Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mix and Match -- P.O.V. and Verb Tense

Creating your story: when you first bring your ideas to the table -- plot, plot line, characters, character problems... it may not occur to you that P.O.V. and verb tense should be given just as much consideration as those other elements. Now, some of you may decide that point of view, for instance, doesn't need to be discussed when choosing your options. After all, if you've always written in the third person, then why change? Or, maybe you believe that it is the best and most comfortable match for you. I'm not going to try and change your mind. Instead, why not consider the following information like a buffet -- lots of dishes to choose from? Even if you always go for the chicken, maybe today you will decide to spice things up a bit and pick out seafood. Who knows?

3rd person/past tense: If you choose third person and place the story in the past tense, you will achieve a certain distance from the character's actions and thoughts while creating a definitive account of events as they happened. It's very natural in its effect, rather like you observing someone you know or learn about and watching what happens to them. The disadvantage may be lack of character development where the character is rather flat and lifeless. Caution in this situation would be to make sure and have that balance of inner thought and outer action I previously posted about. The use of past tense, while the most common and natural, can be flat. The advice would be to make sure your dialog is lively and your narrative scenes should use vocab to address those sensory details such as seeing, hearing, etc. Have others read your work and then ask them what emotions they felt, if they felt close to the character, have emotional investment in that character.

1st person/present tense: First person is difficult to pull off successfully. At least that's what I keep reading and hearing. I personally enjoy reading and writing in the first person. First person point of view lets you know the character's most intimate thoughts, like you are inside them. Add to that the present tense, and you have a very upclose, intensely powerful story. It's a very immediate account of events. Just how immediate and intense you make it is what will determine how successful you are. Too much internal thought, too many "I this" and "I that" can result in major irritation for the reader. Sometimes the writing may even sound fake, unrealistic. In fact, the use of the present tense can have such a loud and powerful kick that it may tire your readers and they will quit reading out of shear exhaustion! Still, I think this combination, or even 3rd person/present, is well suited for short stories. I have written shorts with 1st/present and kept the story in a very brief time frame. It works when done well. Although I think the 1st person/past tense brings a better balance to it.

There are more combinations, but I will keep it to the ones I have stated above. So lets sum it up:

1st person: intimate, very close and personal view; careful of too much intimacy

3rd person: more removed, less personal, more natural; careful of flat, lifeless characterization; use internal thoughts along with outer action

Present Tense: immediate, intense, but can be too powerful or intense - reader becomes worn out; may want to change some passages to past tense

Past Tense: somewhat distant, natural, authentic; can be mediocre, needs imagery, great dialog and action scenes to liven it up

I hope this helps. I won't tell you one combination is the overall key to success. If only it were that easy! It's an individual decision. based on your taste and thought. Whatever works best for you and depending on what type of story you are writing -- you decide! Let me know your thoughts and comments. What kind of story do you enjoy writing and is your p.o.v. and verb tense choice a perfect match? Hope to hear from you :-)


E_M_Y said...

I don't have any story line i just Review things that sound interesting.

Fran Hill said...

When I get the kids at school to rewrite pieces, changing them from 1st to 3rd person, or the other way round, or present to past, or the other way round, they're always staggered at the difference it can make. If I'm struggling with a piece of writing, I always try changing it, and often it works better and gives it the life it needs.

teacherwriter said...

And it's so painful making those changes after you spend time creating the writing in the first place! Ah....nothing comes easy :-)

Thank you for the feedback.

Penny Manning said...

Good article. In regard to the use of "I this" and "I that"...I read in a few books that people don't really notice the repetive I's and just tune them out, much like the she and he, etc. of third person.

As to revising...I might be one of those rarities that actually enjoys revising...but it certainly is hard to snatch off a wordy limb or two. Alas, but revising is a necessary evil. And a welcome one for me if I am to be a successful author. I have a special file I call Orphaned Passages. This is where I dump all my severed limbs just in case they can be salvaged. Penny from Google's Coffee Shop.

teacherwriter said...

Penny, Orphaned Passages -- that is so perfect! :-) I'm with those who don't notice the use of "I" however much it is there in the reading. Of course, I do like books in first person POV the most. Thanks for your comments. Quite entertaining and informative.

Vanessa Rogers said...

I have been playing with the idea of writing with two different POV. Recently I have been writing in first person past tense. But my husband suggested I try writing in present tense, but I found it too limiting. Now I am thinking what if I tried 3rd person past tense and first person present tense, like reading a journal or something. I stopped my writing routine this week, but I may try it out when I start up again next week! Thoughts?

teacherwriter said...

Vanessa, Yes it's such a challenge deciding which POV works best. I will say that each combination of POV and verb tense gives a different feel to the writing and for the reader. A diary would seem to do well with first person/present tense simply because it involves a lot of internal thought. This combo gives an up close and intense view of the character. Now, going back and forth or switching from one POV/tense to another -- I guess that depends on what you are doing with the writing. In any case, to find out which works best, which sounds best -- write it both ways and compare. Have others read it to see what they think. It can be a very subjective choice, but then again, readers are very subjective in what they like to read! :-) Good luck.