Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Guest Post: Robin D. Laws

Getting Tense

The Worldwound Gambit, my new Pathfinder Tales book from Paizo, is written in the present tense. Although this might be an unexpected choice for a gaming tie-in novel, I can hardly claim it as any kind of stunning innovation. As is the case with most developments in prose style, present tense narration was first adopted over in the halls of literary fiction. Over the course of several generations, it has spread out through the various genre scenes, taking root in categories as diverse as crime and chick-lit. Celebrated exploiters of the present tense include James Ellroy, Hilary Mantel, and Emma Donoghue. Not to mention that rogue avant-gardist, Charles Dickens. Closer to geekish shores, William Gibson, perhaps the most accomplished prose stylist in science fiction today, makes exacting use of it in Pattern Recognition. You’ll also find it in the latest book series turned pop culture phenomenon, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

The only justification for any stylistic choice in fiction, whether it’s tense, viewpoint, tone, or anything else, is that it best expresses the material. The Worldwound Gambit blends traditions, combining the swords and sorcery baseline of any Pathfinder Tale with the heist genre (with a heaping order of demonic horror on the side.) The heist sometimes plays with time, but above all takes place in the moment—sometimes in split seconds that spell the difference between a successful score or doom for its roguish anti-heroes. Its characters likewise plan cunningly for the future but think and exist entirely in the present.

The extent to which you feel a sense of discomfort with present tense will depend on your familiarity with the style. This in turn will largely be a function of your bookshelf’s generic and stylistic breadth. Even if you’re well-immersed in it, it is meant to be ever so slightly unsafe and disorienting. Present tense prose thrusts character and readers alike into an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable future. Together they encounter the story’s events for the first time, shorn of the comforts of retrospection. It presents the character’s experiences before they have been digested into memory. In other words, it’s the perfect choice to tell the story of a carefully assembled gang of thieves who decide to combat an Abyssal invasion by staging a clandestine robbery in the literal heart of a living, demonic tower.

Any other benefits the style yields occur strictly on the margins.

The secondary result I’d most hope for is that any cognitive dissonance the tense provokes pays off in a richer reading experience. The works of art that have always struck the greatest and most lasting chords with me over the years are those that bend the rules, challenge perceptions, and take the audience to unanticipated places. In prose fiction the writers whose work lingers with me most strongly are those willing to indelibly stylize. My personal list of perception-bending prose stylists might start with the aforementioned Gibson and Ellroy, along with Jack Vance, William S. Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Dashiell Hammett, Ford Madox Ford, and Jim Thompson. None of these writers tries to efface himself behind an invisible prose style, and that’s why their work remains in my library throughout periodic purges of my limited shelf space. That’s how someone like the litfic-pop culture genre-blender Adam Marek has established himself a compelling voice and future star.

Another secondary benefit is that the present tense annoys curmudgeons. (Notable example: Philip Pullman.) Although the vexation of aesthetic grumps should never be a consideration while conceiving and writing a novel, it always represents a nice cherry on top afterwards.

No one will mistake The Worldwound Gambit for a daring work of literary experimentalism. This is no exploration of fragmented viewpoints, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Georges Perec’s A Void, famously written without the use of the letter “e.” It’s a story about thieves and swords and monsters and impossible feats, sprinkled throughout with curtly witty dialogue. If I had to encapsulate my objectives for it in a single phrase, I’d say “escapism for smart people.”

The surest route to mediocrity is to write down to the audience, to assume that they aren’t bright enough to adjust to an unusual stylistic mode or step outside familiar boundaries. By following that path, the writer winds up with a book he himself wouldn’t read, and thus has no way of evaluating. The great thing about working with Paizo is that the team cares about their world, and telling exciting stories that grab them. They know how smart their audience is, and value that intelligence. I might get a note suggesting that I should incorporate such-and-such a creature from a bestiary book, or evoke a certain mood at a certain point. The most common note is one asking me to steer clear of an element being used in another story or adventure. Never have I been told to dumb something down, or take a safer path, because they’re afraid you won’t get it. Whether or not you dig my book or key into its choice of tense, that's a show of deep respect I’d hope Pathfinder Tales fans appreciate for the rarity it truly is.

