Friday, November 20, 2009

Use of Tenses

(Chris is traveling today and asked me to post this for him...Enjoy!)

My natural style tends to be third person, although I have written the odd piece in first person and I have been reasonably happy with the outcome. All of these first-person experiments have been short stories. I'm not quite sure I could sustain first person for an entire novel.

Like many writers I tend to be fairly instinctive with tense and grammar, so I can be a little loose with theses, but things generally works out OK for me in the end.

In terms of what I enjoy reading, Its usually third person. Although first person is very personal and can really hook me into a character. Small first person sections can be really effective as breaks, dream sequences, or flashbacks and give an opportunity to really change the flavor of the prose.

I have read a few books that alternate first person and third person - one of Kim Wilkins' books comes to mind - where the main action (i.e. protagonist) was in third person and the 'bad guy' was written in through his first person diary entries. Not sure if this really added too much for me. I think the action would have been more seamless with the same tense throughout, like I was reading two separate books. I'm sure an author can strike the right balance, but it's probably a hard ask.

One tense I find really hard to read is preset tense second person. 'She sits in the sun. Now the seagull pecks on the glass. He squawks in frustration. The two-headed alien grunts in glee.' As you can see from the photo, Godzilla shares my frustration.

I could be opening up a total can of worms here - like offering to give mechanical tips when I don't even open the bonnet of my car - but I am really curious.

What tenses do people prefer to work in? What have people experimented with? What is the weirdest combination you have experimented with?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Hi Chris,

I quite enjoy reading a short story in present tense, but I find it tiring in a novel.

Anonymous said...

Well done, first person is really good and I like reading it. Outside of Dick Francis, I generally find third to be more comfortable. In something the length of a novel, I like to know more than just what the main character has seen.

I find writing it, that it either comes naturally, or is impossible to sustain.

I'm trying to turn an oversized first person short into a novel. I thought keeping the main POV first person and the new POVs third might be interesting, but I think I sprained my brain. It's all getting swapped to third. Either that or the short gets cropped back to manageable size.

Apart from short stories, and this mess, I've always written in third person.

C Kelsey said...

For the most part I write in third person. I enjoy reading first person, but I've only written in it twice. The first was an unfinished vampire murder mystery sort of like the old (and sorely missed) Forever Knight t.v. series. The other was a short story that wasn't supposed to be short, was supposed to be horror, and ended up a romance of sorts. Uh... Yeah.
I am reminded of Eric Flint and Mike Resnick's advice RE writing... they *hate* first person. And yet some of the biggest selling authors out there write almost exclusively in that tense (LKH comes to mind).

Anonymous said...

I usually stick with third-person and tend to avoid first-person, mainly because first-person is really limiting. The PoV character can't be everywhere, so a lot of what's going on has to be told to the character, and, IMO, that makes it a lot harder to show, not tell. Granted, you could do multiple first-person narratives, and if done right, it could be one awesome story -- but there are so many ways something like that could go wrong.

Mind you, if I feel a story would really work in first-person, I'll give it a shot (like a certain granny werewolf short...), but I'm like matapam in that respect -- either it really works, or it just runs out of steam.

As for tense, I agree with Rowena: while present tense can make for a really good short story, in a novel it can get tedious. And tedious just sucks all the fun out of reading.

Anonymous said...

I adore writing in and reading 1st person. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind as my favorite book written in 1st person. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is another favorite.

I don't know why it appeals to me, but I do find that at least half of my stories are written in 1st person. Somehow I find it easier. I think I'm able to focus in on an issue easier than trying to decide what to include when you have so much other information that you can include from 3rd person. I suppose it depends upon the story.

Linda Davis

John Lambshead said...

I like third person or first. Third is better for action but I think you need first for literary stuff.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. I find preset tense quite odd. I made quite few attempts at getting into a SF novel in present tense, but never managed to get over the 'potential energy hill' and into the story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, matapam. I'd forgot about that aspect, but the beauty of third is the ability to include all those other viewpoints so easily.

You reminded me of one of the Anne Rice Vampire books, where she had backstorys from quite of few of the main vampire characters. This was all in first person, but she dealt with it by moving from first person in Lestat's vp to first in Marius, then on to someone else etc.

