Posts Tagged present tense
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?
Two weeks ago I dotted the last pixel on my novel Lifeform Three and now it’s got an agent who loves it. Phew.
A few months ago no one would have loved this book. Not even me. Although occasionally scenes and characters would flash a winning smile, there was so much that remained wrong with it. And I’d already been working on it for much of the year.
I have had to drill virtually to the Earth’s core to find out what the story in this idea was. Then I had to work out the very best way it should be told. I have pulled it and punched it until it has revealed its themes and I have sweated over how to explore all that without bludgeoning the reader, being saccharine or vastly obscure.
I have refined every metaphor, analysed every action and reaction, listened to every niggling symptom that something is not right. I have put that book on the psychiatrist’s couch and had endless discussions with it about what needs to change, whether characters are pulling their weight, whether we should let go of a scene I’d always cherished. I have been prodded back to the drawing board by every good film I’ve seen or great book I’ve read. Even the bad books seemed to be doing a better job than I was. The beginning has had more corrective surgery than Michael Jackson.
Finding the right voice was an ordeal all of its own. I’ve gritted my teeth at every respected blogger who said don’t use present tense, because for this book present tense always felt the most natural way to tell the story. I’ve gritted at every post that warned about intruding narrators. I’ve needed a narrator who could place a cosy humanity around bleak events and get away with jokes that the main character would never be able to make himself.
For more than a year it seemed as though Lifeform Three was born damaged and has had to be nurtured, massaged, corrected, restrained, disciplined, until it was fit to stand up on its own, walk into an agent’s inbox and say ‘read me’. Of course, there are still a few notes to come about niggles and clarifications, but it substantially does exactly what I wanted when the idea first grabbed me. And more.
And do you know what? This is what it takes to get a novel right. This is normal.
This is why writing is not just about the first draft. It’s why revising is not just correcting your spellings or twiddling with your literary expressions. This is why the hard work is the ruthless and endless rewriting, the questions we ask about what we are really writing about, the demands we make of ourselves to do better. This is why it takes so long.
And now, I start another. I write this post to help me through the storms ahead and for anyone else currently trapped by a difficult book. This is what it takes to do the job.
Where are you with your WIP? First draft, second, umpteenth?