Writerly Wednesday–Point of View

Yet again, it’s been far too long since I updated this blog. My goal, by the way, is to post at least once every two weeks. I am so NOT accomplishing that goal right now. I also have some exciting things to share. One of them (my recent trip to Georgia) will take some time to pull together, and the other is an announcement that I don’t feel quite ready to make at the moment. So for now, I am going to stick with something relatively simple.

I’m going to write a bit about point of view. Specifically, I’m going to talk about tense and person. You know, past tense versus present tense and first person versus third person.

These are pretty hot topics among writers, especially new-ish writers, who often worry that they’re doing something “wrong”. Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. There is no wrong way or right way. Any choice a writer makes is completely legitimate. The important thing is that it works for the writer and the story.

Many readers dislike present tense and will put down a book that’s written in it. And yet, a hefty portion of young adult is written in present tense, and lots of adult books are in present tense, too, so it’s hardly a fatal flaw. I’m not a big fan of present tense. It always feels a bit gimmicky, as if the present tense alone is meant to make us more invested in what’s happening. We need to be invested in what’s happening without being told breathlessly that it’s happening right now. On top of that, the convention is to tell stories in past tense because, well, the story isn’t actually happening right now. Right now, I the reader am sitting reading a book. Yet, present tense, when handled well, does convey a sense of immediacy, putting the reader more squarely in the middle of the action. And after all, if you actually listen to a person telling a story, they do tend to slip in and out of present tense (for instance, “I was walking down the street yesterday when I see a penny on the ground.”). So it can come off as more more informal and intimate than past tense. A good example of effective present tense is Wolf Hall.

Past tense is more common and is more or less the default. For me as a writer and reader, it’s the most natural way to tell a story. It becomes invisible. Now, it might be invisible because it’s common and not because it’s better. But that doesn’t change the fact that past tense doesn’t stand out like present tense does. Besides, it simply makes more sense (to me): we’re telling a story after it’s happened. You can pretend that you’re telling it as it unfolds, but that requires more suspension of disbelief. Of course, there’s a point of logic: what if the character telling the story (if it’s first person) dies at the end? How could he/she be telling the story in past tense? By the time the story’s over, he/she is dead. So it has to be present tense. Point taken. Yet, very, very few stories anymore are written as if the narrator is actually a person who sat down with pen and paper to tell his/her tale a la Jane Eyre. Even in first person, it’s assumed that the narrator is telling the tale mentally–that they’re going over their own life, putting it into order, and giving us their story. We don’t have to assume that they need time to do this. It could all take place in that instant before he/she is shot dead in the last sentence.

Then there’s first versus third person. There are several types of third person, and I’m quite frankly not that interested in labeling them. The distinctions mostly have to do with how close or far we are from the characters’ thoughts. (Are we hearing their internal dialogue, or are we just watching their actions from the outside without necessarily hearing their thoughts?)

In third person, there’s the danger of what’s called head-hopping. This basically means leaping from one character’s thoughts to another without any cues. It used to be much more common to jump from character to character in close third without a great deal of transition; it’s more frowned upon currently. Like past tense, this is at least partly down to convention. But it also helps prevents confusion.

Me, when I write third, I stick pretty darn close to my characters; it’s pretty deep third, sometimes deeper than others (meaning sometimes we go into the character’s head for his/her direct thoughts, but mostly we’re standing right on their shoulder). When you focus that tightly on the character, you don’t end up seeing things through other characters’ eyes, but you can pretty easily switch from character to character (just use a scene break and start with the point-of-view character’s name in the first few sentences so we know whose perspective we’re in). It also gives a bit of distance, which may be desirable in some stories.

First person has some advantages. Unlike third, you can insert a lot of voice, a la Huckleberry Finn (keep in mind that modern tastes don’t generally allow for that much dialect). We can also get the sensation of the character looking back on himself or herself with the advantage of hindsight. It’s not common for a third-person narrator to comment on the story unfolding on the page (except very obliquely), but in first person, it’s easier to do this (for instance, “I really should have known better at this point.”). Instead of dipping in and out of character thoughts, we’re perpetually in the character’s head. This can be useful when there are secrets to be uncovered. If the first-person narrator doesn’t know, neither do we. On the other hand, first person can be limiting in the same way: we can’t see what the narrator doesn’t see, so the plot has to unfold in front of the narrator’s eyes. Stuff that happens off-stage has to be brought in/alluded to in some other way.

I tend to use first person as commonly as third person. I’ve written a good lot of manuscripts now (three complete novel, one novella, and one project in progress), and they’re pretty evenly balanced. The novel that grew up alongside this blog (about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace) is first person. I wanted to tell the main character’s story, and I don’t think I ever really considered third person. I wanted to imbue the whole episode with a faint air of inevitability and tragedy. The narrator–Nicole–knows what’s coming.

The second novel, set in the Antebellum period, is third-person, but there are two points of view (Caroline and Everett). For about 2/3 of the story, we stick very close to Caroline, but she isn’t telling the story herself; for the other third, ditto for Everett. Nothing is hanging over the story; nothing in particular is to be gained by telling it first-person. It’s also helpful to use third-person since we’re switching perspectives and the use of “I” throughout might get a little confusing. In third, I can just use the names.

The third novel is a prequel to the one above. I stuck with third person for similar reasons. In this case, we have four perspectives, so that much use of “I” would have been way too confusing.

The novella is also in third person, though it’s very, very close third. It’s as close to first-person as you can get without using “I”. We hear the main character’s thoughts and see his delusions, and we never leave his side. So why third? Probably because of the nature of the main character, who would never think to tell his own story. He would always keep it to himself.

And although it isn’t done, my current project is an interesting exercise in point of view. It is entirely in first person. But there are two first-person narrators. The one first-person narrative acts as a frame for the other first-person narrative. The female character narrates, until we get to a point where she and the male character start talking. When he tells his story, we break chapters and go into his first-person narrative. The implication is that this is the story he’s telling her in the middle of her first-person narration. A story within a story. At some points, we stop and switch back to her narration, and we hear them commenting on the story he’s just been telling. Perhaps also interesting is that the two storylines–hers and his–are separated by a hundred years. I promise, it all makes sense in the story. It’s actually a fairly simple device.

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