How am I going to tell this story?

povTwo of the decisions a writer has to make are which point of view and tense to use in telling their story. I’ve written short stories in third-person past tense, first past, first present, first past, and once in second present. I’ve written two novels in third-person past and one in first present. What? No third-person present or second-person past stories? Hmmm …

Anyway, I’ve begun work on my next novel, and though I love editing to refine syntax and word choice, I can’t say the same about revision. I love the result, of course, just not the process. So, I’d like to settle on point of view and tense before I write any more, to avoid the chore of changing those two elements in a completed book.

I’ve experimented with a few sentences, adapted from one of the stories, to evaluate which produces the most compelling voice.

1. [First-person present tense]

  • The night touches me with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. I breathe it in and exhale pain and fear. I rise and enter the house, fumbling for the door lock. I smile at myself. In this place, I have no need to lock anyone out.

2. [Third-person present tense]

  • The night touches her with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. She breathes it in and exhales pain and fear. She rises and enters the house, fumbling for the door lock. She smiles at herself. In this place, she has no need to lock anyone out.

3. [First-person past tense]

  • The night touched me with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. I breathed it in and exhaled pain and fear. I rose and entered the house, fumbling for the door lock. I smiled at myself. In that place, she had no need to lock anyone out.

4. [Third-person past tense]

  • The night touched her with soft kisses, its promises true, devoutly kept. She breathed it in and exhaled pain and fear. She rose and entered the house, fumbling for the door lock. She smiled at herself. In that place, she had no need to lock anyone out.

Does one of those stand out to you? I’m favoring first present, but maybe that’s only because I used that for my last novel. But here’s another problem. This novel began life as two short stories, and those stories are told from two different characters’ viewpoints—one in present tense, the other in past.

I believe An Illusion of Trust worked told in first-person present tense, but I wrote it from only one viewpoint. I don’t know if that would hold true using first present for two characters throughout a whole novel. And both viewpoints do have to be in the same tense, right? Right? Shoot. Now, I’m confusing and confounding myself.

Any thoughts you’d like to share on choosing viewpoint and tense?

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22 thoughts on “How am I going to tell this story?

  1. Linda, The first one. When I hurt my back in 1993 they taught me how to visualize. As a man I can picture a woman feeling like that. The uncertainty of a place that she knows all too well. She wants to believe these feelings are real and when she does she chuckles at herself.

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  2. Thank you for this post!
    I love first person present tense. It’s what I’ve been using in my current story, but if I’m not careful I can slip into first person past tense. I prefer the immediacy of the present tense and the closeness it creates between the characters and readers, but it’s easy to think in past tense. When I start to slip it’s usually a sign that I need to take a break and get some coffee. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for sharing your opinion, Kaela. 🙂 I love the immediacy of present tense too, though I’ve read that a lot of readers don’t like it. I think it’s more popular in certain genres.

      In the beginning of writing Illusion, I slipped into past tense, but as I got further in the book, I found it easier to think in present tense too.

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  3. I think first person, present tense is more effective if you want the reader to really get into the main charcter’s head and relate. I liked what Barbara Kingsover did with The Poisonwood Bible when she let each character tell her own story in separate chapters. I felt very connected to all the women in the book.

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  4. When I am having an issue figuring out what perspective to use, or how I want to tell my story, I like to change formats. I switch from writing the story as a novel, a play, and as a screenplay. By switching between formats it gives me the chance to envision my story from numerous perspectives.

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  5. I think it might be powerful if you took one character and wrote 1st person present tense, and the other character in 1st person past tense. As she’s (or he’s) looking back at what happened. Of course that might not work because of the content. but that’s just my feeling. If that’s the case, then I say 3rd past.

    Just remember this is your book and you can write it anyway you want.

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    1. Absolutely, it’s my book, Anne, but do you think anyone would want to read it if I wrote it in pig Latin? 😀

      Seriously, I’ll experiment to see how it seems best written to me and then hope that works for readers too.

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  6. This can be such a difficult decision for a book. I’ve never had a problem with it, though, until my current novel, when I tried a new form for me (first person present) and it just didn’t work. Now I’m rewriting the whole dang thing. Oh well. My next novel, though, is first person present and it IS working. At least I’m pretty sure it is. I’m not the biggest fan of first person present for a lot of novels. I feel like the story needs to have a good reason to be told in that for it to work. I love it when I’m reading a book and don’t realize how it’s being told until chapter ten or so. That’s how I know the author chose the best POV and tense for it. 🙂

    As far as your question, I’ve read a book that was told in first person present, but some sections (same character) were told in third person past. It was really effective for the story and what the author was trying to do.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Michelle. 🙂 Even though it’s hard for me to turn off my writer brain when I read, I don’t think I ever give thought to what POV and tense the author chose. Except when it’s omniscient, which always trips me up. I think I’m going to have to write this book the way it seems best to me and hope that I’m right.

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  7. It appears I’m the odd opinion. I preferred the sound of third-past over all others. It hinted of internal struggle and unresolved conflict, while at the same time foreshadowing with a certain reliability that a story is about to unfold. Third-person past narratives automatically present themselves as a story that someone (besides the character) finds worthy of retelling. It’s a matter of giving the reader an impression other than self-importance. (As a side note: if the character/narrator is extremely narcissistic by all means disregard my opinion, as first-person would match the characters psyche – this works well with thrillers told through the eyes of the killer who already has, or is trying to establish a strong sense of self.) In terms of tense, present has less appeal to me as a general impression. I must really be captured by the opening chapter to in a present tense novel to stay engaged.

    In short, I don’t know the character well enough at this point to be empathetic or concerned with what is going on inside her head. But if someone else is telling me to pay attention, well,that gives the scene more credibility. SO..If this selection is from the middle of the story, were reader empathy has already been established, It’s possible I’d prefer the deeply personal first-person account. Understand?

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    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion, Anonymous. 🙂 Some of your perceptions about POV are not ones I’d considered or heard voiced before. As a reader, I’ve never consciously considered a story told in third-person as more worthy than one told in first, or that a story told in first-person is narcissistic. But I’ve not been properly educated to dissect and analyze a story, so I’m sure I read on a more superficial level than you. Then again, the type of fiction I generally read (and write) is meant only to entertain. Fair warning: my writing would not be to your taste, especially my second novel.

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