Saturday, April 23, 2011

T - Tenses

I write almost exclusively in third person, past tense. It is something that comes naturally to me, and my preferred tense when I read. Not that I'd avoid a book written in first person. Of course not.

What I noticed reading (and finishing, despite all the exams and other important things to do) Guy Gavriel Kay's Lord of Emperors this morning (and afternoon) was that while he did write in past tense, he sometimes switched to present.

He did this in A Song for Arbonne, too. It happened when events took place in Gorhaut, the northern kingdom that threatened a destructive war. I heard Kay state in an interview he had used present tense to convey a sense of urgency.  An immediate threat.

It worked.

Obviously, the writer in me had to analyse why he was using past tense in this case. It wasn't impeding danger. The characters whose scenes were in present tense weren't villains. They were, however, the Emperor and Empress, and their thoughts and decisions shaped the world around them.

I have a feeling that's why -- present tense as a way to convey the importance of all they did.

I don't know if this is true. I haven't heard Kay say anything about this in an interview. Whether that was the intended effect or not, I think it's a neat trick.

I'm not sure I would've picked it up on it before I started.


  1. Intentional tense switches: interesting, but tricky. You've made me curious about his books now.

    Good luck with your exams! :-)

  2. I agree this is something tricky, and I wouldn't try it myself! It's cool to observe it when done well, though.

  3. I am the person who loathes writing in 3rd person anything because I feel so apart from my characters when I do. I guess I don't like to feel that the story is being read to me. I like to feel like I'm secretly reading the minds of my characters. Still some authors do 3rd person well enough that I can't stop reading (Clare and Picoult) Good luck!