Who’s telling your story … and when?

In my last post, I said it was time to write my next book. Some of you may have noticed a post or two in the last few weeks indicating I’d already started that book. If you go back a few months, I talked about another book I’d started. Yeah, I’m having problems making a decision and sticking to it.

Last night, I opened one of the books and read the opening. I liked it, but something was off. I felt distanced. So, I closed the file and went to bed. Of course, I couldn’t fall asleep because I kept trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I finally drifted off considering a change in point of view.

Most of the time, I write in close third. That I recall, I’ve never written in second, but for certain pieces, I’ve used first person. This morning, I opened a copy of my new manuscript and started changing the POV to first. After a few paragraphs, I stopped to listen to the reader in my head and discovered she was proposing another change.

Without looking through dozens of files to tally them, I think I’m safe in saying I usually write in past tense, but my inner reader suggested present tense for this novel. I haven’t studied point of view and tense. I mean, I know the differences, but I’ve read only a little about how the various combinations affect the story—or rather the reading of the story.

Fortunately, I hadn’t written very far into the book, so I don’t have to change much. I’m enjoying the challenge, but will the changes work? I don’t know. The short opening scene will probably need to be moved further into the book. Maybe I’ll substitute a new one. I may have to break my vow and seek feedback from a writer friend or two at this early stage.

I hope you’ll share your wisdom on tense and point of view with me. I know I have writing books on the shelf that would help, but I also know if I open them, I’ll be distracted for days. So …

Discuss, please:  Do you have a favorite POV or tense to write in? If so, why do you favor it? Have you ever forced yourself to try a new tense or viewpoint? Is there a certain type story you think works best in first person present tense? Is there a type you’d hate to read in that POV and tense?

27 thoughts on “Who’s telling your story … and when?

  1. Hi Linda,
    My sister in law just said the other day she doesn’t like books in first person, but Stephenie Meyer does it very well combining past and present. Kathy Reichs also does it well. I just finished her Deja Dead book. I struggled a bit with my current book as the story presented itself in my head as first person present tense which I find is so limited in presentation. Another story I have worked on and not completed yet is strictly third person. I guess the first thing is to visualize your story, people and events and visualize exactly where you are in the story, are you observing or in the middle of the mayhem? I’m not sure if this helps or even addresses the question.I just woke up, late so perhaps did not even read it correctly! 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your response, Chris. I used to think I wouldn’t like second person until I read a short story and was so caught up in it, I didn’t even realize it was written in that POV. I guess it’s almost always the case that if you write it well enough any viewpoint and tense will work. However, for me, I should probably investigate more.

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  2. I’ve written a few shorts as a narration by myself as a child in an event and then switching to the adult recalling the event, interchangeably. Naturally the sentence structure and vocabulary speaking voice changed. As did sentence length. Sometimes it is hard to pull off the repeating switching and some readers were unable to catch what was going on. I felt is was artful to be in two separate time dimensions simultaneously rather than to do it in alternating chapters. Of course this is one unique way of telling a story and is not appropriate for all story types.

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  3. I have written some shorts recalling events from childhood. I would write in the speaking voice of a child as narrator and then switch to the adult in recall mode, interchangeably throughout the story. Naturally sentence structure and vocabulary would obviously change. I felt it was artful to be in two time dimensions simultaneously but some readers did not catch what was going own and probably thought I had some mental disorder

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    1. Thank you, Carl, for adding to the discussion … twice. 😉 I’m sure how well you write is the bottom line. Great authors pull off the unexpected all the time. I don’t count myself among them, so I’m questioning. I think this sounds like a case for reader feedback.

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  4. I was struggling to think what a second person PoV might look like, then realised I was reading one – a whole novel – and so beautifully done I had not noticed the technique. Yes, I saw where I was asked to follow this character for a while, and then to ignore another because they would not be important, but second person? I had to look that up! In the past, I would have said I preferred third person, past tense structures, in the manner of children’s tales read aloud by an adult.

    When I started writing, quite a few stories emerged unaccountably in first person, present tense mode. Then I started to notice how often that happens in published material, and I wonder now if this has its roots in today’s common speech patterns, as ‘Well, I’m walking down the street when this bloke comes up to me, and he says …’. This has an involving immediacy to it which is difficult for the listener to distance themselves from. Unfortunately, it also limits the perspectives an author can bring into the scenes, so complex plotting might suffer a bit from those constraints.

    Pull all that apart, and you’ll see I have no idea! Sometimes, it just feels right for the story: nose right in it = 1st person present, a little distance, more observational – that’s 3rd person and maybe past tense.

    The 2nd person novel? Michael Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/apr/06/crimson-petal-white-my-novel-faber which was serialised wonderfully on BBC TV.

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    1. Good point, Suzanne. The use of first person present tense probably has increased to reflect the way we speak now. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. 😉 And I would suppose it’s more appropriate for some stories than others. Also, do you think it’s more appropriate for short stories than novels?

      As I said to Chris, I, too, got so caught up in reading a story once, that it was only after the fact I realized it was written in second person. So done well, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe I wouldn’t object to any person or tense done very well.

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      1. I don’t know what’s best, but as a reader, if I don’t notice the scaffolding, then it’s been successfully positioned. To me, creativity is about knowing the rules so that you know how to break them in the interests of drama and insight. A bit like etiquette, really – as long as I know what a fish knife is for, I can use it to eat custard, if I wish.

