Search This Blog

Friday, March 20, 2015

Writing Person and Tense

It seems like five or six years ago, almost every new novel I read was written in first person. An example of first person writing is:

"I was walking to the store when this gigantic purple and green dog jumped out of the alley onto the sidewalk. He stood facing me as if to block my path. It stood its ground with its legs splayed.

"I froze in place at the sight of this strange-looking creature. I tried to guess its intent, not to mention its origin. Was I in danger?

"Drawing upon the limited training I had received about how to behave around a potentially dangerous dog, I slowly turned sideways and shifted my gaze so that I did not look directly into its face. The thinking of that stance is, from what I have been told, to signal non-aggression to the dog so that it does not sense danger and respond by attacking.

"I studied the creature’s face out of the corner of my eye. What I witnessed take place in its bright orange eyes shocked me, prompting me to turn back and stare fully into its face."

In some ways, stories written in first person draw me in so that I feel like I experience the scenes in the story as if I am the person telling the story. In other ways, I feel it is limiting--sort of like real life. I don’t know what the other characters are thinking or feeling unless the character telling the story shares their observations with me. In my opinion, some authors show more talent writing in first person than others and that can determine whether or not the story is a pleasure or a chore to read.

The preceding example demonstrates the first person writing style using the past tense. The paragraph that follows is an example of first person in the present tense. In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges of writing a story in first person is to stay in the proper tense.

Is the author telling a story from their point of view that happened in the past? Is the author relating what is happening “on the fly” as it is happening? It is so easy to get “was” and “is” mixed up in the telling, but so important to keep them straight.

Perhaps one of the most popular styles in which to tell a story--and the one that seems to be in vogue, as least in the genres I have been reading lately--is that of third person. The writer is an observer, a fly on the wall, so to speak. Or perhaps the writer is a revered storyteller sharing with those gathered around the campfire a tale of the exploits of others. However you want to view it, the writer is talking about people, animals and things, as a know-all third party.

An advantage of third person is that the writer can share more than one point of view in the story. (That is a whole different topic, so I’m not going there too much now.) The author can share the thoughts, feelings and intents of more than one character. I personally like to separate the thoughts and feelings of different characters by at least a paragraph, if not a chapter section or a chapter.

Swallowing in an effort to calm her thrumming heart, she froze in place as she stared at his  roughened, manly lips surrounded by the bristle of two day’s worth of unshaven whiskers, a longing surging up within her to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him senseless.

He froze at the sight of the beautiful woman before him as visions of her as the pesky little brat that had made his life miserable when he was still in short pants came crashing back into the forefront of his memory, inspiring within him the childish urge to grab her by her shoulders and send her crashing to the ground.

In this third person example, we have two people standing and looking at each other. We know what each character is thinking and feeling, even if each of them are clueless about what is going on inside the other. What is going to happen next? I don't know. Write the story and we'll find out.

As in writing in first person, it is important to keep track of the use of “was” and “is,” “did” and “do,” “will” and “won’t” not to mention what the characters “would” do.

My novel Family Secrets was started at a time that writing in first person was very much in vogue. I debated about how I wanted it written. Keep in mind that this novel has an ongoing storyline of current-day characters going through experiences in a present-day setting. In addition, some of those older characters are telling about past events in their lives.

One of my first questions at the start centered around whether I should write Family Secrets all in first person, all in third person or a combination of the two. I decided there was only one way to find out. For the first few chapters of the book, I wrote the same scenes both ways. Then, like mixing and baking a good bread dough from scratch, I let those chapters “rest.” When I went back later to read what I had written, I made my decision.

The current day scenes I wrote in third person. They were mostly from Jennie’s point-of-view. Here is an example:

