Writer Ann Lamott, in her classic book Bird by Bird, counsels writers to trust themselves, especially in the first draft: “… there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tromping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust yourself. Don’t look at your feet … just dance.”
So in my current work-in-progress (WIP in writer lingo), as I completely re-visioned a first scene, I “just danced.” When I paused for a breath, I discovered I had written in present tense: “I can tell that Gran has been to the graves.” The previous draft was in past tense, so I changed back to past: “I could tell that Gran had been to the graves.” But I kept hearing the narrator’s voice in present tense, so I finally gave in.
Tense is one factor that determines the “psychic distance” of a scene (a John Gardner phrase). Last week we varied the distance in a sentence from Eye of the Sword, moving from a long shot to a close-up.
1. “In the forest east of the castle, the wind swept through the treetops, whispering to the young man below.”
2. “The newest comain of Camrithia heard a mysterious whisper in the wind.”
3. “Trevin heard a whisper in the wind and froze in fear.”
4. “He froze at the wind’s whisper and wondered why now?”
5. “The hiss shot fear up his spine. Blasted voice! Confounded cowardice!”
We identified three factors that determine distance: character description, formal or informal language, and point of view. Tense is a fourth factor. Present tense can zoom in for a sense of immediacy: “The hiss of a whisper shoots fear up his spine.” Or we can change person: “The hiss of a whisper shoots fear up my spine.” The closer we get, the more intimate the scene. We can be close enough to hear a whisper in the character’s ear – or in her mind.
Why would a writer want to be that close? To create a visceral response in the reader. Or to help the reader identify with the character. Or to create suspense. Why might a writer pull back, perhaps to a long shot? To show a larger context. To establish a distant mood, perhaps historical or mysterious. Or to avoid plunging the reader into turbulent emotions. For example, in a violent scene, a close-up may be too shocking. In a strongly emotional scene, a close-up risks being melodramatic.
Novelists usually vary their focus from long shots to close-ups. The trick is to change the focus so smoothly the reader never notices. That takes practice, but practice is what writers do. Whatever we write today, whether it gets published or not, is practice for what we write tomorrow. For now, in my WIP, I’m about as close as I can get. Which brings us to an interesting question: If I’m that close, is the character my mirror image? Is my main character me? I’ll tackle that one in my next blog.
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com