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Throughout the novel, John Green switches between the past and the present tense. Pick at least one section of the book that switches from the past into the present tense, or from the present into the past, and discuss the effect of this switch. Why might Green choose to use a certain tense to tell a certain part of the story?
Most of Paper Towns is written in the past tense, and Quentin narrates the story as it unfolds. Besides the prologue, the story does not contain any flashbacks, flash-forwards, or complicated breaks in the chronology. Essentially, the story is narrated as though it were Quentin’s diary. However, occasionally John Green shifts into the present tense to tell a certain scene. This shift does not indicate that the story up to that point occurred in the past, and now the rest has to be told in the present. Rather, the shift to the present tense is used for dramatic effect to call the reader’s attention to the heightened emotions in a particular scene. When the present tense is used, there is a sense of loss of control. If the story is all told in the past, the reader knows that the narrator will be okay, since he has clearly survived all the events. The past tense also allows the narrator to create a crafted, edited version of events. The present tense, however, gives the sensation that the narrator might not be fully in control.
One instance of the narration switching from past to present to amplify the drama of the scene occurs when Quentin, Ben, and Radar skip school and drive out to the abandoned minimall where Margo’s secret office is located. Quentin has perfect attendance in school, so missing school in the first place is a major break in his routine. When they approach the minimall, Quentin and his friends smell what they think is a rotting corpse, which floods Quentin with anxiety. He realizes that this is not a game, and that Margo might have killed herself. Green switches into the present tense when Quentin gets out of the minivan, indicating the shift from Quentin’s sheltered, routine lifestyle to the potentially dangerous unknown of this expedition he’s undertaking. The use of the present tense highlights both Quentin’s uncertainty and his urgency. Since the characters themselves don’t know how events in the present tense will turn out, the reader is thrown into this state of heightened emotion more strongly. When they leave the minimall and go back home, the story returns to the past tense, indicating the presence of normalcy and routine.
Discuss the evolution of the idea of “paper towns” throughout the novel. How do the many layers of meaning of “paper towns” relate to the central mystery of Margo’s disappearance?
Even though a “paper town” refers to a two-dimensional, over-simplified object, the idea of a “paper town” itself is a very complex, multi-layered concept that has lots of layers and multiple effects throughout the novel. On one level, a paper town, as Margo tells Quentin, is a place like Orlando that seems to be shiny and glittery on the surface but in which all the people are fake. Quentin later discovers that a “paper town” refers to a pseudovision, or an abandoned subdivision, and since he knows that Margo is obsessed with paper towns, he goes around searching every pseudovision in Central Florida looking for her. However, Quentin’s search for pseudovisions blinds him to the true meaning of a paper town, which is a fictional town that a cartographer puts on a map to prevent copyright infringement. A paper town, in other words, only exists in the imagination. Margo wants to go to a place that’s quite literally off the map in order to find herself.
Paper is also a metaphor for anything that seems to be putting on a façade. Margo feels as though she’s a “paper girl” because she is always playing some sort of role. Margo admits that she has loved being a paper girl, because it’s given her a thrill, but now, she just finds it exhausting. Margo wants to escape and become herself. In searching frantically for paper towns, Quentin finds himself caught up in a paper idea of Margo as a goddess, rather than as a normal human. In the end, Quentin proves to both himself and to Margo that they don’t just have to be paper versions of themselves. Instead, they are real, three-dimensional people with emotions and futures.
Quentin drives two minivans in the novel. Discuss the role of the minivans in Paper Towns. What significance do they have, and how does this significance evolve?
In both of the road trips that anchor Paper Towns, Quentin drives a minivan. While driving Margo around Central Florida, Quentin has his own keys, but he’s driving his mom’s minivan. Even though he has some independence, Quentin is still connected to his family and to his roots. The minivan represents one of Quentin’s “strings,” or ties that bind him to the others around him. Ironically, when Quentin’s parents gift him his own car, the car they’ve chosen is also a minivan. At first, Quentin is disappointed, since a minivan is definitely not a stereotypically cool car that would give him social cache. However, almost as soon as he receives his new keys, Quentin and his friends use the minivan to go on their quest to find Margo. The minivan turns into a micro-home for the friends, and gives Quentin the space to bring all his friends with him on his journey into independence and adulthood.
A minivan epitomizes the difference between a façade and reality. In American culture, minivans are associated with parents, and might seem to a high school student like they represent a stifling way of life. But Quentin defies this convention when he uses a minivan to provide a haven for himself and his friends, where they can escape from the world around them and simply be themselves. Jase, Becca, and other rich kids might have expensive new cars, but Quentin has found a home in his.