Kind of like a first person story relay - here you take it and run with it!

I can't remember if she transitioned by having Lestat and Marius in a heart to heart with first person in the dialogue, then sequed into a full first person in the second vp, or if she used a device like a letter to do it (that one of the other found and read). I think she may have used both.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I didn't realise that EF/MR didn't like first person. Might be why the only thing I ever submitted to JBU bounced (it was first person).

First person is a little restrictive for a reader - sort of like having blinkers one. The upside is the possibility of a higher degree of emotional attachment to the character. I guess the writer has to make very compelling and provide the payoff for the reader. Otherwise its a little like being trapped.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, RJ. I'm with you and matapam. I don't think I have ever set out to write a story in first person. It's either just 'leapt' out under its own headstrong force, or it has not happened at all.

I guess its goes back to how my tastes developed - which was pretty much exclusively reading third person - but present tense is just a little too much of a stretch for me.

I would have to say though, the more bizarre the story is the more likely I am to look past that - i.e. I kind of accept the tense as part of the experimentation.

Scott said...

I normally write in third person but the first novel I ever wrote I eventually edited so there was one third in third person, one third in first and a third in second.

I think it works (though I could do a much better job of it now.) It's certainly interesting.

Amanda Green said...

Great post, Chris. I write almost exclusively in third person, especially for novels. I've had one novel that demanded to be written in first person and there was no way around it. That said, my short stories are pretty much split down the middle -- first v. third person. As for which is best, it depends on the story. Which is why it always bothers me when authors or editors make blanket statements that first person -- or third person -- are bad and should never be used.

As for tenses, the only time I've used present tense is in short stories. Like Rowena, I find it tiring and, imo, distracting in a novel.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. Strangely enough - so much of the feel of that story reminded me of my own background, and the quaint little customs my mother and father had (a was youngest of eleven and they were two and half generations older than me). It made me wonder what sleepy Brisbane town shared with the South.

I do enjoy first person. I guess the stakes are higher in terms of getting into the story, but if I like and can accept the character, a very intimate relationship can follow. I read William Heaney's 'Diary of a Master Forger' - brilliant. If you at all like contemporary off-beat mysterys with a few demons thrown in, you will enjoy this. Interesting structure.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, John. Do you tend to write in first as well?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Scott. That certainly sounds interesting. If you opened with third or first, that probably would have been enough to hook me in. By the time I was into the story I would be along the ride in any case.

Was the sequence third, first, second? My guess is the idea was to was ramp up the immediacy of the action toward the end?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. I do wonder how editors can make statement about tense like that. Surely it must depend on how the author uses it?

I guess readers who are used to great blocks of info-dump (e.g. describing weapon systems, or codes of chivalry, or geo-political essays) are probably tuned to less emotional impact. In which case I would not be surprised if first was a little uncomfortable.

Scott said...


Chronologically the story starts at the start of part three. There's a small section of third person then the main character tells another character what happened in part two of the story-- in first person.

Then we go back to a small section of part three before a dragon tells the main character (who has a bit of amnesia) did in part one. (The main character can't remember it due to magical stuff).

Then we go back to part three again and we carry on to the end of the story.

It wasn't so much about the immediacy as trying to create a bit of mystery. The main character was an assassin who ends up saving the person he was meant to kill and helping her lead a rebellion against his employer. It was more interesting in that order.

Thankfully the second person section wasn't too long-- it could be a bit much for a whole story.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Scott. Interesting structure. Nice twist with the assassin.

Kate said...

I'm pretty traditional, I guess. First or third person, past tense. I've done a few short stories in first person present, which can work for the right story.

Things I don't like are Choose Your Own Adventure tense (Second person present.. "You open the door. It is a dark room." Not in books thank you). Multiple first person doesn't work for me, either. I can deal with it, but it gives me POV whiplash.

I don't consciously choose what voice or tense the story is going to be - it chooses its own voice, and I deal with the limitations.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. I think I am pretty much the same. I tend to already be into the piece before I realise whether or not its first or third.

I don't write in first very often, so I get a little jolt of surprise when I realise I am. Then I need to take a little leap of faith its OK to continue like that, since I so rarely use it.