A Tense Point of View

Do you prefer reading first-person or third-person narratives? Does it make a difference when the story is in a particular genre? Does the narrative point of view give the story a different feel for you?

I know I don’t need to detail for you what I mean here, but just in case:

  • First-person: I dashed into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confronted the assassin.
  • Third-person: He dashed into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confronted the assassin.

First-Person PoV

For a long time the general advice to novelists was to stick with third-person narration, and past tense only, please. First-person narration was for autobiographies and hard-boiled detective stories only, though I think you could find a number of examples in 19th- and early 20th-century literature (think H.G. Wells, for instance). However, a common narrative form of the age was to have a first-person narrator who was not in fact the main character of the story, or even very important to the story. This may seem strange to us today, but it allowed the author to slip into the role of fireside storyteller, relating events of some character he or she had met (if only in his or her imagination).

W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, was written in this manner: the author himself is the narrator, but is only barely tangential to the story of Larry Darrell and his friends. Writing in this manner gives the story a hint of “This is something that really happened,” while nevertheless remaining entirely fictional. On the other hand, it would seem to have the drawback of not allowing the storyteller (and thus the reader) to be present when the action occurs far away. In Maugham’s novel, Darrell travels to India and spends years searching for the meaning of life, yet we as the readers only learn of it when he returns to Europe and relates his tale to his friends — one of whom is the author/narrator. Perhaps Maugham didn’t want to emphasize the mysticism of Darrell’s eastern travels, instead keeping the focus on personal relationships more familiar to a western audience, but it was a disappointment for me to not be there when Larry sits on a mountaintop meditating.

Past advice notwithstanding, many great novels — and not just detective stories — are written in first-person. Such a style can make the action much more personal, as we are definitely inside the head of the narrator-protagonist. It can also allow for an unreliable narrator, a main character who relates events to us as they perceive them, or perhaps even as they wish to be perceived, and only later in the novel do we find out that the story’s “inner reality” is different.

But first-person narration also has its drawbacks. Classically, it restricts the author to telling the story from only a single point of view, though in modern times this “rule” has been broken quite successfully (see My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult for an example). It also classically has been taken as an indicator that the narrator survives to the end of the story, in order to be able to tell the tale, but again — spoiler alert! — see Picoult’s afore-mentioned tale.

Third-Person Deep PoV

It is possible to obtain that same “inside the protagonist’s head” feel with third-person narrative, using a technique usually called Deep Point of View (or Deep PoV). For example:

He raised the heavy gun, shakily pointing it at the assassin, who loomed large in the alley. The assassin laughed.

vs

He raised the gun — how did it get so heavy? — and pointed it at the assassin. The man was huge! To make matters worse, the assassin merely laughed at his feeble effort.

Deep PoV attempts to have the reader identify with the character as much as first-person narration does, but still retain some of the detachment of third-person.

Second-Person PoV

What about second-person narration? Is there such a thing? Indeed there is! Though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it with past tense, so:

You dash into the alleyway, gun drawn, and confront the assassin.

As a writer, you will likely be told, over and over, never to write this way, that such a book will never sell.

Jay McInerney laughed all the way to bank after his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City went bestseller. Yep, all second-person. Same for N.K. Jemison with her Hugo-award-winning novel, The Fifth Season. For a science fiction example, see Charles Stross and Halting State, plus its sequel, Rule 34.

Second-person narration is very hard to pull off, however. If not done exceptionally well, its very strangeness can be off-putting.

Past vs Present Tense

Having now mentioned tense, let’s dive into that. Again, traditionally, stories have been told in past tense — He dashed into the alleyway — giving it that feel of an oral tradition, related by elders around the campfire, of mythic deeds by mythic heroes of an ancient age. But in the past few decades, present tense novels have come into vogue. Granted, such writing has existed for some time: Ulysses by James Joyce, published in 1918, employs present-tense narration. Going back even farther, Charles Dickens used present tense for his 1852 serial, The Bleak House.

