Let’s talk about tense, baby,
Let’s talk about POV…
Did it work? Humming Salt-n-Pepa yet? No? Well, I am…
Today I want to talk about a big choice that every author has to make when he or she begins to write a book, and what I learned after choosing to switch it up.
I’ve always loved to read, but point of view (POV) and tense (past, present, future) are aspects of a book that I rarely gave much thought to. In general, when I get the chance to immerse myself in a well-written book, the words vanish and the story unfolds like a movie in my head. I don’t notice the actual writing. If I do, it’s usually a sign that something isn’t quite right. This changed when I began to write, although I still find that it’s harder to pay attention to the writing in a really good book because I get sucked in. As I began working on NML, though, POV and tense became a major focus for me. I pulled book after favorite book off my shelves to figure out how the writers did what they did so well.
My genre of choice is Young Adult speculative/SciFi. A lot of the recent blockbuster books in this genre are written in 1st person present tense (Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, etc). For those who don’t know, this means that the story is told from the main character’s perspective as events happens (not looking back on events that have already occured.) As a newb, I figured I’d start there, so Mosiac, is written in 1st/present. See here:
At first I see nothing, but I scan the scene quickly, searching for any sign of life. The landscape is a hundred shades of gold, sliced by long jagged shadows that cut through the sand and boulders on the floor of the canyon. When I finally spot the creature, I clench my teeth to keep from screaming. I know now exactly how a mouse feels when stumbling across a cat.
Benefits of writing 1st/present: you, the reader, are in the moment with the character. Pitfalls: it lends itself to lots of telling rather than showing, the author has to get creative about revealing other character’s experiences/thoughts/feelings, and it limits the voice of the author.
1st present worked well for that book, and I learned a lot about the process by telling the story that way. That entire book was a journey of discovery for me. I needed to write it from inside her head, watching it unfold as it happened, because I had no clue where the story was going until Tessa got there.
When I started No Man’s Land, I stuck with what I knew best. Good plan, right? The problem was that, at times, the writing sounded a bit juvenile. My character this time around was somewhat subversive, sarcastic, and sly, but still a pretty sheltered young woman. Smart, but not someone who would wax poetic about fog rolling across the mountains, for example. There were times where a scene called for a creative description or a clever turn of phrase, but when I wrote it out, it didn’t sound authentic. I kept thinking, “But Aurelia wouldn’t say it like that!” So I had to choose between how I wanted to say it and how I felt Aurelia would say it, and I chose the words that fit best with her voice. To make it more complicated, I had already started writing a parallel story line and I was wary of having multiple 1st person story lines (it can get very confusing when this isn’t done really carefully) so I was writing that character’s story in 3rd/past. I hadn’t intended for that story line to be as significant as Aurelia’s, but it started to take on a life of its own. This tangential background story was becoming as significant as Aurelia’s story line, but the difference in POV gave one more weight than the other. Dilemma.
60,000 plus words in to No Man’sLand, I read a book by Victoria Schwab, This Savage Song, written with two main characters, both perspectives told in close 3rd person past tense. Her prose was just lovely. She did a fantastic job of allowing me into the heads of her characters, but she retained the prerogative to shape the words in her own voice, not just that of the main character(s). Here, look:
It was almost midnight when her shoes hit the grass below the dorm window. The witching hour, people used to call it, that dark time when restless spirits reached for freedom. Restless spirits, and teenage girls trapped in boarding schools too far from home.
She made her way down the manicured stone path that ran from the dormitories to the Chapel of the Cross, a bag slung over her shoulder, bottles inside clinking together like spurs in rhythm with her steps. The bottles had all fit, save for one, a vintage wine from Sister Merilee’s private store that hung from her fingertips.
-this savage song, by Victoria Schwab (PS- read this book!)
The main character shown here, Kate, is a feisty, sarcastic bad ass. Kate would never say “when restless spirits reached for freedom.” However, Schwab does, and it’s excellent. You can tell how Kate is feeling very quickly in the first chapter, you get a solid sense of who she is, but Schwab still gets to show us her gift with words. I looooooved the book, loved the writing. Schwab’s style resonated with me. I immediately put every other one of her books on hold at the library. I gobbled the book up, hungry for more, and got back to work on my own. I had realized, a bit too late, that 3rd past was a better fit for NML. For months I had been trying and trying to shove a round peg in a square hole. After months of debating the change, Schwab’s beautifully written book pushed me over the edge. So I re-wrote my whole darn manuscript. And it felt right. The book flowed better, felt less clumsy. Aurelia got to have her say, and I got to have mine.
It took time to rewrite so many pages, and I was still writing the rest of the book at the same time, but I learned a lot from the experience. Changing tense and POV is not as simple as switching pronouns and added -ed to the ends of words, after all. As a bonus, starting in 1st and switching to 3rd allowed me to play around with close versus distant storytelling. Remember that other story line I mentioned before? Well, I loved the flow of words in that story, but the POV was a bit too distant. By writing Aurelia’s story in 1st, then translating it to 3rd, I discovered ways to make my 3rd person closer and I then applied that to Elba’s* story line. *I’m changing her name soon, so this may be confusing later on. Sorry!
Long story short- if you’re new to writing, or you have always written one POV/tense combination, try mixing it up. Rewrite a chapter in a different way. You might be surprised to find you prefer the new version. Or you might not. Either way, I’m confident you’ll learn from the experience.
1st person present, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:
All the general fear I’ve been feeling condenses into an immediate fear of this girl, this predator who might kill me in seconds. Adrenaline shoots through me and I sling the pack over one shoulder and run full-speed for the woods. I can hear the blade whistling toward me and reflexively hike the pack up to protect my head. The blade lodges in the pack. Both straps on my shoulders now, I make for the trees. Somehow I know the girl will not pursue me. That she’ll be drawn back into the Cornucopia before all the good stuff is gone. A grin crosses my face. Thanks for the knife, I think.
1st person, past tense, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One:
I was curled up in an old sleeping bag in the corner of the trailer’s tiny laundry room, wedged into the gap between the wall and the dryer. I wasn’t welcome in my aunt’s room across the hall, which was fine by me. I preferred to crash in the laundry room anyway. It was warm, it afforded me a limited amount of privacy, and the wireless reception wasn’t too bad. And, as an added bonus, the room smelled like liquid detergent and fabric softener. The rest of the trailer reeked of cat piss and abject poverty.
3rd person, past, from James Dashner’s The Maze Runner:
Someone lowered a rope from above, the end of it tied into a big loop. Thomas hesitated, then stepped into it with his right foot and clutched the rope as he was yanked toward the sky. Hands reached down, lots of hands, grabbing him by his clothes, pulling him up. The world seemed to spin, a swirling mist of faces and color and light. A storm of emotions wrenched his gut, twisted and pulled; he wanted to scream, cry, throw up. The chorus of voices had grown silent, but someone spoke as they yanked him over the sharp edge of the dark box. And Thomas knew he’d never forget the words.
And 3rd person, present, from Neal Shusterman’s Unwind:
Connor isn’t so sure, but looking into Ariana’s eyes makes his doubts go away, if only for a moment. Her eyes are sweet violet with streaks of gray. She’s such a slave to fashion — always getting the newest pigment injection the second it’s in style. Connor was never into that. He’s always kept his eyes the color they came in. Brown. He never even got tattoos, like so many kids get these days when they’re little. The only color on his skin is the tan it takes during the summer, but now, in November, that tan has long faded. He tries not to think about the fact that he’ll never see the summer again. At least not as Connor Lassiter. He still can’t believe that his life is being stolen from him at sixteen.
Want more info? Some more resources on POV: