Friday, November 27, 2009

TENSE: When You Reach Me

Hi Meg,
After reading your post I got to thinking about other ways that Stead demonstrates where we are, chronologically, in Miranda’s journey. The first way is that she often starts a new chapter by simply telling us where we are in time. Consider these first lines:

“Right before Thanksgiving” (73)
“On the Friday after Thanksgiving” (84)
“'You two have certainly gotten close,’ Mom said the following weekend” (118)
“The next morning” (128)
“New Year’s Day was weirdly warm” (137)

Thus, as soon as the chapter opens I as the reader know where I am chronologically in the story.

Another way that Stead shows the reader where she is in time is by using verb tense to indicate whether the current action is taking place before or after the story’s action climax—when the laughing man saves Sal’s life--has happened.

The story opens in present tense—post climax. Miranda’s mother is gearing up for her big day as a game show contestant. The chapter finishes with Miranda saying, “I still think about the letter you asked me to write. It nags at me, even though you’re gone and there’s no one to give it to anymore.” (2) She goes on to say, “Sometimes I work on it in my head, trying to map out the story you asked me to tell, about everything that happened this past fall and winter.” (2)

So here we are at the beginning of the book, but we are much of the way through the story that is about to be revealed. The laughing man is dead, and the two seasons during which most of the story takes place are in the past.

The second chapter, Things That Go Missing, is also written in present tense. Move ahead to chapter three, Things You Hide. Here, the story slips into the past. It is the fall. Miranda has forgotten her key and as a result has spent the afternoon at Belle’s. Miranda and her mother decide to hide a key in the hallway so that Miranda need never worry again about forgetting hers. This chapter is written in past tense.

The next chapter is written in present tense, and so it goes until about a quarter of the way into the book when Stead tells the story almost exclusively in past tense with a straight chronological flow. The action arc of the story rises and peaks when the laughing man charges into the street and kicks Sal to safety. But the mystery is not yet solved. The emotional arc of the story lags slightly behind the action arc.

Enter the chapter titled The $20,000 Pyramid. Here, we are back to present tense which is clearly established with dialogue tags like “Mom asks” and “I say.” We are back to the time frame when the book opened. It is spring, a time of renewal, and the story hits its emotional arc when Miranda realizes fully the identity of the laughing man, and her part in his story.

In a story about time travel, especially a story that jumps around in chronology, it is critical that the author use devices to ground the reader in time.

Storysleuths' Tip # 28: Specific time setting descriptions at the beginning of a chapter, and the judicious use of past and present tense, can be enormously helpful when establishing for the reader where they are in the chronology of the story.

New!! Go to NEXT When You Reach Me post.