Still, throughout most of the 20th century, most novels were written in past tense. Lately, however, that seems to be changing. While still true — I think, as I don’t have a statistic on this handy — that while most novels today are in past tense, clearly an increasing number of them are coming out in present tense. This certainly seems prevalent with YA novels — The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Divergent (Veronica Roth) — but is definitely not restricted to that genre. The second-person novels I mentioned earlier, for instance, are also present-tense novels. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey), and, yes, infamously, Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James), are also present-tense novels. The list is quite long, really.

You will probably notice that many of these are also first-person narration. Certainly this isn’t universally true, but it feels more natural — to me, anyway — to couple present tense with first-person.

Future Tense and Stranger Things

What about future tense?

I admit, I’m not aware of any examples of novels written in future tense, and I have a hard time imagining flowing prose in such a style, at least in English.

He will dash into the alleyway, gun drawn…

Sounds more like a prophecy than a story.

Of course, we could go crazy with future perfect (He will have dashed…), future perfect progressive (He will have been dashing…), and so on, but you can see how cumbersome this quickly gets. Perfect, progressive, and perfect progressive modifiers can be applied to past and present tense as well, of course, but in all cases this starts to add a lot of words to describe an action.

Putting It All Together

So that was a long ramble, but why do I bring this up? If you’ve been following my work-in-progress, The Silence of Ancient Light, you’ll note that I’ve been writing (oh, there’s past perfect progressive!) in third-person past tense. However, you’ll also note that there is, so far, only one point-of-view character, Anna Laukkonnen. I think in the early scenes I managed to achieve some deep PoV with Anna, but as I look back on the later scenes, I sense that I’ve drifted a bit from this, which is something I’ll need to correct in the next draft.

But, if the story is entirely from Anna’s point of view, would it make more sense to change it to first-person narrative? I admit, I’m currently undecided on this point. I have written other stories in first-person, and I’ve generally found it to be a comfortable style for me. I am striving for that deep personal perspective, and for me that’s perhaps a little easier in first-person, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

As a reader, I enjoy books in both first- and third-person — and yes, I enjoyed The Fifth Season in second-person as well, though with Halting State I admit it took me a while to get used to it. So, I don’t have a strong preference one way or the other, but instead want to use the style that best lends itself to the tale I have to tell.

The vast majority of my writing has been traditional past tense, as well, but recently I’ve tried my hand at some present-tense writing, and I’ve found it can set a certain mood to a story that is sometimes appropriate, though not always. I’m not against it, though I’m not sure it’s what I want for Silence.

What do you think? What is your preference? What do you think would work best for Anna and Silence? If you’re a writer, what feels most natural to you?


header image credit: Stefan Keller (user:kellepics / pixabay.com) under Pixabay License

Cavern (WIP)

(The Silence of Ancient Light, continued)

The howl of the storm echoed through the tube, a banshee screaming in furious reverberation, increasing in ferocity and beginning to drive sideways rain many meters in from the cliff entrance. Any thoughts of waiting it out near the entrance now gone from their minds, Anna and Laxmi scrambled toward the inner end and peered into the dark void beyond, their headlamps piercing the gloom with twin beams of focused light.

The roughly eight-meter long by one-meter wide tube ended much as it began, with a sudden and smooth circular opening in the midst of an inward-facing cliff. Beyond lay a dark, cavernous chamber, its size lost in the black, though Anna’s headlamp picked out crystalline reflections sparkling from what might be the far side, a few hundred meters away. The floor of the chamber lay not far below them, a half-dozen meters, with a deeper narrow gully between the main floor and the wall from which she peered.

Read more at…

Cavern


Yes, I know I told you that I was going to resume work on an older work-in-progress, for the moment called Shadow, but I also said I’ll still continue with Silence, didn’t I? So continue I have done, and will do, and here you go, the latest installment. Anna and Laxmi escape from the hurricane, burrowing deeper into the cave they’ve found, but what awaits them inside? What secrets of the mysterious missing Keplerians might be revealed?

You’ll have to read the scene to find out! And as always, I welcome feedback of any kind.

