Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Choosing Point of View and Verb Tense for Your Story


            Probably one of the most basic constructs of any story is point of view, yet many novice writers find the concept confusing. Do I write in first person, third person, or can I use an omniscient point of view? Do I use past or present tense?
            The answer largely has to do with the type of effect your plot requires.
First Person/Present
If you want to create a sense of immediacy, employ present tense with either first or third person. In my novel, Second Chance, I use first person, present tense since the story seemed to dictate this approach. Whenever I tried to go back and write it in third person, past tense (the most popular, by the way), the story didn’t carry the punch I desired.  Since the story line involves an empty nest mom grieving the departure of her last child from home and her process of getting on with life/investing in her marriage, first person/present puts the reader squarely into Mave’s shoes, experiencing her journey with her as the story unfolds. Notice the following sample from Second Chance.
Good grief! A silly tree on a bathmat makes me cry.
            I laugh through my tears as Jerry stumbles into the bathroom, nearly tripping over me on the way to the toilet. “What in the world are you doing on the floor, Mave?”
            “Picking lint off the mat?” I contort my face, hoping he’ll believe me, but I don’t sound very confident. Lint-picking is certainly something he could relate to. Jerry’s so particular that he lines up his shoes every night before climbing into bed. The only thing he isn’t particular about is our marriage.
            “Can’t you do it some place else?” He steps around me.
            Keeping up my façade, I sweep the mat from underneath his feet and stomp to the bedroom. I hug the rug to my chest and indulge a few more tears as Jerry turns on the shower. Strains of “Singin’ in the Rain” echo from the stall. I half expect to see him hop out of the shower with umbrella in hand and dance about the room like Gene Kelly.
            Notice how the first person, present approach almost slows the reading, placing you smack dab into Mave’s predicament. You begin to feel her pain with her, perhaps in a deeper way than third person/past could achieve.
Third Person/Past
            By far, the most popular choice in current fiction writing is third person/past. This works particularly well with romance novels where the writer uses a hero and heroine, bouncing back and forth between their points of view. Notice the following sample from my novel, Laughing with Lily.
Regret barged into the bedroom and refused to leave. Like one of the boxes Celeste had carried from their trailer to their new house, a dark secret weighed heavy on her heart, especially in the last year.
She surveyed the pile of cartons beside the bed and located the one marked “Framed Pictures.” Tearing away the tissue paper, she smoothed her hand over the cool glass surface lodged inside the pewter frame, corners adorned with inlaid sapphires. A bride and groom smiled back at her. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Tatem.
In spite of her dismal mood, she was determined to enjoy her anniversary.
The heady aroma of English Leather entered the bedroom as she studied the portrait. She spun around and faced her husband. A silly grin ruffled his lips. She smiled and melted into Joe’s arms. She reached up and pressed her index finger into the dimple in his chin.
“Okay, you can come out now.” His voice teased her. “But first, put this on.” He gently turned her around and tied a bandanna over her eyes.
Counter to my experience with Second Chance, when I tried to write Laughing with Lily in first person, present, it simply didn’t work. The plot seemed to demand a third person/past approach, perhaps due to Celeste’s past pain, the regret she harbored. I wanted to accentuate the past in the reader’s mind to help her/him enter into Celeste’s grief and battle to let go.
Omniscient
            Many beginning writers, myself included, naturally fall into the trap of writing in the omniscient point of view in which the reader can enter into the thoughts and feelings of all the characters at once. While this used to be a popular point of view in the nineteenth century, it is not so much so today. Readers enjoy and appreciate entering the mind and experience of ONE character per scene. Only what the point of view character can see, feel, taste, touch, hear, and think is presented. This helps the reader really get to know and identify with one to three central characters in the story.
            This was difficult for me to achieve in my early years of fiction writing. Since I had written dramas, I saw my scenes as displayed on a stage, witnessing much of what an audience would, knowing what each character is doing, saying, thinking. Over time, with practice and mentoring, I learned to confine my scene to one character’s perception.

What point of view/verb tense feels the most natural to you? What form do you enjoy reading?
            Share with my readers for a chance to win a print copy of Chosen Ones

A couple in crisis.
A child taken captive.
When their worlds intersect, each of them will receive a special gift, but will they find it in their hearts to accept an outcome so different from what they expected and hoped for?



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