NSWC Lesson #1: POV and Tense

A lot of people have different agendas for their blog. Mine is a way for me to process my thoughts on writing (and reading. Sometimes even life). So many bloggers write with their audience in mind and share their knowledge on craft. That’s not something I’m attempting to (or am qualified to) do. This is my reflection on how I applied the lessons to my own work. I like hearing about how people work with their own stories and learn a lot from it, so I guess that’s why I share. In the same way that writing a paper about a subject gives you a better understanding of it than just attending a lecture, blogging about the material I learned will help it stick with me.

On with the lesson.

Last week before I went to the writing conference, I decided to do a complete rewrite of the chapter I was planning on taking to workshop. I’d been toying with the idea of switching from (normal) first person past tense to first person present, and I thought it was a good time to try it with one section of my WIP before I decided to change it all.

I had a very trusted writer-friend read it, and her reaction was very clear: she has a prejudice against first person present, and preferred my first draft of the scene in question. Mister BS, who has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and teaches English to high school special education students, finally agreed to read it, and he didn’t have a preference, or an opinion (husbands do not make good critique partners, in my opinion). My sister, who also has an English Literature degree, “didn’t notice the difference” (she’s more of a poetry girl, anyway).

So I scrapped the rewrite, and just took my original first person past draft.

One of topics we discussed in our exercises was the choice of POV and tense, and how it relates to characterization. I was so pleased to be working on the exact question I was struggling with prior to the conference.

One of the exercises we did on the first day was to take our main character and write a scene about her waiting for something, and every few minutes, we were instructed to shift tense and POV—and it was quite revealing.

1st Person Present

A lot of people find 1st person present “gimmicky” or jarring to read. I have to admit that if a book is written this way, it does take me a while to get into the text. When I first read The Hunger Games, I wasn’t sure how I liked Katniss’s narration. But once I got wrapped up in the story, I thought it was the perfect (and a very deliberate) choice on the part of Suzanne Collins.

In first person present, the narrator doesn’t have the distance from the action to comment on it the way she does in first person past. All she can do is react. There is no time for reflection, because we are reading the story as it happens. This certainly won’t work for all stories—but for a character like Katniss and a story like the The Hunger Games, it’s a strategic tool.

1st person present gives an urgency to the story. It gives an opportunity to portray the character in a very organic and unfiltered way. Choosing 1st person present over past isn’t simply a matter of changing all the verb tenses. The exact same events could be portrayed in a very different way depending on if the narrator has the reflection of past or the immediacy of present.

1st Person Past

Choosing this POV and tense is just the beginning of a series of decisions on how the story is going to be told. Although this may be something that people who have more formal training in fiction writing are well aware of, I hadn’t ever thought of this outside of frame stories in which the narrator is moving between the “now” of storytelling and the story being told. But even if the narrator is not directly speaking to the reader and revealing the when and why it is being told, there still is an occasion for telling the story. Since the action has already happened, there is time for reflection and commentary—but how much? If a narrator is telling a story that happened last week versus a quarter of a century ago, it changes the perspective.

2nd Person

Now, I know there are a few notable pieces written in this style, but it’s not something I’d personally ever consider doing. That being said, as a character exercise, it was enlightening. Inhabiting my character’s head as she commented on her own actions let out a different side of her than when she speaks in her “I” voice.

3rd Person

Since I knew I was working with a first person narrator for my WIP, I was less invested in our discussion of the differences between omniscient and limited third person, but one piece of advice I did take home was to use third person if I’m having trouble making a scene work in my MC’s voice. We spent a lot of time discussing scene, and what makes a good one, (more on that later) and if there isn’t sufficient tension or action when you write it in 3rd, it comes across very clearly.

On the second day of the conference, we had the opportunity to workshop our chapters with the class and meet one-on-one with the instructor. When my opportunity to discuss my WIP with an author I so admired came, I was beyond nervous. Because I had limited time, I asked a very specific question about the structure of my story and explained to her my crazy plan, which she actually ended up encouraging me to go ahead with it. My WIP tells the story of two days of my main character’s life, alternating with scenes from her childhood connected to the present day by a common thread. We worked out a new strategy for integrating the dual storylines by conceptualizing the childhood scenes as short short stories that are almost self-contained. I was beyond excited to run out and get to writing, because before the conference I’d been stalled trying to decide how I wanted to handle the structure of the scenes before I got too far into it.

Then, she asked me if I’d considered switching to first person present tense. Yes, I admitted, I’d done so just last week as an experiment. What I hadn’t realized then is why I’d had the urge make the change.

The “adult” storyline of my WIP takes place over just two days—two very dramatic days.  The MC learns two big secrets that change her outlook on life. Her reactions are immediate. The scenes from childhood are almost memories. The occasion for telling them is the present day drama. They need the perspective that past tense allows.

I got so much out of these two days of exercises and workshop. The most exciting was certainly this new plan for my WIP, so I’m anxious to keep the ball rolling on revisions and new scenes. Over the next week or so I’ll share other lessons learned. Up next, the ladder of specificity and abstraction. Sounds fancy, right?


8 thoughts on “NSWC Lesson #1: POV and Tense

  1. A thought-provoking post, thank you. I’ve always been more drawn to the third person, but perhaps it’s time I experimented a little to see what effects I can achieve.

  2. I finally understand the merits of first person present! Thanks, Molly! I can’t wait to see your brilliant plot structure bring your story to life.

  3. Love this! POV is something I think about a lot. I’ve toyed with changing my third person limited to 1st person quite a few times… to help with voice, mostly. Maybe I should try it for a chapter, like you. :)

    1. Hi Laura,

      I have a post planned exclusively on voice–one of the comments that emily made was that editors and agents at BEA last week were unanimous on what the #1 reason they either latch on or veto a manuscript—voice. I think it’s possible to achieve great voice in both third and first, but for me, first comes more naturally (I’m better able to use a character’s voice, and my own doesn’t get in the way, perhaps?)

      Writing a scene or chapter from another perspective can definitely help! With voice, or as a test of how well the action of the plot is playing out. It worked for me!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Fabulously thorough post, Molly. I enjoyed your musings and thoughts on tense, and how they affect the reader.

    Like yourself, I found myself wincing against the stridency of 1st person, present (or 1st person intimate, as it is occasionally referred to) in The Hunger Games. Katniss’ narrative felt choppy and too succinct; I couldn’t sink in her mind the way I wanted to; but . . . after some time, and when the plot began to unravel, really and truly, I found that I didn’t much care. The clean writing, the concept, the characters, were fantastic. That, essentially, is all readers care about. They want to either be entertained, or moved emotionally. While I do think some tenses lend themselves better to certain plots, I firmly believe that POV and tense are more for the writer’s arbitrary preferences. The question I ask myself is, “How can I best convey the story?” I attempt to see what limits I might come up against if I choose one over the other. In the end, the characters will have their way, though. I think it’s them that choose. ;-)

    Happy writing, Molly. Your WIP sounds wonderfully dramatic!

    ~ Cara

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