I had an email from a reader I think I need to talk about:
Just finished Queen of Swords. While it was wonderful and you are a gifted story teller…. I felt shortchanged. What was with the great chunks of italics? It looked as if your publisher tried and succeeded at making you shorten the book. As if you just copied your storyboard to fill in the blanks. I would have loved to have read about those parts in detail. Let the story be huge if it is necessary. Your readers will not fear it, but embrace it.
When there is a particularly intense scene, one that is exceptionally vivid, I often find myself slipping from past tense to present tense. If I do that, I also italicize to make the shift more immediate. I think of present tense as the storyteller’s voice. If you’re telling a story to some friends, and you get very involved in the telling, you will likely shift to present tense.
“And then she says to me…”
“So I pick up the newspaper and there it is…”
It’s almost as if you are watching what happened and narrating it as the scene plays out in your memory. This is a narrative strategy in spoken English that you’ll hear across social, geographic, economic boundaries.
In writing a story, that shift to present tense (usually omniscient) is a message from me to the reader: listen closely now, I’m going to take you right into this scene, step by step. It’s not meant to be a short cut to telling that part of the story: just the opposite, it’s a slowing down of the narration, so it’s seen more clearly.
In Queen of Swords, much of what Honore experiences in the last third of the book is told in present tense. I narrate what he is seeing, thinking, feeling, remembering. The effect (I hope) is to pull you into the disturbed and almost hallucinogenic passing of days.
But maybe other readers feel the same way. Maybe present tense scenes strike them not as intense and direct, but as simply distracting. If that’s the case, I’d sure be interested to hear about it, because it runs so contrary to my sense of how stories work.