Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Center Code: A New(ish) System of Writing

First of all, I know I'm not the first guy who's tried this. But I’m trying to develop a new(ish) style of writing I’m calling Center Code. Really, it's just a new way of looking at writing in the present tense. Center means—well that bit is obvious, but code in this sense has to do with writing; an orderly system of rules; a book. With the concept of Center Code, I’m looking at the events of a story on a timeline that moves from left to right. The fictional past (left), fictional future (right), and fictional present (center) in Center Code are more distinct than in traditional writing and therefore easier both to read and to write, without the author having to use so many words in the story to explain everything.

So allow me to go ahead and use lots of words to explain how it works. Past perfect is clunky. That’s kinda what started all this, in my head. I’ve done some editing lately, some collaborating, some writing of my own, and I noticed that lots of us are using this tool called the flashback when we tell our stories. If you haven’t seen LOST, you might have to wrack your brain to get what I’m talking about, but suffice it to say that there are certain signals a storyteller needs to give the audience when a flashback is happening, otherwise chaos overtakes all of us and we drown in a sea of useless words. I want to be able to write in flashback, or even to be able to show the past on the storyline much more clearly. Center Code allows this, and makes the solution elegant and sensible.

It’s easy in film or visual media like television. Usually, in the early days, the camera would zoom in on a character and then the focus would go all fuzzy and dreamlike (as in Casablanca), and then the flashback sequence would start and we would understand that what is happening on the screen actually happened before the first part of the narrative that we saw. The way the LOST folks did it was to use a signature sound, very similar to the sound we heard at the beginning of each show, when the letters did their little fly-in thing.

It's not so easy in print, especially when so few of us have done very much to move it along. We're still writing basically the same way our forebears did about 150 years ago, about when Charles Dickens was just making it big. We're still, in other words, like a filmmaker who's using the extreme closeup and soft focus trick to show breaks in the narrative of our stories, and we're behind the times. Now I know this will get me into trouble with the sage and wise among us, but I think—if the written version of media is to stand up to the pressures exerted on it by technology and culture these days—that we writers need to come up with some kind of system of rules for our writing that makes it more interesting, makes it stand out, engages the reader, moves the story along clearly and briskly. We need to develop a system that, by design, translates well into other media the audioBook, for one.

Much like Hemingway found a way to call forth a new style that brought immediacy and purity to his art, I think it’s logical that we today can do more of the same—if we are unbound by the constraint of believing that we have to do things the way they’ve always been done.

One thing that’s always bugged me is how, no matter how awkward, novels are written in two tenses, even three, all at one time—and the way these tenses mix and interact makes little to no sense. I already mentioned the past perfect bit about flashbacks. Past perfect masquerades as the past, making a distinction between it and the past tense, which masquerades as the present in the novel. Still with me? Let’s use some examples. Here’s how lots of novels are written in two tenses at once:

She reflected on how things went down with Sam, last time they saw each other. She had tried to leave, but he hadn’t allowed that.

See how it starts out in past tense, then switches to past perfect when the flashback is introduced? That bugs me, because, as I’ve said, it’s kinda clunky, awkward, and thick with words that really clog up the narrative. Now, to see how novels can be written in three tenses at once, let’s add dialogue:

Bryson was highly neurotic; he hadn’t been the same since his sister had died suddenly all those years ago. “But that’s over,” he told himself.

I may as neurotic as Bryson, but it bugs the heck out of me that all the dialogue in any given story is present tense, and everything else is either past or past perfect. I know, I know, I know, it’s always been done that way and who the heck am I to go changing things. I guess I never noticed it either—until I started writing—and needed to generate internal monologue, usually denoted by italics, like this (which brings up yet another flaw with tradition):

“You’re a fool!” he said, a little too unkindly. And I hate you, he added to himself, which was even more unkind.

I may be picking at nits here, but that monologue bit is not inside quotations, but it is in present tense—because it’s something the character is saying (unspoken or not). Anyway, all this is to say, if there’s so much inconsistency in our fiction, it sure seems like anything goes, because I can’t really tell what the rules are anymore. How is it sensible at all to write in three tenses at once? Center Code makes a case for writing in one tense at a time, at least most of the time. I think, given how far things have wandered from reason, that we’re overdue for someone to make a stab at generating some new rules.

