Tuesday, 3 February 2009

From A to B

Writing fiction presents the writer with a near-infinite list of choices, not only on the subject matter, but also on the style and the process. For example, most stories are written in the past tense, but not all. Sometimes, I find that when I write in the present tense, my writing becomes more immediate and more fluid. I can ‘see’ my characters better as I can understand what they are doing right now. I don’t have to interpret their past actions for my readers.

However, this sort of writing can go badly wrong, and you can tell when it does because the characters in the story get stuck in a sort of realisation of Zeno’s paradox, in which an infinite number of steps are needed to get anywhere. The characters stop being able to do anything, because every single action occupies all of the present. When you’re concentrating on the present and not the future or the past, the present can seem like eternity. The writer chops the present down into finer and finer slices until time stops completely. This is probably a good thing if you’re meditating. It’s not a good thing if you want to write interesting fiction.

Of course, the antidote is to know which of the present moments are the important ones and leap from one to the next, leaving out all the others. A story never really flows continuously and smoothly from one moment to the next, and consequently the space-time in the story becomes rather lumpy and quantised. If the writer is good, the reader doesn’t notice these invisible joins.
The use of the past tense in literature is a method of telling the reader that the narrator has seen these events happen in the past and is relaying them to the reader. Using the present tense does away with this artifice, and replaces it with another. The reader is now ‘watching’ the events unfold before his or her eyes; this is the literary equivalent of watching a film. Was this method of writing influenced by the rise of film in the early twentieth century?

In scientific narratives (i.e. papers published in scientific journals), there is also a subtle editing of time and space. In these sorts of writings, you never read about the nights spent at the telescope waiting for the cloud to go away and the cabin fever brought on by spending two weeks alone at 10,000 feet observing the same star night after night. You never usually read about the things that go wrong, the wrong star observed, the wrong chemicals mixed, the endless debugging of the computer program. These things are not supposed to be relevant to the experiment.

The actual work reported in scientific papers is summarised in the past tense, although the results are reported in the present. So the work occupies a specific moment in time, but its outcome should stand for all eternity, even after the invisible narrator is long gone. And the passive voice is always used, to indicate that the presence of the author did not impact on the results. In fact, the scientist is the ghost in the machine. Events unfold with a certain inevitability, the stars were observed, the gases were mixed, the temperature was taken, the theory was developed, but who did all this?

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