24 August 2010

Tense times

The wait is almost over. Not the wait for an election result, of course, that wait might be lengthy.

We don't mind admitting that many of us in the House of Onion are eagerly awaiting the publication of Mockingjay*, the third book in Suzanne Collins's compelling dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. What will become of Katniss and her world - what role will she play, and who will survive to stand beside her?

While the actual idea of the Hunger Games is horrific (every year two children from each of 12 Districts are selected to be thrown into a hostile, televised arena, controlled by the game-makers, to fight to the death), Suzanne Collins has created a vivid and compelling series that readers are gobbling up, turning pages as quickly as they can to see what happens. A life-or-death reality show with children fighting each other as entertainment - used simultaneously as a weapon of oppression wielded by the governing forces - is almost inconceivable,** and yet it is extraordinarily convincing.

Collins's world-building is wonderful and the sense of drama, danger and threat is ever-immediate and relentless. This immediacy is generated in part by the fact that the novel is written in first person, present tense. We have noted before how the second person point of view can impact on a reader. And tense certainly has an impact too.

But it can't do it in a vacuum. A novel written in present tense has to have a great deal more than present participles for it to work its immediacy magic. It is only effective if the reader actually cares about the character. If we don't have real feelings for the protagonist, we couldn't give two hoots about what happens to them next... or now, as it were.

And we DO care about Katniss Everdeen. From the moment she volunteers to take her sister's place in The Reaping, we want her to survive the Hunger Games. So we are desperate to know what happens next. And it's not just because of her noble act of self-sacrifice - it's a combination of her authoritative and appealing narrative voice, the compelling nature of the plot (the extreme and terrible situation Katniss finds herself in) and the element of uncertainty that surrounds the Games themselves (she knows she's going to have to fight to the death, but she's not at all sure how the game might play out, what the game-makers have in store for the selected tributes, or even what the consequences of winning might be).

So voice, plot and suspense*** combine to make us want to turn the pages. In combination with these three key elements, the present tense does indeed work its magic - it enhances the urgency, compounds the terror and makes us feel we are truly in the moment with Katniss.

So bring on Mockingjay. Bring. It. On.

* Today! Today! It's published today!
** Unlike Vizzini, we know what inconceivable means - which is why we added the almost.
*** Oh and the URST, don't get us started on URST. We are Team Gale and Team Peeta.


Anonymous said...

Just tried to buy it in Sydney... the bookshop received it today but because of the embargo it can't be sold until tomorrow - aaargh!!!

Celine said...

Good God - until you pointed it out I never even noticed that it was 1st person present tense ( two things usually guaranteed to make me run screaming from a book!!!)I actually had to go back and check because I was all like 'no way I'd have enjoyed it that much if it was 1s person present tense.'

You could knock me over with one of Rue's flowers.

ClareSnow said...

When I read "the wait is almost over" i thought you were about to say it doesn't come out today, but i kept reading and i'm breathing again.

But what does anon mean by saying its embargoed til tomorrow, didn't it come out 24 Aug as in today, as in shops can sell it the day it comes out!? I meant to buy it today, but didn't get to the shop. I better be allowed to have it tomoro!

Also, isn't it illegal for alien onion to blog about a book from another publisher :P

thaliak said...

Oooh yes! I finished the second HG book a few weeks ago, thinking that the third had already been published... lucky for me that I haven't had to wait too long.

Many thanks for the post though, Onions, because I have been pondering the strengths and weaknesses of writing in first person, present tense. I see where Celine is coming from, but I've also been seeing more and more writing that has this 'real time stream of consciousness' where you're RIGHT inside the character's head - and it makes for some compelling reading.

I am guesing that some Onions have read American Rust? It's in past tense, but there are moments when we're so deeply inside the character's head that we're in present tense (usually when the character's talking to him/herself - 'no wonder you're always feeling guilty'). I know this example isn't unique, but I almost wonder if this (relatively) recent use of present tense in fiction is opening up the possibility of being further inside a character's head than ever before... this 'stream of consciousness' that it offers is now a technique that is irresistible, even when writing in past tense?

Not sure if I've explained myself very well, but anyway...

I THOUGHT I was Team Gale, but I am feeling some pull from the direction of Team Peeta.

miss elise said...

Rue. Sniff.