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