a germ of usefulness. But I don’t suggest you attempt to use ‘the mouse of peace’ as a literary metaphor, because ‘peace’ is a concept that draws its power from the great seriousness of war, while mice are small and prone to form plagues. On the other hand your intention might be comical, in which case go ahead. (Collapsing ‘levels’ like this — pairing the ridiculous with the sublime — is a staple of comic writing.)

Remember, when crafting a metaphor, it pays not to be too obvious. For instance, speaking of ‘mouse of peace’:

‘The crowd’s roar turned to a soft squeak after McCap finished his speech. Gradually figures began to scurry back into their tenement holes, leaving McCap on the podium feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Did you gain the sense there were mice in that place? I did, even though ‘mouse’ wasn’t used. In fact I felt positively overrun.

Carrying a metaphor over several phrases or sentences creates an ‘extended’ metaphor; but it’s easy to overdo. In the above paragraph so many indicators point to ‘mice’ that a reader can feel like jumping on a chair. But you can always prune some of the mouse-related terms out:

‘The crowd’s roar quietened after McCap’s speech. Gradually figures began to scurry away from the podium, leaving McCap feeling like an unhungry cat.’

Crafting metaphors in subtle ways is fun, a bit like playing peek-a-boo with ideas. Show too much, and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. Show too little, and the metaphor doesn’t have any effect at all. But show just enough and the reader ‘sees’ things in a fresh way.

And best of all there’s no muddying the water!

what is a metaphor, and why use it?

‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’fox

If I said this looking at a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog I’d merely be reporting.

If I said it looking at a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent, I’d be speaking in metaphor.

The literal sentence is not necessarily more true than the foxy one. But the quick brown fox image causes the reader’s mind to linger, because its literal meaning must be unravelled from the picture.

Vitally, the metaphor provides a clear ‘picture’ in the mind, and thereby simplifies the task of description. Anyone who wants to say ‘a clever and witty young politician belittling the tired ramblings of her older opponent’ probably deserves being called a tired rambler also. But there goes that quick brown fox again! Jump, jump, jump. It’s made the leap over and over in the same amount of time.

And that’s why metaphors work. Because they’re fast, they’re flashy, and they linger in the mind — and because when you ‘get’ the underlying meaning, you always feel clever.

See more:

metaphor & tone

simple metaphor tool

using the senses to extrapolate

We all use our senses, some of us differently or in more limited ways than others.

noseThe point of this post (and associated exercises) is to develop a more ‘writerly’ approach to sense-thinking. It’s about harvesting the information that is at your disposal in order to convey what isn’t. This can help make your settings and events as well as characters feel more ‘real’.

I’ve said before that novel writing is 10% experience and 90% extrapolative invention. Of course, if you’ve lived through an earthquake, you probably don’t need to do much extrapolating.

But perhaps you were a bit too busy thinking of surviving to pay attention to details, or perhaps like me you were out of town when the earthquake hit.

So how do you write in-the-moment (that is, sensorily) about something you’ve never lived through?

– you can research — of course. Researching an event is an important way to gain insight. However often this is distant insight — useful for overview, but not so useful when writing from the perspective of a character in the moment being described.

– you can experience similar (presumably lesser) things and extrapolate.

Having only lived through my share of noteworthy events, I’m a big fan of extrapolation.

So what sorts of things am I talking about ‘extrapolating’ from?

If you’ve ever slid down crumbling scree or fallen off a moving object you have some experience with which to begin to imagine the earth shaking and ground moving. How about being on a train or bus that suddenly stopped?

If you’ve ever hit your knuckles hard, you’ve got some clue of what it might feel like to have one’s fingers chopped off or stomped on by a boot. That is, you don’t know how either of the latter feel, but you’ve some idea how it might.

If you’ve ever loved or been loved (requitedly or unrequitedly), you can imagine how to write anything from romance to adoring (or losing) a child.

A fight scene can be rendered more ‘real’ if you can remember and write how it felt to fall, take a knock, or lash out at something.

So how do you turn these remembered sensations into something bigger-picture or more gripping? In large part that’s the wordcraft business. To do this more effectively, look at my other posts on writing from the senses and metaphor.

Meanwhile, it can help to jot down a list of memorable experience you’ve had, and try to write at least 3 words or phrases that sum up the sensations or emotions involved. Be as glib as you like; for instance you might sum up the end of an affair like this:

shock — rejection — loss.

Those are three flat, unimaginative words, right? But now we can turn them into equivalent physical sensations to make them seem more graphic, so they might linger in the mind of the reader. Emotions can be described via physical movements as well as sensations.

For ‘shock’ you could think along the lines of how your body felt during a shocking moment: chilly; numb extremities; tingling; tight-lipped; dry-mouthed. Was there a lightning (hot or cold) flood through the limbs or a jabbing in the temples?

For ‘rejection’ you might describe sensations of shrinking or shrivelling; protective flinching; hot-headedness; dizziness; acridity in the mouth; bile or another bad taste. You might slouch; you might cringe; you might stare helplessly into space.

For ‘loss’, you might feel your clothes have become too big; you might grasp at things; you might feel hollow-stomached; you might continually look for something that isn’t there, or drop a hand onto the seat beside you frequently.

Whatever you describe, putting emotions into physical terms, if you can do so without resorting to cliché (‘pain in the heart’) will help them seem more ‘real’, while paying attention to how your senses work means you’re in a better state to write any situation realistically.

Just be careful if you decide to fall off a bicycle down a hill of scree for ‘research’.