Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Waxing Philosophical About Writing

At one time or another, everyone feels the need to justify their likes, dislikes, and opinions. In the past, I’ve explained that I dislike the new “wave” of storytelling in present tense. It’s too “I spy with my little eye” for me. But I keep thinking about it and about why it irritates me as a reader so incredibly much. It feels so unnatural and sounds so childish to my ears. And looking through my books, I’ve found that the ones written in present tense that I can tolerate or even like, often have descriptive passages that use past tense.

And that got me thinking again about why. Why do I dislike present tense for fiction so much? I love it in blogs. But blogs are short and conversational. I don’t mind brief passages. I just can't read an entire work of fiction written that way.

So while I was walking the dogs today, I thought about it again. Why?

There really is a good reason why it feels so unnatural to me and why it feels like I’ve plunged into a mediocre role-playing game when I run into a book written that way.

We live in the past.

That’s right. Think about it. Everything that comes in through your senses has already occurred. In some cases, a really, really long time ago.

Take vision for instance. You walk outside and look at the stars. Well, what you’re seeing is the past. It’s light that spun out through the universe years ago—in many cases, billions of years ago—and you’re just now seeing it. If you’re gazing at a planet, it may already have exploded and turned into cosmic dust a billion years ago. The further away the object is, the more “in the past” it is by the time you see it.

What you’re hearing occurred in the past, as well. And since sound waves move more slowly than light, you will for example see the smoke and flash of gun powder exploding from a muzzle loader gun, well before you hear it, if the gun is sufficiently far away.

And who hasn’t experienced that split second of “Hey, I think I’m okay!” after a fall, only to realize a second later that maybe you’re not okay, after all. Maybe you broke a bone or two (as happened to me, boo, hoo) and it just took your nerves a second or two to catch up with the signals from your broken bones.

Our brains also have to process this input, so any results as far as feelings are also…about things that may already be over with.

All information coming into our bodies is about the past. It may be only milliseconds in the past, but it’s still the past.

I feel better now. I can finally justify why I prefer books written in past tense.

Sure, it’s more about my own psychological problems, but at least I can excuse them by saying: everything we see, feel, or hear is in the past, so it only makes sense to describe them that way when telling a story.

By the way—I see that my daffodils are getting ready to bloom!


Beth Caudill said...

My tulips are still just poking out of the soil. Still waiting for flowers to come up. But in another month or so I'll have to go trim the roses and the hydrangea.

Great post Amy.

Amy said...

Isn't it exciting to see all those little green things sticking their heads up?

I always trim my roses back on Valentine's Day, or at least the preceding or following weekend. :) Then they are all ready for spring!

I can't wait for the first spring flowers to open.

Sherry Gloag said...

Interesting post Amy. I agree present tense writing style isn't always suitable for a story. I have a hard time equating the fast pace of today's writing with Regency stories. But then I cut my eye teeth on Georgette Heyer! LOl

Amy said...

Hi Sherry!
I know my problem with present tense is a "personal one" and a lot of readers like present tense just fine, thank you. :) My sister, for example, is comfortable with it and reads a lot of mysteries written in present tense. She sent one to me the other day, but I just couldn't read past page one.

This blog is probably better characerized as self-justification :). We all do it, don't we? We all try to excuse our bad habits or intolerance one way or another. This is my excuse for my intolerance to present tense.

Frankly, it gives me a headache and makes me queasy.

But fortunately for those writers who indulge in a passion for present tense, there appears to be an audience for it. That audience just doesn't include me.

Christine said...

I don't like present tense writing, either. It jars me out of the story. BTW, my husband, the physicist, would love your blog. This is the world he studies--past lives of atoms and quarks and other weird oddities.