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  5. POV is one of the most important and sometimes most difficult choices. In my first novel, I naturally fell into third person limited point of view. In other words, I told the story through the mind of the main character, Karla. The challenge there was to find ways to tell events that happened when the character wasn’t present but which were important to the story. I used phone calls, letters, or another character telling her what happened for this. And at one point I did a POV switch for a very short scene. I wonder if anybody noticed. Ha.

    In the prequel to that novel (which I wrote later), I tried my hand at three points of view, also called “head hopping.” I told the story through the minds of the three main characters, a child and young girl, a man, and a woman. The danger here is that if it’s not well done, it can be confusing for the reader. Therefore, I only switched point of view from one chapter to the next. With different POVs you have to be careful to distinguish the voices sufficiently. How does a five-year-old child think and feel versus a man or a woman? It was fun, trying it out and I guess only readers can decide if I succeeded.

    Somehow, I never managed a first person POV. I always felt I was writing about myself rather than about a character.

    I don’t think I ever read a 2nd person POV. It’s seems to be very rare but Suzanne mentioned the novels by Michael Faber. I have to check them out. Thanks for sharing, Suzanne.

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    1. I agree, Christa, it is a difficult choice. After I wrote this post, I remembered that in the earliest versions of what became Brevity I’d tried out different points of view.

      I don’t call it “head hopping” when an author switches POV from chapter to chapter. To me, head hopping is when you do it often within a chapter, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. That annoys me.

      Now, I’ll have to go back through Love of a Stonemason to find your switch. 😉 To be honest, I thought you did it more than just once … but not in a bad way.

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  6. I write most of my fiction in 3rd person POV and can change POV’s fast enough/often enough to cause whiplash. Occasionally I’ll use 1st person for short things (fiction and non-fiction), but I honestly don’t think I could sustain a reader’s interest or my own sanity in writing 1st person fiction for very long. I’ll post 1st person non-fiction shorties on my blog about some of the quirky encounters I have with people. I can’t think of anything (except a choose-your-own-adventure story) that I’d write in 2nd person.

    Tense is difficult for me. When I get caught up ‘in the moment’ when writing (a lovely place to be) I’ll write in present tense since it’s happening right then for me – even though in the context of the whole work, it should be past tense.

    Tense is one of the last things I deal with in editing – doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or academic writing – it’s all over the place and time until I consciously clean it up.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Natasha. I just finished Just Desserts, a review will be coming soon. 🙂

      A lot of novels are written in first person, so I’m not worried about the feasibility of that, just the appropriateness for this story. But, if I write it in present tense, I’m a little worried about sustaining interest through a novel. It might be a tiring pace for the reader.

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  7. I don’t think I have a favorite for writing … usually the story presents itself with a POV approach. For reading, my favorites are close third and first.

    I’ve enjoyed reading present tense, but it might be tiring for an entire novel because it’s so immediate. (that’s just a guess, I can’t recall reading a novel in present tense)

    Have fun sorting it out!

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    1. Thanks, Cathryn. I was worried about present tense for that reason, but now I’m laughing at myself. I just took a reading break and realized the novel I’ve been reading — and adore — is written in first person present tense! Obviously, my subconscious, which was well aware of that “inspired” me to change my book to that POV and tense. 🙂 Of course, that author is a better writer than I am, so it remains to be seen if I can pull it off.

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  8. Linda, I’ve lately been grappling with this very issue in my WIP. I have never had much luck with first person–but that’s probably because I like to write ensembles and don’t want to be tied to one POV. But without fail, I’ll find myself flip-flopping on whose POV to use in a certain scene–and the minute I feel distanced or unconnected to one of the characters, I’ll be amazed to find how that changes when I shift the POV to her or him. Usually that’s what’s keeping my scenes/plots from moving forward.

    But I also hear you on the indecision of starting something new. There is something exciting about having multiple ideas for a new project, but sometimes it can be tough to commit to one and stay engaged in it without thinking, maybe if I tried the OTHER one…

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    1. I can relate, Erika. Both my previous novels were written in three points of view. That’s a great idea about when to try a scene from another character’s POV.

      I’m incredibly indecisive, but as you saw on Twitter, I made good progress on one of my ideas today.

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  9. I don’t prefer one over the other. I’ve written in 1st past and present, and 3rd limited and omniscient. The only one I haven’t tried yet is 2nd, for some reason I’ve not created a story best told from that perspective. It also appears to me as a very complex way to tell a story with the narrator having zero insight into the other characters thoughts or what is happening to them when they are not physically present. I think if I am ever able to master 2nd POV it will be a statement as to my ability to show a story without telling it. Needless to say I’m definately not there, yet.

    I do find that a lot of writers start a story in third limited, but the story slides into omniscient POV quite often. That drives me crazy! Having read a few stories written that way I’ve become over critical of anything I (or anyone else) writes in third.

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    1. You are an adventurous writer, T.A. 🙂 Omniscient is one I’ve never tried … well, not deliberately. To be honest, when I’ve encountered it, I usually misread it as head-hopping multiple third … or some such odd bird. Lord, do I need to educate myself or what?

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  10. I’m a big fan of first person POV. I usually write in it, and usually choose books written in it. It’s more personal. like a friend is sitting across from you telling you a really juicy story! 🙂

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  11. Almost exclusively, I write in first person. To me, it provides the discipline to tell the story. There are occasions where I’ll switch to a third person in a long narrative passage. Whatever works is my motto.

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  12. I do happen to like first person not only reading it, but writing it. It brings me closer to the character and I like feeling that connection to my characters. Sometimes we just have to listen to what our intuition is telling us.

    I often play around with POV because, although I do like first person, it doesn’t always feel right for a particular story.

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