How do you know when you’ve found your true voice? I write multi-genre, and I discovered a long time ago that the genre, or the story itself, demands the voice. I write softer, more descriptively, when I write romance. I write more directly and tersely with an action/adventure. I also write more directly when my protagonist is male, and more effusively when my protagonist is female. Back in 2013, I wrote more extensively about changing voices here.
But beyond the story suggesting a voice, how do you craft that voice? You do have choices, you know.
Most books (I would think 90% or more) use a past tense. He ran up the hill. Whether due to this majority usage or my own proclivity, I feel like past tense is a logical mode for telling a story. I believe most of us use it when we tell our own stories, like recounting our trip to the grocery story.
“I was driving along, minding my own business, when this guy pulled out right in front of me …”
To my mind, this is a natural way to tell a story, since we are recounting something that happened in the past. There are some, however, who choose to use a present tense. He runs up the hill. To tell you the truth, I have no idea why anyone would choose this method. I find it awkward and annoying. Perhaps these authors think the present tense lends an immediacy to their words or adds to the tension. Whenever I see it, the first thing I think of is a ten-year-old boy telling a whopper.
“So I’m just sitting there, you know, doing the reading assignment, and this guy behind me jams the corner of his notebook into my back and I yell. The teacher doesn’t see it, so she gets all mad at me…”
Just to round things out, there is, of course, future tense, but you hardly ever see He will run up the hill. Thank goodness.
First person means speaking from the narrator’s viewpoint. I ran up the hill. This establishes early on the single point of view for the entire story (unless your protagonist has ESP and can read minds). It’s a good device for delving into the emotional condition of your protagonist as it makes sense to describe and explain what s/he is thinking, feeling, planning. I used this in one of my books, and was happy enough with it, although it’s not what I use generally.
Second person is less about speaking from and more about speaking to. You ran up the hill. I believe this would be an awkward choice for a book, since every time you wrote something like, “You heard a sound outside and went to the window to see what it was,” your reader might easily be thinking, “No, I didn’t.” I’ve never seen anyone use second person throughout a book, but I do see it sprinkled in here and there, and I think that’s a mistake. Most of us primarily use third person (he ran, she ran), but will sometimes drop in something like, “He’s what you would call a geek,” or, “There were more of them than you could shake a stick at.” In movies, this is called breaking the fourth wall. This is when the character in the movie turns and faces the camera and speaks directly to the audience. At this point, the story-telling is interrupted and the feeling changes abruptly. The viewer or reader is suddenly pulled into the story rather than watching/reading from the outside. It can be effective, but it can also be annoying. In the above examples, I would use, “He’s what most people would call a geek,” or “There were more of them than anyone could shake a stick at,” in order to maintain the third person tense throughout.
Third person is what most of us use most of the time. He ran up the hill. This gives the author the ability to enter into the point of view of any of the characters at any time, providing more latitude to the story. That can, however, be overdone. If you’ve ever read a book where the point of view seems to change from one character to another paragraph by paragraph, the author is doing some serious head-hopping. As with any tool, this can be effective at times, but should be used in moderation. You don’t want your readers feeling like they’re watching a tennis match. See more about viewpoint basics and getting your PoVs right at each respective link.
Beyond these two prominent aspects of voice, the nuances are up to you. Match your voice to the characters, the location, the time, the feeling of the story and you’re on your way.
11 thoughts on “Crafting Your Writer’s Voice: Tense and Person”
Tolkien head-hopped with great skill. There’s a scene where Frodo is the POV character until he passes a rope to Sam by lowering one end down a cliff to him. As Sam grabs the rope the POV changes to him. It works perfectly.
Sounds like an excellent device, kind of like panning the camera from one character to the next. Thanks for sharing that, Tui.
First person present tense drives me nuts. I don’t mind first person past tense as much, although I will say it isn’t that easy to write. I don’t like to see so many paragraphs and sentences starting with the word “I,” but in many cases it’s unavoidable.
I have a book that will be out by Thanksgiving that is titled A Day Out with Mom. It’s a non-fiction narrative of my seven-month stay with my parents as a caregiver. Some chapters are written from my point of view, and some chapters are written as first person narratives with my parents’ voices, retelling their stories as they told them to me. The chapters in my voice are told in first person present tense. I’ve always had issues reading books that use the first person present tense voice. I would get bogged down. However, the short vignettes of the chapters for my book work best from that perspective. Go figure! We do have to match the structure to the material.
Kat, me, too, although I agree with Tom that some things will work, given the story. What I find fairly often with present tense is that it’s easy for past tense to slip in when the author’s not looking. I don’t know why, but it seems that present tense is harder to maintain. At least that’s been my experience.
The project I’m working on right now is first person past tense. It was the only thing that really worked. So I hear you both. 🙂
I tackled this subject in a post almost exactly a year ago, Melissa: A Choice of Perspectives. I’ve experimented with the various tenses and POVs, quite successfully I feel. In one of my stories: while telling how we reached this point in past tense, I then continue telling the unfolding story in present tense. I believe it is a good tension building device. It wasn’t easy and took a considerable amount of editing work to keep the tenses right, but I liked the effect. I also used present tense in my memoir to highlight a memory point (a particularly clear flashback memory). However I agree that the easiest and most straightforward way to tell a story is third person, past tense.
Excellent post, Melissa.
I agree, in the third person, it is much easier to discern your characters views. My latest thriller, The hut in the woods, is in third person with POV’s. I am hoping that I have made this clear in my book so the reader gets caught up as if they are there with the characters, listening say, while inside the home where these characters have joined to tell the tale.
TD, thanks for telling us about your innovations; sounds like you have used tenses for maximum purpose. You’ve developed interesting scenarios and I can see how they would be successful. I’m glad to hear you say you paid particular attention to keeping the tenses consistent in your editing process. I fear this is where many authors fall down, and it’s disconcerting when they mix tenses. Thanks for adding to the discussion.
Two out of the three books in my series are written in the third person. The middle one is in first person. It just felt right to do it that way and judging by the reviews, seems to have been a good choice. It was more difficult, though.
Thanks for chiming in, Yvonne. I think if the story needed that voice, that’s exactly what it should have, and you know if it feels right. My first book was in first person, and it worked, but it’s definitely a different mindset.
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