Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Problematic Tense

     A few weeks ago, I touched on some ideas about first person perspective (and why I'm not crazy about it).  A far less discussed element of writing is the tense.  Past tense is the natural default and the vast majority seem comfortable both reading it and writing in it, and I'm no exception.  Doing some recent writing, though, I started to explore its implications a little.
     Whether consciously or unconsciously, when we read something in past tense, there is an underlying sense of security.  The story being told is already over, we just haven't finished reading about it yet, thus the world the story is a part of is still around and relatively intact.  If it's being told in first person, then the person telling the story is still alive (usually).  Perhaps the past tense lets us off the hook a little.  Their are certain stories and certain genres which might benefit from the very opposite, however.  Horror and thrillers, for instance, function primarily on a lack of security and using the present tense can be very effective at undercutting this foundation.  There are no shortage of examples in recent literature (The Hunger Games by Collins, 5th Wave by Yancey and Broken Monsters by Beukes to name just a few).  From the very beginning, there is something just a little bit ominous about them.
     As a footnote, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft was a master of subverting the security of the past tense story.  His narrators usually began with a dire warning about how their stories must be listened to, lest the world itself come crashing down.

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