Awhile ago, I was lamenting on Twitter that I was five thousand words into a new novel when I decided present tense wasn’t working and I needed to switch to past. My gripe was immediately picked up by others who put me in my place, one commenting she had to switch tenses after being 50k into her novel, another commenting she needed to rewrite an entire novel from third person to first person point of view. It got me wondering, what does that really mean: Need? Where does it come from? Are writers just that indecisive so as to be masochistic in their need to revise?
Obviously I can’t speak for all, but for me, it wasn’t a case of indecision but rather an experiment gone terribly wrong. I’d always admired novels written in present tense, yet I’d never written one myself. There is a certain “urgency” about present tense. The reader is truly in the midst of the action because it’s happening in real time. Sounds so cool, right? And (dare I say it) literary! So I gave it a try, and I think it was working up to a point. But at about the 5000 word mark I hit a wall. Present tense was not something I could sustain for the long haul, and I could tell by one big tip off. I was losing my protagonist’s voice. Each sentence just plodded along, and I mean that in two ways: First each sentence was less inspired than the one before it. Second they were physically and mentally laborious to write. Writing the story started to feel like building a brick wall: slap on the mortar, throw down the brick, slap on the mortar, throw down the brick, . . . ugh. My narrator sounded like he was highly sedated. I knew I couldn’t go on.
So I went back in and changed every “run” to “ran,” every “say” to “said.” By the end of the night, I was happy with the result but cross-eyed and (as I said) griping about it on Twitter.
Someone else asked why I bothered. Does a character’s voice really come from verb tenses? Isn’t it much more than that? The answer is, yes of course it is much more than that. But verb tense, among other things, sets a feel just as much as anything else in the novel (weather, setting, theme). Because the feel wasn’t right, I couldn’t capture the voice. I couldn’t hear my protagonist talking to me as I lay in bed at night. Instead, I was wondering about craft and other stylistic changes that can affect a character’s voice, for example:
- First Person POV vs. Third Person
- Gender of Narrator
- Age of Narrator vs. Age of Narrator at the Time Story Occurs (flashback)
Obviously this is not an all inclusive list. Is there anything you’d add? Have you had any experiments go terribly wrong?