Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tense and Tension and Night Circuses

I was talking to a writer-friend this past weekend who also recently read The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. I loved this book and I'm 99% sure I would have loved it whenever I read it, but I do think I looked at it slightly differently as a writer. Writers often notice things readers don't.

The book is written all in present tense. Mostly in omniscient third person present tense, except for a few sections in 2nd person. But I'm pretty sure all of it is in present tense. (I don't have the book with me and I'm out of town, so I can't check.)

The present tense was a problem for the other writer I was talking to because the events in the book are happening in the past not the present so she didn't think using present tense made sense. She also said that although she couldn't stop turning the pages, she didn't end up caring about the characters or thinking about them much after finishing, and she thought present tense was to blame.

I thought for this for a while after our conversation and instead of e-mailing her with my opinions, I'll just post them here. :)

First, clearly not every book is going to speak to every reader. It's subjective. And full disclosure: I've written 3 books in first person present tense, including the ones I'm working on now. And I have a partially completed manuscript in 3rd person present tense. So I'm not totally unbiased here. :)

But I would assert that a lot of the tension and the rapid pace of The Night Circus comes from the author's use of the present tense. I don't think it would be as creepy or fascinating or as immediate in past tense. Present tense can make you feel as if you're watching a scene unfold. (Rather than hearing someone tell you about something they saw in the past.) I think present tense can pick a reader up and swoop her into a scene, even if that scene is in the past. I do assert that the present tense was responsible for creating tension in that book and it would have been flat in past tense.

I think that the omniscient viewpoint is a more likely culprit for the detachment she felt. In hindsight, I felt detached from the characters too. We're never fully in any characters' POV, so we never fully feel any of their emotions. Now I'm not meaning for a second to argue that this was a "mistake" or "bad choice" on the part of the author -- just a different one. I think in this particular book, the omniscient viewpoint had the advantage of creating mystery and allowing the author to show many, many points of view, but the disadvantage of emotional detachment. It worked for me. I also liked how it clouded things or kept the reader from immediately seeing which characters were the most important. Experienced readers know that when a character gets a POV they're going to be important for some reason or a major player. But in a book where virtually every characters' thoughts are disclosed, there's almost another layer of mystery to figure out who's important and who's not or why I'm being told about a little boy sent on a dare, or a German clock maker.

I also loved how the description of each circus tent/act was done in 2nd person, (but also present tense, I think. Again, I don't have the book on me.) These short 1-2 page chapters are scattered throughout the book and are presented almost as if the circus itself had written them as ad copy to entice people to visit. Or more likely as if one of the rêveurs (avid night circus fans) had written about his or her experiences. eg. You walk through a curtain and.... (I'm not quoting. Just giving the idea.) PS. This trailer was clearly done based on an old cover.... I kind of like this first cover better, but maybe they didn't think men would pick it up? UPDATE: It's the UK cover... Here's a link to an interview with Erin Morgenstern I just stumbled onto at Writer Unboxed. BTW. Erin and I are at the same literary agency which freaks me out to no end.

All of this also got me thinking about how and if a writer using present tense might use different techniques depending on whether she's writing in first or second or third person... In first person present, I'm of the opinion that you need to keep description of scenery and action simple and minimalistic or the reader will no longer be "in the moment" or believe that events are unfolding in real time. But in third person, I think you have slightly more leeway--especially when it's omniscient--but still, during scenes with action, I'm pretty sure she kept her sentences clean and clear and easy to parse. There's a ton of vivid description in this book, but I suspect not during actual action scenes. I see myself reading this book again to study it. :)

I have heard some people say they do not ever enjoy reading in present tense, but usually this comes from other writers and I suspect some English majors who were told by their professors that it was infantile to write in present tense. (A reviewer "informed" me that I was using an infantile style when my first person present tense women's fiction manuscript was in that Amazon Breakout Novel competition a few years back.)

Does present tense bother you?


Eileen said...

I'm fine in first or third. I'm suspicious of second, but I'd roll with it, especially in small doses like you described.

Omniscient POV? Turns me off every time. I don't even like those little slips into it when people say things like "Little did she know it would be the last time she ever saw him" although those are not total deal-breakers for me, just minor annoyances.

I like to be firmly anchored in someone's head and I like to stay in that head for the whole scene.

Maureen McGowan said...

I'm usually that way too, Eileen, but you should read this book... In the other interview I pointed to (that I didn't read until after I posted my thoughts) the interviewer pointed out that she'd also used mostly a passive voice. I didn't even notice that. Seriously, she breaks ever rule we're taught for popular fiction and writes the most highly acclaimed and popular book of the year. :) How does one do that? (A lot of hard work, based on reading her interview...)

Anonymous said...

I didn't mind the omniscient POV at all in this book. The book to me was about the mystery she creates all the way through and how she adapts it to what she tells us all the way through.
I was never annoyed about the information flow because it always felt perfect and so the tension was maintained and the book felt dreamlike, kind of like being at the night circus..

I loved it.

Eileen said...

If someone breaks the rules well, it's like a revelation. That said, I think they have to know the rules and have mastered the skills to break them in a way that's revelatory and fresh.

Anjali Mitter Duva said...

Interesting discussion of how time is handled by tenses. I grew up in France, where a lot of stories set in the past, such as histories and biographies, are actually written in the future tense. I was so used to it as a child that it didn't really seem odd to me, but now, as I write my own books and think a lot about POV and tense and how they affect the telling of the story, it seems downright bizarre!

Molly O'Keefe said...

I just started this book last night and honestly I find the POV part of the page turning appeal of it - it's handled very deftly, elegantly. I'm invested in all of the characters and I think the POV reflects the sort of isolated lives of these kids. Wholly unputdownable...

Laurie said...

One of my favorite books of all time is written in first person, present tense -- Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye" -- and I even tried it myself when I was writing a book from the POV of a young child (well, half the book was from the child's perspective, then the other half from the grown-up adult).

I think the tense allows you to not have to explain motivation. I found when using it for a child, I could just say she was doing this, or going here, or thinking this, but since no one is looking back on it yet (as in past tense), there's no intellectualizing the actions. You just state the actions, thoughts, etc. without having to explain them because you don't yet have the benefit of hindsight.

The book you're reading sounds interesting -- I'll have to check it out!

Maureen McGowan said...

That's a great insight, Laurie.

Less internationalization for sure... And if possible: none during action scenes.

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