Point of view, perspective, tense—the building blocks of fiction and the first things you need to know. Before the setting, before how the story starts, the time of day, or the action taking place, the writer must know how the story is told.
First person or third person? (Or you may have another choice, but we’re going to pretend no one raised a hand on that.) Present tense or past tense? (See last comment.)
And how is this story shaped, even beyond those considerations? Third and close, third and distant? Third with the narrator possessing a personality and knowledge which no character within the story has? (Unless you’re writing during the 1800s, please don’t do this.)
Anyone who reads novels knows that third person, past tense, and first person, past tense, are the most common styles for longer fiction written in English.
She opened the door just as the milkman upended a jog on her porch.
I opened the door just as the milkman upended a jog on my porch.
These are clear, classic, powerful tools to communicate the written word to any audience. Have you ever tried to read a 90,000-word novel written in second person present tense?
You open the door just as the milkman upends a jog on your porch.
This is a common style for songwriting, sometimes poetry. You can also find writing like this in short Choose Your Own Adventure type stories aimed at young readers.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been running across more and more contemporary novels for adults and young adults being written in what might be considered “non-standard” styles and perspectives. Even ten years ago, it was tough to find many first person present tense novels. Now it’s all the vogue in YA especially, and creeping into other outlets as well. Once-ruling literary styles, such as omniscient narration, also seem to be cropping up where they shouldn’t. Then there are those books in which the style of narration defies simple classification.
Have we grown tired of third person narratives staying with one or two POVs for a whole novel while using that simpleton of times; past tense? Are we weary of books that are clearly written and considerately presented in as coherent and readable style as the author can make them?
I don’t think so. I believe readers are smarter than that. We don’t actually like it when authors write nonsensically for no particular reason when the story could have been told smoothly and enjoyably with much less effort to the reader and much more emotional impact, involvement, and satisfaction.
I recently read half a book, then returned it to Overdrive. This statement lacks weight without context, but suffice it to say, once I’m already half through a novel, I finish it. Except for this one.
It’s a historical novel about a young woman breaking horses for several ranchers in the early 1900s. Personal interest in certain aspects of the time and place kept me pushing on for as long as I did, even as it seemed the author was trying to shut me out. The book was written in third person, past tense. A good start. After that, everything broke down. Many characters have their own POV, at least for a few pages, though it’s almost never clear why they should, and the reader is often taken aside by the author for a history lesson in which “back then” is compared to “today”—meaning no character has a POV and God is talking to us about time travel.
The style is so bizarre throughout the book—often reading as nonfiction, then returning to some random character’s head—yet so consistent, it was obviously deliberately done. The reason it was done this way, however, is still baffling me.
When you set out to write your novel, or even your script, short, or poem, make sure you understand not only how you are telling this story, but why you’re doing it that way.
Is your novel third person, single POV, past tense? Then please go on about your business. You’re doing good work and there’s no reason you should be reading this.
If your novel is anything else, please take a moment to consider why, and more important than that, ask yourself if the “why” will be apparent to your reader without any explanation.
The Time Traveler’s Wife had to be written from duel perspectives. The story could not otherwise have been told.
Black Beauty had to come from the first person point of view of the horse to express what the author was struggling to say about the treatment of animals in Victorian England.
Les Misérables is a massive biographical work of dozens of fictional people and could not have been told without a look inside seemingly endless lives and heads.
The Book Thief is a first person account from an all-knowing narrator about people other than the narrator. But this is an integral part of the whole story and one reason the novel works. You could not have The Book Thief without its style.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with alternate styles in fiction.
Many of my own novels are slightly unusual. Inconceivable, in particular, with several first person narrators and both past and present tense depending on the narrator, is unconventional. But it also could not have been any other way. The style in which this novel is written is part of the story itself—essentially an extra setting or character—and, in fact, foreshadows the course of events to the conclusion.
Just like we need diverse books, we need diverse writing. If there’s a reason, a message, and purpose behind it.
Don’t write in present tense unless you have a good enough reason that you could convince a jury.
Don’t write in multiple points of view unless your story would be impossible to tell without it. Even then, ask yourself who and why.
Don’t write omniscient. Please. Since only one in a hundred modern writers seems able to pull this off properly and elegantly, it’s also best left to the 1800s.
Do keep things simple, clear, and advantageous to the reader enjoying your novel.
Do understand the style you’re going for and stick with it throughout your manuscript.
Do embrace clarity and the power of your story, your characters, and your own voice over using obscure or trendy styles in the hopes that you will stand out.
When you first set out to write or revise a novel, you can give your reader no greater gift than a moment of your own time.
Stop, think, understand both how and why you’re telling this particular story in this particular way.
Make sure that style is so clear and so important to the story the reader will also understand why it had to be that way. The best you can do is to leave your reader with an experience in which they never thought much, if any, about POV, tense, or any other nuts and bolts of your writing—everything came together and made too much sense to question.
It is in this way that even readers who do not care for present tense, or readers preferring a single narrator, can lose themselves in a present tense book and fall in love with two, three, or ten different POV characters.
As a reader, it’s certainly happened to me. And I’m looking forward to it happening again. Just make sure you mean it when you write it. If you’re not quite sure, remember there’s a reason third person and past tense aren’t going out of style anytime soon.
At the end of the day, keep it simple. We, the fiction readers, are here first for an emotional ride. If you give us that, you’ve done your job.
*Thank you Pixabay artists for the photos.*