Present Tense aka Book Review

Have you ever come across one of those books you can’t escape? I did with The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. The first time I saw it was at a thrift store. The title caught my eye, the cover of a stormy gray beach did, too. It looked like a book I’d really like. Until I picked it up and glanced inside. It was written in present tense. You know…’I sit down’ instead of ‘I sat down’.

I don’t like present tense as it seems to keep me from immersing myself in the story.

Some time later I saw the book at the library. I thought ‘great title’, picked it up, and then thought, ‘oh, it’s this one again’. That happened several times. Finally I got the message that maybe I should give it a try. Within the first three pages I read this:

‘The wind is whispering through the reeds, and here and there they see glimpses of still, sullen water reflecting the grey sky. At the edge of the marshland Ruth stops, looking for the first sunken post, the twisting shingle path that leads through the treacherous water and out to the mudflats.

At the henge circle, the tide is out and the sand glitters in the early morning light. Ruth kneels on the ground as she saw Erik doing all those years ago. Gently she stirs the quivering mud with her trowel.

Suddenly everything is quiet; even the seabirds stop their mad skirling and calling up above. Or maybe they are still there and she just doesn’t hear them. In the background she can hear Nelson breathing hard but Ruth herself feels strangely calm. Even when she sees it, the tiny arm still wearing the christening bracelet, even then she feels nothing.

She had known what she was going to find.’

I read the book, and the next one, and the one after that. It took only a few pages for me to no longer notice the tense it was written in. There are a few reasons for this.

One, the author does an excellent job of making the setting a character in the book. The crossing place is that area between sea and land, and in Griffith’s hands the area becomes as vital to the story as the people. I felt the haunting magic and the ancient mysteries and loved how the story was strong because of where it took place.

Two, the characters were so real. With their flaws and humor and fears and loves. I wanted to spend time with them, which is why I bought the sequel. I cared about what happened to them all, even the ones I didn’t like.

Three, Griffiths wrote present tense in such a subtle way that I quit thinking about it. As I read I no longer felt it cumbersome and quit looking for mistakes. Present tense is very difficult to write because it’s not the way we speak and I don’t think it comes naturally to a writer. It would be interesting to ask Griffiths why she chose to write that way. Whatever the reason, she handles it with a deft, gentle pen so it is no longer a tool or affectation, but simply how that story had to be told.

Don’t get me wrong; I still don’t like present tense and would never consider writing that way. But Elly Griffiths has figured out how to make it work and I hope she keeps it up.

I also wish I’d bought the book in the thrift store when I first saw it. If I’d listened to my instincts I would have saved some money…

Plot Conundrum

I love mysteries, both writing and reading them.  I have a host of favorite authors including Elizabeth Peters, Dana Stabenow, Cornelia Read, Carol O’Connell, Sandi Ault, Karen Slaughter, Meg Gardner, etc.  But lately something’s been bothering me and I’m not sure how to handle it from both perspectives of reader and writer.  It’s that climatic moment near the end of the book where there’s a big dramatic event, usually endangering the life of the protagonist, and resulting in discovering and/or catching the antagonist.  This event is then followed by a slower paced conclusion that ties everything together.  Here’s my problem.  I’m getting bored with that climatic event.  Especially in series.  How scared should I get for the protagonist when I know a new book is coming out in a few months?  It’s obvious the character is going to survive, which kills the suspense for me.

Some authors deal with this in unique ways.  Elizabeth George was brave enough to kill off one of her main characters.  Others have the protagonist not survive to live happily ever after, and that character will lose someone or suffer something they then have to deal with in the next book.  Meg Gardner for instance has a main character in a wheel chair, which automatically makes me tense because he’s more vulnerable than your typical hero.  But the ending scene is still beginning to feel like a plot device.  I find I am reading these books because of the strongly written characters, who have become people I care about and want to spend time with rather than because of the plot.

It still begs the question.  How do you keep that climatic scene from eliciting a ho-hum response from the reader?  How do you avoid writing a formula and yet still stay in a genre you love?  I’m not sure that avoiding the whole ending scene would work, either, because then the plot would seem to fade away and I think as a reader I would feel let down even though I’m finding that ending scene to be the least interesting part of a book.  Maybe the solution is to not tie yourself as a writer into a series.  That would then free you up to do whatever you wanted with your characters and the reader won’t assume what the ending is going to be. 

So any thoughts on how to solve this or comments on what you do in your writing to avoid having what should be the most tense, fast paced scene of a book become an expected, boring formula?