Wednesday, November 6, 2013

To Be or To Have Been -- POV and Tense

I recently received an email asking about the upcoming release of my next book “The 11th Demon: The Ark of Chaos” (Hopefully Nov. 20!) and in the email this fellow author was devastated that his agent had not been able to get his book picked up because of two reasons. He had written the book from three different points of view (POV) and in the present tense. Let’s review those two staples of narration: POV and Tense.


1 — First Person POV

The story is relayed by the narrator, usually the main character in the story. This person is always within the story itself and presents the story from a very personal POV. The advantage is the intimacy with the character’s thoughts and feelings conveyed to the reader. The disadvantage is events take place away from this person’s presence and cannot be experienced in real time.

2 — Second Person POV

This is the rarest mode of narrative. The narrator refers to the reader as “you”. The advantage is the reader feels as if they are in the story.

3 — Third Person POV

This is the most flexible form of narrative. It is the most commonly used form of POV. Each character is referred to by pronouns. The narrator is an uninvolved person conveying the story and is not a character in the story. Third person singular is the most common form of this POV. 
Within this POV there are two “axes”.

The first is the subjective/objective narrative. The subjective mode describes one character’s feelings and thoughts. The objective mode does not describe feelings and thoughts and it less “personal” for the reader.

The second is the omniscient/limited axis. The omniscient narrator has knowledge of all times, people, places, and things. All thoughts and feelings are known. However, the limited axis confines the POV to a focal character who cannot know the thoughts of other characters.

4 — Alternating POV

This form of POV is very challenging. It is an alternating narration between two POVs. It takes a very deft hand at writing to make this work.


Past tense
The author writes as if reviewing events that have just occurred.

Present tense
The author writes events in “real time” as they are actively occurring.
Here is my personal bias. I love reading first person POV when the character is interesting and engaging. This is the method most used in mystery and detective novels. The main character is often the detective who is conflicted, flawed, and emotionally distant. His/her angst drives the narrative forward. But, as noted above, it is confining to write in this voice. In my previous two Jonathan Steel Chronicles novels, I chose to write in third person limited POV. However, as an exercise in discovery, I wrote my upcoming novel in first person POV from six different POVs.

Now, that was a challenge! How do you know whose head you are in? How do you keep the reader from being confused? I chose to start each section with the name of the person’s POV in the following scenes. It worked very well and test readers of this book loved the intimacy involved.

I chose this exercise in order to familiarize myself with my characters. By writing in first person POV, I was forced to find a voice for each character. This voice was not only the external sound of the person’s literal voice, but it was an exploration of the person’s thoughts; their inner monologue. I chose to write this book years ago as an exercise for National Novel Writing Month (and, for those who read this blog who are yet to be published, Nanwrimo is a must!). When I was approached by Charisma for my initial book contract, I was asked to make this short and basically fun book part of the “mythos” of the story arc. It took some time but “The 11th Demon: The Ark of Chaos” is an interesting use of multiple first person POVs.

My first two books and the next book, the fourth in the series, will return to the third person POV. Now, however, by living inside the heads of my six main characters, I can better understand their thoughts and feelings. I can better speak for them in the dialogue.

As to TENSE, I write all of my books in past tense. One of my favorite book series was ruined for me when the author, out of boredom she admitted, chose to write all subsequent books in present tense. I just can’t read them! I can’t read an entire book in present tense. But, having said this, in my upcoming book at the suggestion of my editor, I wrote all of the flashback scenes of my demon character in present tense! I violated my own standard.

So, my upcoming book has first person POV from multiple character’s POVs and is a mixture of past and present tense! Wow! I hope it works. The advice I gave to my friend in the email is to stick to what is the most common form of narrative until you get a contract. Stay with third person or first person POV and past tense. These are the easiest narratives to read and as we all know, writing becomes a business when you move into publishing. And, as a business it becomes all about the number of books you can sell to your readers. If readers are turned off by your style, they won’t buy your books. I never bought another book in that series I mentioned above. I check every new book written in that series when it comes out and if it is still in present tense, I won’t buy it and read it. So far, the author hasn’t changed writing style.

How about the authors in this blog? How do you feel about POV and Tense for your works? How daring will you be with your style?


Darrel Nelson said...

Both issues have been a challenge to me at one time or another. Just ask my editor! Recently I began a novel and decided to write it in the 1st person, present tense, as something new for me. Forty pages into the manuscript, I thought: This isn't working! So I spent the rest of the day, converting it back to the style in which I usually write. I stepped outside my comfort zone and then quickly retreated back to the comfort. Thanks for your post, Bruce. Insightful, as ever.

Debby Mayne said...

I think every story is different. Most scream for past tense, but there are some that need present tense. It enables the reader to be involved in the story as it unfolds. That said, not all authors are comfortable writing in present tense, but it's still a tool we can use if needed.

I wrote the entire Class Reunion series in multiple first person present tense. So far, readers don't seem to have a problem with it. In fact, I've gotten more positive feedback with these books than I ever have with my other books.