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.