(Standard spoiler warning applies to Paper Towns. Seriously, I’m going to talk about something that took me completely by surprise, so if you want to experience that for yourself, READ THE DAMN BOOK FIRST. Then come back. I’ll still be here. Bring snacks, because I might be hungry by then.)
As a writer learning your craft, you’re going to encounter loads of rules. Some of them seem rather inviolable, while some are more like guidelines. So how do you know which is which? See them in action, of course!
One of the biggies is sticking to a tense. There’s a lot of debate about present or past tense, mainly from people who seem bewildered and threatened by the former, like they’re trying on a gluten allergy and present tense is a wild grizzly bear approaching with a tray of cinnamon rolls. But regardless of which tense you choose, you’re supposed to stick to it, by God. Slipping back and forth between them is considered a straightforward mechanics error.
When you do break a rule, the important thing is to break it with style and intention. Messing with the rules is supposed to accomplish something, and if not executed well, it simply looks like you don’t know what you’re doing. Luckily, John Green most assuredly knows what he’s doing.
Paper Towns starts off in past tense as it takes us through Quentin and Margo’s Wild Ride, then the beginnings of the scavenger hunt Margo leaves behind when she disappears. Everything is very lighthearted and fun, and there’s no indication that this is a flashback or that there’s anything darker on the horizon.
And then we get to the end of chapter 8, almost exactly halfway through the novel. Then we get this:
As soon as the car stopped, my nose and mouth were flooded with the rancid smell of death. I had to swallow back a rush of puke that rose up into the raw soreness of the back of my throat. Only now, after all this lost time, did I realize how terribly I had misunderstood both her game and the prize for winning it.
Dude. It’s an absolutely stunning turn. The floor has dropped out from under us, and after a scene break, it keeps going:
I get out of the car and Ben is standing next to me, and Radar next to him. And I know all at once that this isn’t funny, that this hasn’t been prove-to-me-you’re-good-enough-to-hang-out-with-me. I can hear Margo that night as we drove around Orlando. I can hear her saying to me, “I don’t want some kids to find me swarmed with flies on a Saturday morning in Jefferson Park.” Not wanting to be found by some kids in Jefferson Park isn’t the same thing as not wanting to die.
Holy. Fucking. Shit. In the space of two paragraphs, we’ve gone from Garden State to Requiem for a Dream. There’s a tonal shift, certainly, but that switch in tense is what lets us know, quite definitively, that we’re no longer in the same story.
The present tense continues through the next chapter, as the trio explore the abandoned minimall preparing to find a corpse, and it’s pretty much a horror movie. With every creaking board, every movement of a flashlight, we expect to find the worst. The scene wouldn’t play quite the same way if written in past, because past tense is relatively safe. We’re not part of the events, because they already happened. If it’s in first person, we can further infer that the narrator makes it through just fine. (We can be wrong about that, mind, but it’s generally a good bet.) We get no such assurances with the present tense. That lack of security already puts the reader on edge, and the use of other suspenseful elements drives the tension home.
But then we’re back in past tense for the following chapter. See, humans just aren’t physiologically capable of sustained terror. Our hearts would literally explode. We become familiar with what was unfamiliar, we reset our baselines, we learn to cope. The boys have accepted that their quest is unlikely to have a happy ending, and they soldier on. It’s a new normal, so the tense reverts.
Not permanently, though. Part Three of the book puts us back in present for the remainder of the story. Again it’s to build tension, but where before it was the tension of the horror movie, this time it’s the tension of the thriller. We’re in a race against time to reach Margo before she disappears again (or worse). What the immediacy here gives us is not fear, but exhilaration. Quentin is on an adventure of his own devising, having graduated from just following Margo to emulating her. It’s about being in the moment, so the switch back to present tense is quite appropriate.
All of this goes to illustrate that even the elements of storytelling which appear basic and fundamental have meaning, and they can be manipulated to provide depth and guide the reader’s experience. Paper Towns is perhaps an extreme case, but have you given thought to your tense choices and what they might be bringing to the story? Do your format and presentation affect the reader experience? This is not to say that they must, but it’s another tool in the box, and a good one. Whether you’re following the rules, tweaking them, or shattering them into pieces, do it with intention.