“On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.” — Gabriel Garcia Maquez
A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.
The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.
The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.
It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.
Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.
And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.
Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.
Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.
My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.
“This is the fundamental purpose of fiction: to get a protagonist from point A to point B with the greatest difficulty possible. ” — A. Victoria Mixon
“I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out.” — Stephen King
Ekphrasis is the process of translating one form of art into another, whether that means writing a poem about a painting or singing a song about architecture.
As a writer, it’s your job to translate one work of art — the world of your imagination — into another: the words of your story. Ekphrasis is one way of doing so.
This post is not about the trick for performing ekphrasis. It’s about conceiving of your writing that way.
Whether you’re working on science fiction, fantasy, horror, a romance novel, or a tale for young adults, the need to conceive of the world — your world — as a work of art, is paramount. You have to remember that the description you’re about to give of an apple, a chair, a blonde bombshell, comes not from reality, but from art, the art of your imagination. It’s your job to translate the work of its art into the words of your art. Be free in your interpretation, and allow yourself to color in words all your own.
What’s an example of ekphrasis?
The point is not what ekphrasis is, but what it does.
Relate its process to your writing, and see what it does for you.
“I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of. ” — Umberto Eco
“It’s folly to make too much of originality. So much of what we make rests on work that’s come before. Let’s admit this and revel in it. Though it might make some people nervous, it actually cushions us in a genetic continuity of expression, and what could be more reassuring?” — Rick Prelinger (via Full-Stop.net)