f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Who Said What and When?—No, Not a Bad Laurel and Hardy Skit, POV and Tense (Part 1 of series)

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Who Said What and When?—No, Not a Bad Laurel and Hardy Skit, POV and Tense (Part 1 of series)

I’ve done some writing in my life—short stories, longer stories, poetry I wouldn’t show you on a dare, and two novels. My reading and editing spans my lifetime and includes books of pretty much as wide a variety as you can imagine. I don’t know if that completely qualifies me to tackle these issues, but those three points plus my work here and my sheepskin in English from Penn State are all the credentials I’ve got. They don’t hand out badges unfortunately that say “writer” on them. (Or if they do, I’ve not been given one and thus you should ignore me.)

Anyway, in my experience both in reading and writing, a book generally starts with its first letter, first word, first sentence, first paragraph, and first page. Moby Dick begins, “Call….” Elizabeth Gouge’s Green Dolphin Street, a book I’ve not read, starts, “Sophie….” Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last….” Here’s a game from Cornell University you can play with novel’s first lines.

The point of this isn’t to be obscure. It’s merely to point out that the book has to start someplace. Often the first words you read, aren’t the first words ever written by an author. That’s irrelevant. They’re the first words that made it to the published page and therefore they mean everything.

Take Melville’s tutorial on skinning a whale and/or classic American novel: “Call me Ishmael.”

Right, three words…and you pretty much get POV (first-person) and tense (present –sort of*) right off the bat. Now that’s not a requirement in writing, but it shows you how foundational these two principles are to a novel.

For my own writing, I’ve never had any worries with tense, but point of view has been a bear. I don’t have stereotypical point-of-view problems of switching from first person to third or relaying information that couldn’t be known from my POV. My problem is deciding from which perspective to tell a story. To me, that’s everything in a book and if you lead in the wrong perspective you’re going to create problems or head down dead-ends and generally drive yourself mad. I know; I’ve done it.

Before getting to point-of-view, two quick word about tenses.

Past. Present.

Those are pretty much your options. Stylists dally about on occasion with future tense, but I never seen nor can I fathom a novel written that way. Past tense is the most common and allows for the greatest amount of flexibility. Pure present tense is seen less often and offers an immediacy that, coupled with the intimacy of first-person, either works well or is off-putting. Commonly, books in the present tense shuttle back and forth. The greater amount of time you spend in the present, the more immediacy you gain.

An example. Do you remember for instance that To Kill a Mockingbird is a present-tense novel. Here’s proof from Scout’s mouth (speaking as a grown woman thinking back to the events). “I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that.” I think there may be one or two more present-tense lines in the book. The rest is memory.

Now for P.O.V…. Actually, looking at the clock and thinking of what I want to say on this topic, I’m going to hold up. We’ll get to it tomorrow. Anyway, you know the basics—first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and, for you maniacs, second person.

*First person books are always told from the present perspective. Even a first-person book told in past tense… “At age five, my parents moved to Uruguay and left me with Uncle Pete”…are told from wherever the first person narrator is “standing” at the moment of telling the story. In other words the narrator is no longer five and being left by his parents. This may seem unimportant or like splitting hairs, but trust me, deciding “where” that narrator is in present-time is crucial to the overall tone of the book. You can’t simply ignore it.