Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"I just need a little time."

The other day my awesome fellow MiG Kate wrote a really interesting POST about emotional distance. (You should read it for no other reason than it includes a zombie Thomas Jefferson. I kid you not.) And it got me thinking about how and why we make the choices that we do with our stories.

I started a new book recently and I found myself wanting to write in first person present tense. I love writing in present tense. It feels very intimate and immediate to me. Everything the MC is going through, the reader can experience first hand in real time.

But after I finished my chapter and reread it, I realized that something was missing.


Nothing big and flashy happened in the opening. So how could I hint to the reader that something (really interesting, I swear!) is about to happen and they should stick around?

If my MC was living in “real time” then she couldn’t tell the reader. But...if she was telling the story of something she’d already experienced, she could provide those hints I needed to build suspense.

So instead of emotional distance, I gave my character some time distance. (I don’t know if this is a real term but I I like it.)

For example - here’s a section of my original draft:

My mom is a super organizer. She’s been PTO president for three years and can run a fundraiser better than Oprah.

Here’s the revised version with some time distance:

Mom is the Queen of Organization. Before everything spun out of control, she was the PTO president for three years. She could raise more money than Oprah. Unfortunately, Mom was one of my casualties. The book of Exodus tells us God is slow to anger. But the people at school and in the community sure weren’t.

See the difference?

Just something to think about next time you’re trying to figure out which tense to use!


  1. Great post, Car! That's a wonderful use of past tense. I prefer past tense when we know the character is going to survive the events of the book. I'm using present tense in my current WIP to eliminate the feeling of "Everything must come out alright since she's telling us something that already happened." But in my haunted house book, I used past tense for that "something creepy is going to happen" feel.

  2. Excellent post, Carmella, and I like your comparison of emotion vs time distance.

  3. Great insight. Some stories benefit from that time distance to create suspense, others lack suspense if the MC is telling it in past tense (and therefore already knows what happened...) Like, say, The Hunger Games, which IMHO would not have worked well in past tense.


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