Using Tense, Choosing Person

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First person and third person. Present tense and past tense. They can be combined in four different ways in your writing. Hear how they work together and empower your prose in this 2-minute Write Skills video. We talk about writing fundamentals like this as part of our Tuesday night Creation Groups, held here in Austin 7-9 PM. I hope I’ll see you at the Workshop’s table soon. We’re growing stories every day.

The trials of testifying in first person

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tiefast-767993Awhile back I took a seminar with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on writing fiction. One rich portion of his instruction: Point Of View and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I’d include second person in that list, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most first novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations about the narrator appear in a first person story. One trick to employ is to let your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person gotchas:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed”
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Oh, that 2004 book’s title above about tie-fast roping says a lot about Flynn’s level of Texana savvy. Texas used to be tie-fast country, until competitive roping came along. The other brand of ropers are called dally-ropers, who loop their ropes to their saddle horns. He told that story in third person, since he’s never been a roper. He leaves the first person to character voices.