Twitter: @RobinDLaws
Facebook: Robin D. Laws

New fiction: The Worldwound Gambit and "The Ironroot Deception"
Upcoming game: Ashen Stars
New non-fiction: Hamlet’s Hit Points


  1. Very interesting post. The present tense was the first thing that struck me when I started reading; it was a bit jarring at first, but I think it ended up working quite well.

  2. I've yet to read the book but was wondering, is this a tack you've used before? You mention that it's an unusual choice for a gaming tie-in, but it seems like really good choice specifically for a gaming tie-in. That seems to be how we perceive the game at least, in the moment. It seems that you think the first person style really fits the story you wanted to tell here, was it a difficult choice? How far in before you were really sure you could tell the story you wanted to tell like this? Was there anything you had to concede as really unapproachable using this style or that just felt really muddled and inelegant?

    I've put the pathfinder tales at the top of my list and I'm surprised Dave hasn't disowned me as a friend for not reading these already. Hope your book is well received and I will certainly get to it before too long... I swear. =) Thanks for any info.

  3. Carlos: Yours is exactly the reaction I was shooting for. Thanks.

    Sunshinegrrrl: My first Pathfinder Journal, serialized in the Serpent's Skull adventure path, is also written in the present tense. Unlike Worldwound Gambit, it's also in the first person, as that format demands. Present tense suits that narrator, though for different reasons. He's a jungle-walking warrior who perceives life in an eternal present and is dictating his account to a scribe. I believe the plan is to eventually release all of the adventure path journals as standalone ebooks.

    Choosing to do WG was an intuitive choice that seemed right from the outset, and one I didn't spend much time second-guessing. After the first day's work I could tell that it would work and would be sustainable over the length of the book.

    Yes, there are some sentences that work in first but not in third and vice versa. I wish I could pull a specific example from the revision process but my memory doesn't work that way. I can say that first lends itself to shorter, telegraphic sentences and third person past to somewhat longer ones.

    The unannounced project I'm currently writing is in 1st person past, again because that choice tells us about the narrator and how she thinks.

  4. What threw me just as much as the present tense was the POV dancing around -- starts with third person close, out to something more like third person omniscient, then bounces back. One of the more egregious examples:

    "Dualal sees this. She calms herself. A false, chill smile comes reluctantly to her lips."

    I think that it would have worked better if you had been a bit more consistent -- just my opin'!

  5. Thanks for the feedback, GB.

    I used to care a lot about consistency of POV. Then I read Tolstoy.

    My view is that adherence to a locked-down POV is another example of writers and editors talking themselves into adopting something as a general rule, when really it's a choice that ought to be observed for certain pieces and not for others.

    If rapid shifts between POV are a little jagged, and the piece is a sword and sorcery adventure with heavy nods to the crime genre, jagged is all to the good.

    That said, I do have to quibble with your example above, which I don't think switches POV at all. (Not that there'd be anything wrong with that.) To test the theory, let's see if you could shoot this on film without voiceover narration to indicate the character's internal state:

    Shot 1: the actress playing Dualal, angry and looking at something.

    Shot 2: cut to what she's seeing

    Shot 3: cut back to her suppressing her anger, then smiling

    There you go: all exterior action.

  6. RL -- thanks for your thoughts, and I definitely appreciate that a lot of this is stylistic preference. I also know that I no doubt come off as a curmudgeon myself in talking about it, but POV is something I've been pondering lately.

    And style aside, it's a fine line in any case; of course a character has to be able to make judgments about another character's emotional state, and of course you could film a similar scene with all exterior action. Though that doesn't mean that any given description of that scene maintains POV as well as any other (e.g., I wanted to take the word "reluctantly" out of that sentence and beat it to death with a shovel -- IMO, "a false, chill smile" does all the necessary heavy lifting) But it's not a big deal, and there is that fine line ... why shouldn't one character be able to guess than another is doing something reluctantly?

    On a similar note, I was thrown a bit by:

    "his face retains its symmetry. A roguish skiff of stubble softens his jutting jaw. Gray-peppered hair clings closely to his scalp."

    right after a close-up of what he was feeling, (he was thinking about how symmetric he remained?). I like a consistent POV -- helps me stay in the character's shoes. But as you say, POV tastes differ greatly, and I'm sure that most folks don't even notice and/or give a damn! And that's ... okay.