Saturday, January 17, 2015

Three Short Journeys into Verb-land

When Verbs Thickets are Impenetrable

When reading #SaturdayScenes, I’ve been noticing more and more viewpoint characters being put through their paces in a passive way. So it began to seem as if more people than just me sometimes are confused about achieving and maintaining an active voice for their main character.

The agent provocateur, as I sometimes think of my main character. Someone like the carbon-knitter.

A sentence of the subject-verb variety. Active voice, simple verb, simple past tense. The subject is the carbon-knitter … the carbon-knitter is the agent/the actor. 

Half my battle is going to be all the different words describing the behind-the-scenes concepts. Even when the carbon-knitter, while still knitting, is embedded in a more complex sentence, she remains the primary agent.

The main actor is still the POV character performing a series of actions. Knitting, riding, walking. I read somewhere that this kind of sentence is normally used for exposition or narrative, because it seems to open a distance between the narrator and the character. Not sure yet I agree with the distancing thing. 

Again, she is assigned the active voice. She walked in the simple past tense.

But then comes This construction describes the situation as it is – POV and active voice included – and suggests something is about to happen.

All by turning into


The passive voice (I quote from is used (1) when the action is more important than actor. Or (2) when the actor is not known.


Also, for this story, the carbon-knitter manifests as a 3rd person character. So many novels have been written mixing these three elements (active voice, simple past tense and 3rd person pov) that simple past tense is now accepted as representing present-time action in the fictional universe of the story.

That’s right, we translate simple past tense into present time action and we don’t even know we’re doing it. It’s a cultural mind-set and that may be why some of us have trouble reading novels written in the present tense. I don’t think I’m alone that when I am trying to read a present tense genre novel, I have to try hard to not notice the tense.

So I could say, if you want to learn how to write in the present tense, read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010). It was the first novel I read that was written entirely in simple present tense. Followed closely by Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2010). Both of them are literature, though that doesn’t stop a keen reader, does it? Both these books are also excellent reads with a wonderful cornucopia of skills that may be studied by a learner writer.

The trouble I have with ‘cover-to-cover’ present tense in a genre novel is that I expect to be able to read the story without having to be conscious of the way it is written, the way I am when I read a literary novel.

An online discussion I got involved in recently claimed that young readers are encouraging writers to persist with the present tense, that this is a generation-gap thing and that more and more books will be written in the present tense.

That may well be so, I am inclined to say, but there is already a vast difference between a novel written by an artisan (read: professional novelist 20-30 years writing experience) and a learner writer. More so when the learner has only a tenuous grasp of tense forms.  

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