So here goes. Center Code allows the story to be told from the center, tense-wise. Therefore the entire narrative (depending on where it appears on the timeline) is in the present tense, along with the dialogue. That's handy. It brings everything into sync. Everything that appears in past tense, therefore, can be taken literally as past tense; there’s no need to use past perfect except on rare occasion. Likewise with anything that has yet to happen, a la foreshadowing. But future tense, i.e. He will soon find out, is theoretically rare. Sure, Center Code takes some getting used to, but if you try it, you just may find you like it. All I'm trying to do here is put a name to something that's probably been tried before, but hasn't been well received because of poor packaging or lack of planning. I figure if we at least name it something that is sensible, something that represents clearly the thinking behind the system, we can better understand it, both as writers and as readers.

Center Code allows for a cleaner storyline and makes more sense overall. Plus, if and when the tense changes, the reader is alerted to it quite effectively and naturally, and without any extra explanatory language—i.e., the fuzzy dissolve made infamous by Spaceballs. Flashbacks can be written in simple past tense rather than clunky past perfect, and if the story moves back to center, it’s just as obvious that it’s happening without all this heavy-handedness from the writer. Plus there's no weirdness from the coexistence of past tense narrative and present tense dialogue in the same freaking sentence. I know you're chomping at the bit for an example of Center Code in action, so here's an excerpt of something I'm working on:

“What’s it like to die.” It’s not stated as a question.
She looks at K, both intrigued and annoyed. “Nobody really knows, do they?”
“No,” he says. He looks at her, considering things. She’s munching her ice cubes, a habit both attractive and repellent. “I mean,” he continues, “what happens at the moment, say, when a man takes a bullet to the heart? Does he just die instantly, or does he feel the pain?”
“I guess there’s probably some shock.”
“Yeah, but nobody knows that,” he says.
“Sure they do. Lots of people have been shot before.”
“Not in the heart. Not that, and lived to tell about it.”
“There’s a lot of people in the world, K.” She addresses him by his name—the abbreviation a necessity because of its awkwardness. They’ve both agreed to this.
He thinks about it for a moment. “There are a lot of people in the world.” His thoughts churn, touching on the unknowns of death and what it’s like…the actual experience.

There was an age when all our stories were epic, and deserving of the term. They were myth and legend, and had happened long ago and in exotic places. It made sense that they were told and retold in the past tense. I argue that past perfect and its use in modern fiction is a cobbled-together reaction, a field-expedient result of the past tense tradition of epic storytelling having collided with modern literary devices like the flashback, and not some intentional elegant solution conjured up by professors of English somewhere. It's not elegant. It's awkward, and doesn't really stand up to the sense test, as I've demonstrated. Increasingly, especially in mainstream fiction, it just doesn’t make sense to stick to the stodgy past tense for the bulk of our narrative. Today our stories are hard-hitting, dynamic, happening in the moment, and moving at the speed, quite often, of technology itself. It makes sense to develop a system of writing like Center Code for this reason.

In the present media age, it’s difficult to write in the past tense and still retain a sense of relevance to the now. After all, we don’t live our lives in the past tense—we live in the now. Why shouldn’t our best and brightest stories be told in the same way? Why can’t we read our stories that way? And why not call our happening-now-stories Center Code? 

Excerpt from K: phantasmagoria, a novel by Chris White, coming soon.


  1. Really interesting.... I've never heard of this, but as a writer, all the tense stuff drives me crazy. Past perfect - eeewwwwww! Awful to write, awful to read. I think I'd need to read an example to really understand what you're talking about, but it seems like a good technique.

    On a totally different note, lately I've been thinking about how technology has so heavily influenced music and film - been listening to 80s station; holy electronic instrumentation, Batman! - but hasn't really affected the way books are written and presented. I'm hoping the rise of ebooks will change that. Technology and innovation = cool!

  2. Kate, I agree. I hope to be able to share an example of what I'm talking about when K: phantasmagoria releases in full late this year.

    Incidentally, a lengthy excerpt is already published in Intrigue, that short story collection; you know, the one you're in as well. =)

  3. "The Rise Of Ebooks" By James Cameron a story about an ebook sent back in time to protect a real book...;-)

  4. You're hurting my head. So eBooks aren't "real," huh.

  5. I'm embarrassed to say that I bought Intrigue, but haven't read past the forward....