Friday, December 2, 2016

Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent Made Glorious Present Tense

Something often lost under such A-list players for story as plot, setting, conflict, theme, and dialogue, is the place where story happens, which is now. If a story has any ability at all to hold our attention, the ability comes from the sense of the story happening right now, this moment, before, as they say, our immediate eyes.  

Even some boozy old geezer or addled yenta, reminiscing about some event that might have happened in the past is telling us of it right now, and whatever poignancy or other special effect it will have on us depends on the closeness and state of mind we can pick up from the narrator.

A great friend of your likes to begin his novels with what he calls "a slice of the crime," in which, with little or no explanation, he will allow us to eavesdrop on a conversation of incipient conspiracy, allow us to see a crime being committed, or let one or more of his subsidiary characters discover the crime, which they of course report to his husband and wife detective team, operating way back when, during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  

The slice is chosen to secure our interest, from which point the author can manipulate time to give us back story leading up to the opening moment. The material is presenting as though it were taking place right now.

In one of your favorite novels--The Plague of Doves--written by one of your favorite contemporary authors, Louise Erdrich, There is one brief opening paragraph, the contents of which have indeed caused thousands of readers to stay through to page three hundred eleven. 

 "The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling." There we are, in the present moment, one that pulses with menace and terror within the next sixteen lines. A few years after reading this novel, you were using it as assigned reading in a fiction writing class, urging students to see how this was not only an effective way to begin the narrative that was to follow, it led us to believe we would see answers to the dramatic points raised within these few lines.

The next chapter begins with the first-person narrative of a character named Evelina, who steps forth to identify herself to us as having aboriginal blood, and introducing us to the title of the novel, all of this coming right now, even though Evelina speaks of the distant past and adds yet another layer of suspense by addressing an historical event that gives the novel its name.  

"In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph's wearing scapulars and holding missals. From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step loudly pray away the doves."

Although Erdrich's text is in the narrative form, we can see the events of both segments, happening now, the first one involving the unnamed narrator with the jammed gun looking for and finding a hammer with which to repair the gun, meanwhile playing a sound recording of violin music, needing three replays of the record to fix the gun, leaving us in the room with a man we have growing reason to suspect has killed others and has designs as well on the bawling baby.

The Evelina section is equally visual because of its now phrasing; we can hear her in voice over as we watch this group of parishioners moving out into the fields, but because voice-over is a dated technique, in its way distancing us from the action, we could visualize the great-uncle, in situ, asking if the gathered group of parishioners wore scapulars and carried missals before directing them at the doves.

What doves?  We encounter those, soon enough and already the process of in the moment, present-time action has further led us to associate the presence of the doves as a result of what we saw in the opening.

In story, relationships grow in direct proportion to the events taking place on the page, and we know that even such events as interior monologue--the things characters think to themselves--are forms of action.

Even when you find yourself caught flat-footed between conflicting impulses or moral visions, you are being in the moment. Bulwer-Lytton knew a thing or two back in the day; he knew enough not to write "It had been a dark and stormy night," he got us right there, in the moment.

Lay compound tenses to rest; they mean well, but they are not going to help your way with words--or story.

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