            Jennie chatted with Garrett and her parents through the meal. She waited towards the end to execute her plan, but she knew she better catch her parents before they left the table if she wanted some answers about the family. When she judged it to be just the right moment, she fished the paper with her questions from her jeans pocket. Keeping her tone light and casual, she asked her first question regarding the full, legal names of her grandparents?
            Christy glared at Jennie, a frown creasing her face. “What brought this on?”
           "Oh, I was sharing a table in the library with our neighbor, Mrs. Moore, and we started talking about what she does for a living. I told her I knew your full names, but I also realized that I’m not sure of the first and middle names of my grandparents. So, she helped me put together a list so I could learn more about my family.”
            “What kind of information about the family?” Christy demanded sharply.
            Jennie hesitated as she picked up on the concern in her mother’s voice. She looked up to see her mother’s expression hard and forbidding as a high stone wall. Jennie realized she needed to reassure her of her intentions.
            “You know, like the full, legal names of my grandparents, for starters,” I said. “Grandpa, Grandma, Granddad and Nana are okay when I’m around them, but I know that’s not what is on their birth certificates.”
            Jennie waited, but neither of her parents spoke. In the silence, broken only by Garrett making airplane noises as he swooped his fork over his plate, Jennie noticed that her father was not looking at her. He was intently watching her mother. Something was going on, but Jennie could not guess what it might be.
            “I guess that would be okay,” Jennie’s mom finally said.
            Jennie’s dad was the next to speak. “My father’s full name is John Kevin and the last name is Graves, of course. My mother’s name is Amy Renate Walding.”
            Then Christy told Jennie her parents’ full names, pausing as Jennie carefully recorded them.
            “Okay, I know all their birthdays, but I’m not sure of the years,” Jennie continued. She recorded the birth years of her four grandparents.
            “Okay, where were they all born?” she asked next.
            “Why do you need all this information? What else is on that list of yours, anyway?” Christy demanded.
            Jennie’s senses went on full alert. Her mother was definitely frowning, her voice hostile, her jaw clenched and her body rigid. Jennie looked at her father. His eyes were darting back and forth between her and her mother. At that point, she realized she was somehow touching on a sensitive subject for her mother. What could it possibly be?

The chapters that dealt with her mother’s and grandfather’s historical stories I wrote in first person and the past tense. Here is an example from Christy’s story:

            What I sometimes found strange about the woman in my dreams was how her eyes could change from one extreme to another, almost instantly. Mostly her bright blue eyes were full of laughter as they looked directly into my own. But then, sometimes her eyes would take on a far-away look, as if I no longer existed for her. That frightened me. I always wanted to stay with her when that happened because I was afraid the rest of her would go away like her eyes did.
            In some of my dreams, when that happened, my angel was resting on a lush carpet of tall-bladed grass sprinkled with tiny flowers in pastel shades. Her arms and legs were sprawled. I sat next to her talking and playing. Sometimes her eyes were closed; sometimes they were staring off into space. Sometimes she would not say anything, not even when I shook her and jabbered into her ear. Other times she would sing-song silly words that made me laugh. But I could tell she did not know I was there.
            When the pretty woman in my dream was like that, I accepted this as part of her natural state. I somehow knew that if I waited next to her, she would eventually come back to me, her eyes once more connecting with mine and her smile shining only for me. While I waited for her to return, I amused myself by picking small flowers or blades of grass and scattering them like a veil over her arms and face, watching as she sometimes shook them off to catch in her hair or create a floral ring around her body.
            Other times, when the rain was pounding down upon our world, she would slip away into her other world inside a house with lots of painted wood and faded wallpaper where there were stacks of jars and boxes overflowing with beads and seashells. I often separated the beads into piles by color, or placed them end to end to create shapes. Sometimes I would pretend that the shells were people and animals and flowers from our yard while I patiently waited for the vacant stare to end and for my angel wearing her happy face to come back to me.
            More and more, I had to wait for my angel to come back to me.
            Sometimes my dreams ended while I was playing or just as the woman’s eyes returned to me laughing and happy. Other times, strong arms scooped me up and carried me away while I looked back with a sense of wonder at the motionless pretty angel with her blank stare.

Whether a writer chooses to tell a story in first person or third person, the important thing is to tell a good story. I hope all my readers enjoy the story that crosses three generations in Family Secrets with Jennie and her story told in third person while Grandpa Mike’s Vietnam War experiences and mother Christy’s experiences as a child are told in first person.

Robyn Echols writes using the pen name, Zina Abbott. Her novel, Family Secrets, has been published by Fire Star Press and is now available on Amazon HERE and on Barnes & Nobel for Nook HERE

Also available from Prairie Rose Publications:

Big Meadows Valentine, on Amazon Kindle HERE and on Nook HERE . The second novella in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, A Resurrected Heart, is scheduled to be released in April 2015.

A Christmas Promise on Amazon Kindle HERE and Nook HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Some very famous authors have written in first person, and even first person, present tense. I know in some creative writing classes I have been required to write in first person in order to maintain POV. Honestly, I prefer to read and write in 3rd person, past tense. But I have to add here that a great writer can get my attention in third or first person.
    I have Family Secrets and look forward to getting some time to read it. I wish you all the very best, Robyn.