Saturday, June 9, 2012

Past or Present, Which Tense are You?

Trends in writing often come and go with popularity, especially in YA, it seems. Normally, the trend deals with subject matter ... everything from wizards to vampires to futuristic dystopian worlds. But lately, there is one trend I can't wrap my brain around. In these books, I loved the characters, and the action throughout is fast paced and engaging. But yet, I hated the book. Why?

It's not the storyline ... it's how it's written that's the problem.

I can't seem to get into first person/present books.

First person/present enthusiast will explain that the writing style forces the reader to stay in the moment; it's real time. My problem with it is that every book I've read in this style does nothing but tell, tell, tell, which drives me absolutely nuts!

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm completely wrong, or my brain doesn't work like the rest of the world's, but I can't lose myself in the storyline at all. I find myself gritting my teeth when I'm reading. The last book I actually read aloud on a nine-hour road trip. It was the only way I could get through it. The final book in the series isn't out yet, and already I'm dreading it. I shudder at the idea of having to sit through another 600 pages, but I want to see what happens to the characters.

In the interest of trying to understand the style, I've decided to do an experiment. Below are two short excerpts of the same scene. One is first person/present and the other is first person/past.

For the sake of consistency (and because I don't write first person/present), I've paralleled the writing style of one of the more popular authors of this genre. 

First person/present example:

That afternoon, I go back to my room while everyone else spends time outside. The sounds of laughter and the smell of barbeque follows me up the stairs. I open my door. I find Sam sitting on my bed, staring at the space where his picture used to hang. 

"There you are," I say.

He sighs. Silence.

I close the door and sit down next to him on the bed. My feet just meet his shins he's so tall.

"Everyone's been looking for you," I say. 

He puts his head on my shoulder, his hand reaching for mine. "I don't want to see them," he whispers. "I only want to be with you."

Same scene, first person past example:

The stairs creaked as I trudged to my room. Squeals of laughter and the sweet smell of barbeque followed me, trying to entice me back, but I needed some time alone. An arc of light swept across the wooden floor, and I startled to see Sam sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the space where his picture used to hang. 

"There you are."

He sighed. Cavernous silence stood between us, and I closed the door, engulfing the room in darkness once more.

Sam scooted over as I made my way to him. I sat down, smiling at the way my feet dangled next to his shins. He hit the six foot mark a few years back in the eighth grade. Much to his dismay, he was still growing.

I nudged him. "Everyone's looking for you, you know."    

Soft hair brushed my chin as Sam rested his head on my shoulder. Warmth enfolded my palm as his fingers laced with mine.

"I don't want to see them," he whispered. "I only want to be with you."   

If you've never done this as a writing exercise, you should try it. It's a lot harder than it looks!

Now I know some will say that the second scene has more detail, but I couldn't help it. The fact that there is no sensory, no detail, in the first scenario is what makes me want to punch bunnies.  

And so I'd like to know: Is it just me? Which one would you rather read? 

*Image taken from