I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.
Josh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.
Here’s a list.
- Present Tense
- Limited Third POV
- Alternating Story Line Structure
- Simple language / “Minimalism”
- Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off
Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.
Let’s do this.
1. Present Tense
Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.
This is happening now.
Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.
The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.
My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”
I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.
Josh Malerman does this masterfully.
Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass
The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.
To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.
In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.
When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.
Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.
What We Can Learn
Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.
Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.
Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.
I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.
But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.
Hope you enjoyed part 1 of 5.