Until the next scene…


header image credit: user:darkmoon1968 / pixabay.com under Pixabay License

Drafting For Two

A little over a year ago, I spent the Christmas holiday with my wife Carole in Bend, Oregon, to ski the famous cross-country tracks of Mt Bachelor and environs, taste the famous microbrews of the Bend Ale Trail, and lay down some serious drafts, writing retreat style, for my novel.

Bend had a notoriously low snow year, so we accomplished only a little skiing. We did, however, collect some growlers from a handful of wonderful brewpubs.

Growlers
© Matt Fraser, 2019

And I spent hours staring at my laptop, completely blocked.

It wasn’t a problem of the words not flowing, though I’ve faced that at times, too. I simply couldn’t figure out the plot. I had an idea, summed up in a couple of sentences, but could not figure out the sequence of events that would tell the story. I had devised a few character sketches, I knew roughly who my protagonist was, knew a bit more about my antagonist, and had a wonderful concept for a contagonist impact character. I even had the broad strokes of how to bring the first act to a close, and what sort of crisis would precipitate the third act climax, though the details remained fuzzy.

I just had no idea for what should happen in between.

Carole had a perfect description for my state: analysis paralysis. I was so focused on getting every plot point just right that I was letting perfect become the enemy of the good. I sipped drafts from the collected brews of the Deschutes valley, but found no further inspiration there. And then Carole said something fateful.

“Why don’t you stop worrying about the plot and just write? It worked for you in NanoWrimo, so why not now?”

2013-Winner-Facebook-Cover
Yes, I “won” in 2013

So I did just that, albeit not with this project. I set my unfinished plot outline aside, and simply began writing, without any plot worked out in advance, based upon a simple image I held in my mind, an image of alien ruins, signs of an advanced civilization, long abandoned. I saw space stations, falling apart in orbit around a darkened planet, and the arrival of human explorers to investigate.

The result of that stream of consciousness experiment is still unfolding, as The Silence of Ancient Light, and some of you have been reading along as I post my first draft scenes on these pages. That was another part of the experiment, to post scenes as I went, thus “forcing” myself to keep going.

I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve posted scenes, only to realize one or two scenes later that I got a technical detail wrong, some point of astrophysics or orbital mechanics that just wouldn’t work. I’ve thought of better ways to handle events for already posted scenes, and then struggled with whether to keep writing in a manner consistent with what’s already been posted, or to write as if the earlier scenes had been different. Of course, that would make the narrative confusing for anyone trying to read through, but it is a first draft, after all.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is that I’ve concluded I had my characters go down a path I didn’t want them to tread several scenes earlier, and I’ve written myself into a corner. Now what do I do? Do I keep writing the story as it has been unfolding, even though it isn’t really where I wanted it to go? Do I go back for a “do-over” and rewrite everything from that point forward? And if so, do I create a new fork in the thread of the story, leaving the originals as they are as signposts for my folly?

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve slowed down on my output for the draft, and this crisis of my own making is the major reason.

Along the way, I’ve had concepts and ideas for other novels come to mind, as they do, and even been tempted when the writing on Silence slowed down to break off and explore one of them. The writing community over on Twitter (great group!) was practically unanimous in their advice not to do that, to make notes on the concept, but keep going on the current draft, finish what I’ve started. And so I’ve been doing just that.

Yet a new conundrum has arisen.

Remember the original story idea, the one I was trying and failing to carefully plot during that winter retreat to the land of ales and trails a year ago? The one I put aside to work on Silence instead?

I think I’ve solved my plot blockage.

There is still a lot of work to do before I begin drafting the prose, but I have a very high-level outline for 60 scenes spread across 20 chapters (those numbers may and probably will change). With a few more days (or weeks, more likely) of work, I should have an outline detailed enough to be called a treatment, a plan for simply “writing down the bones,” scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

And this, after all, was my original project, which I set aside to work on Silence. So, should I now set aside Silence to return to it?

No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think you think so, either.

So how successful can I be, working on two projects at the same time? That depends. Silence was always intended to be a way to break the logjam, to spur creativity and to keep writing, to keep up the practice. If, along the way, it turned into something decent, that would be a bonus. I do think there’s something decent in there, even if it’s gone a little bit off the rails, so I’m nowhere near wanting to abandon it. It deserves better than that.

