richard harland's writing tips

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2. Person & Tense




Is there any reason why novels are written in the past tense, like history books? A dozen years ago, I wrote the first version of Ferren and the Angel in present tense, because I wanted events to unfold like a film before the reader’s eyes. So Chapter 1 begins –

Strange and fearful noises in the night. Daroom! Daroom! Daroom! —a deep down thunder like an endless drum. Then a sharp splitting sound like the crack of a whip: Kratt! Kratt! Kratt! The noises throb through the earth and echo across the sky.
There are voices too …

But what’s unfamiliar can be off-putting and distracting, for publishers and readers. After a few knockbacks from UK publishers, I changed to conventional past tense, and the book was accepted.

I’d still recommend writing a first draft in present tense if you want to train yourself in vivid, dramatic presentation. Ferren and the Angel kept its film-like qualities even when rewritten in the past. What’s more, the situation has changed since the time of Ferren and the Angel.

More and more, we live in a visual media world, where fictions happen as we watch, in the present. Listen to anyone under the age of twenty recounting a story, and they’ll so often dramatize it in the present.

‘So he comes up with this look in his eye, like he’s going to flatten me. Then Danny jumps in front, and he starts mouthing off and telling the thug to get lost. Except now the thug’s mate’s are all coming around …’

Present tense is the natural way to tell a story when you’re re-living it intensely. I can’t prove it, but I swear there’s more present-tense dramatisation in ordinary conversation now than ever before.

Novels have started to change too.  My wife has just finished Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a crime and action story in the present tense. I’ve just finished James Moloney’s Kill the Possum, a YA novel also in the present tense. In fact, contemporary children’s and YA fiction is especially likely to be written in the present tense. That surely has to be a pointer to the future!

Here’s my prediction. In 20 years time, the majority of novels will be written in the present tense.

(But large-scale epic fantasy may be slow to make the change. After all, this is one genre that often wants to look like real history.)










Copyright note: all material on this website is (c) Richard Harland, 2009-10
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1997 - 2010 Richard Harland.