At the same time, I’m ready to breathe new life into my more “serious” project. (It has a working title, but I’m holding that in reserve for the moment; for now, we’ll call it Shadow.) Yet there is a difference in the stages of creation for Shadow vs Silence. I’m plotting Shadow, whereas I’m drafting Silence. Shadow has a careful structure to it; Silence is by design more free-form.

I can see myself going back and forth between the two. When I’m stuck with something in Shadow, I’ll return to stream of consciousness writing with Silence. When I write myself into another corner in Silence, I’ll wrap up the next subplot in Shadow.

I’m undecided whether I will post scene drafts from Shadow in the same way that I have for Silence. One negative side-effect of doing so has been finding myself writing for the effect of the next post, instead of writing for the effect of the narrative whole, thus giving the unfolding story a bit of a Perils of Pauline serial feel to it. When the work is complete, I don’t want the reader to feel as if she is reading a series of shorts; I want her to enjoy it holistically, to be unable to put it down until reaching the very end.

Nevertheless, I may still do so, but I make no promises. Meanwhile, though, you can still expect to see scenes from Silence appear in these pages.

Some of you likely have strong thoughts about this approach. Feel free to critique me in the comments! Seriously, I want to hear from you.

Until the next cliffhanger…

512px-Perilsofpauline
used under Public Domain

header image credit: user:JAKO5D / pixabay.com under Pixabay License

WorkInProgress: Periapsis

Periapsis: the point of closest approach, or low point, in any orbit…

Anna has finished her EVA repair of the orbital shuttle, and now she, Laxmi, and Jaci are ready to try once again to return to their starship, Aniara. But is the long-abandoned alien space station ready yet to give up its grip on them? Will Anna’s repair withstand the rigors of engine ignition?

Will Jaci stop cracking jokes in the face of imminent demise? We all have our own way of dealing with stress, and this one is his. He really needs to find some little green aliens to talk to, but if that ever happens, you can be sure it will not go as expected.

Periapsis is an orbital component that you might be more familiar with as perigee, and it’s the opposite of apoapsis (or apogee). Perigee and apogee, of course, specifically refer to orbits around Earth (just as perihelion and aphelion refer to orbits around the Sun, and not just any sun, but specifically our Sun), whereas periapsis and apoapsis are “neutral” terms referring to orbit around any central body.

At the start of this scene, the shuttle is in an orbit matching that of the alien station, which is a circular orbit (periapsis = apoapsis) at geostationary altitude and zero inclination (i.e., directly above the planet’s equator). Anna intends to fly the shuttle up to their “parked” starship’s orbit, a hundred kilometers higher, by using a prograde burn to raise their apoapsis to match Aniara’s orbit. Along the way, however, something else happens…

If you want to get into geeky details about orbital mechanics, have a look at my earlier blog post Orbital Mechanics. If you just want to jump right in, however, join Anna and her crew in…

Periapsis


image credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

WorkInProgress: EVA

It’s a curious thing, but I’ve now had a couple people indicate to me that they’d be quite happy if I wrote faster. Some authors, famous for taking five-plus years per installment in their serial sagas, become annoyed when their fans try to rush them.

Not me. Ok, I’m hardly famous, and we aren’t talking about years here… and perhaps even saying fans would be a stretch… but when a couple readers tell me they’re impatient for the next scene in my serial novel, I find that highly encouraging! I’m not sure it gets me to write faster, but at least I know someone is waiting to read what I write, and that does indeed motivate me.

So, with that in mind, here it is! The next thousand words in the story of The Silence of Ancient Light. When last we left them, our heroes had managed to stabilize their crippled orbital shuttle against the surface of the alien space station, and they were mourning the death of Takashi, the engineer. The immediate danger is past, but they’re still in a bind, and they need to find a way to repair the damage to the shuttle. And to do that, someone is going to have to go back outside.

Extra-Vehicular Activity, or…

EVA


header image credit: pxhere.com