Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories April 14, 2014 - 11:19am

I’m working on a novel that I think will end up in the New Adult category. I’ve written the first chapter in third person but after going over it, I think it would be more effective written in first person present tense. I have little experience writing FPPT and would like to get a little advice before heading down that road.

My biggest concern is that I plan to include chapters where a character other than the main is the focus. In most, and perhaps all, of these chapters the protagonist will not even be present. Is it bad form to jump into 3rd person for these chapters? I would remain in FPPT anytime the protagonist is directly involved, but would prefer to write these other scenes in 3rd person.

Further, what about changing POV/tense within a chapter using line breaks. So, a couple of pages FPPT—break—a couple of pages third person centered on another character—repeat as needed.

Is that cooky-talk? Can it work? Am I better off picking a POV/tense and sticking with it?

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore April 14, 2014 - 12:21pm

I'm not a big fan of POV shifts (like first to third, I mean), and would prefer to see the other character rendered from their own first-person POV if necessary, and if motivated. I love first-person present tense for its immediacy, but of course the challenge is that you're limited to only what that character can perceive. Which can be used to dramatic and suspenseful effect, if done skillfully. It can also make twists more authentic. Switching to third feels like a cheat to me, done just to sidestep those limitations.

Tense shifts, however, I take no issue with, so long as they're separated into sections. If you stuck with first person but told the story in past tense, that might work to explain how the character knows certain things they oughtn't, such as hearsay from other characters or information gleaned later on, etc.

Exceptions apply to all of the above, of course.

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories April 14, 2014 - 1:09pm

Good thoughts, Gordon (as usual). You've inspired an idea that I think may work. I am going to take a character that I had originally intended to be minor and give her a larger role. I will write her scenes in first person and she will serve as a lens to much of what I wanted to show the reader in the 3rd person sections. I think this will work better than my original plan as she was a flimsy character who was going to show up a handful of times and her lack of development was bothering me.

I believe this will allow me to write in first person and still tell the story I want to tell. As you mentioned, the immediacy of present tense is what draws me to the form. You bring up good points on the advantages of past tense however. Any other thoughts on the pros and cons of first person past vs. present?

Also, if I may "think out loud" for a moment, when writing in first person I assume you have to pay closer attention to word choice, i.e. vocabulary. At the moment, my main character is a 19 year old college drop out. He's smart, but I doubt that he would speak, let alone think in literary prose. I don't really have the tendency to throw around overwrought, flowery language when writing but I will have to be careful not to go out of character as the narrator.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 14, 2014 - 5:45pm

Assuming you've been fairly complete in your thoughts I think that maybe you should keep it simple and go past tense third person.  

I'm not saying that story forgives all bad writing, but overly complex writing isn't a virtue.  And this sounds complex.  You have a laundry list of things you think make this problematic (MC not being there, won't sound like narrator, narrator isn't present, causes switch in pov, causes switch between various tense) vs. immediacy.  Even if you really pull off (I've seen authors fail at it with FPPT) immediacy, how much other stuff did you give up to gain it?

And honestly, I'm just conceding the immediacy being important for sake of argumentative, because I think it is a little silly. If you are telling a great story, really taking the reader on a ride they won't notice the tense unless it is super odd.  "She will do X." If you mess that up, it won't help.  Also I normally I'd not suggest meta concerns, but FPPT is the default for most YA.  The average reader of young adult is going to sick of/jaded to it.

The Atlantic has a good article on it and Megan Spooner (whom I know nothing about) raises some good points in her blog.

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/10/the-8-habits-of-highly-successful-young-adult-fiction-authors/280722/

http://www.meaganspooner.com/on-tenses-or-present-tense-stop-being-overused/

I'm not saying there aren't other reason to do it, I've working on a series of books each written in a different tense that I don't really intend to ever do anything with because I think it is good practice.  I am saying I don't see how this will help you make this book better.

Devon Robbins's picture
Devon Robbins from Utah is reading The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones April 15, 2014 - 4:54am

The novel I'm shopping right now is written with three main characters, one first person, and the other two in third person. The whole story is present tense also. One of my beta readers got hung up on the shifts, but the others had no problem. I also made an effort to use a different voice for the first and third person POV's.

I think that any sort of structure works as long as you are consistent, and you keep that sturcture throughout. Your third person parts have to be an important part of the book and there has to be enough of them to warrant the switch. A good example of alternating first and third person POV is Baer's Penny Dreadful.

Gordon Highland's picture
Gordon Highland from Kansas City is reading Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore April 15, 2014 - 8:07am

At the moment, my main character is a 19 year old college drop out. He's smart, but I doubt that he would speak, let alone think in literary prose.

This was a big concern for me with my first novel. It was first-person by an undereducated twentysomething jerk. I wanted to impress people with my writing (especially when I was submitting to agents/pubbers) but also not out-write the character's abilities. My compromise was to make him really witty and clever in stringing phrases together, but without using big words to do so, which was an easier sell, I thought.

Generally, I think first-person past gives you more options, but present is easier. Whenever you write in past, you gotta always been thinking about past-perfect tense as well, to clarify when stuff is the "current" past of the regular storyline versus the more distant past. First-person stories also imply the character survived its events (not always, though), which kills a little suspense.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb April 15, 2014 - 8:47am

Hi Matt, I'll put my two cents in here, because I've wrestled with similar problems.

My biggest concern is that I plan to include chapters where a character other than the main is the focus. In most, and perhaps all, of these chapters the protagonist will not even be present. Is it bad form to jump into 3rd person for these chapters? I would remain in FPPT anytime the protagonist is directly involved, but would prefer to write these other scenes in 3rd person.

In my humble opinion, it isn't bad form to jump from 1st to 3rd between chapters. The only thing I'm not sure about here is that your main character is the first person narrator. I've actually seen what you're describing done effectively but the other way round: the bulk of a story is in the 3rd person but occasionally a 1st person voice comes in for certain chapters because a unique/biased POV is needed for plot reasons. (The late Iain Banks just rocked with this technique - read Transition if you want to see what I'm on about).

If this were my project, I would be asking myself why I was so set on having the main character narrate at all. Without specifics about your story I can't really advise on that. With my latest protagonist I felt the same way: I really wanted to write in his voice but later on the story began to get so complex that I wanted other POVs, and indeed needed to let the reader see what certain people were up to without my protagonist having to be there and know about it.

I solved this problem by re-arranging the plan for my series so that the first two books are written in 1st person past, and then the 3rd book, where things become more complicated, switches to 3rd. Book 4 I'm not sure about, but it will probably be a combination of 1st and 3rd like what you've described. I'm probably destined to get some criticism for choosing such a format for a series, but I'm that convinced it works that I'm prepared to try it, and I only convinced myself after a LOT of playing around - I'm talking a good 200k of drafts and experiments that nobody else will ever see...

(deep breath) so my biggest advice here is that whatever you go for, don't lock yourself into it until you've played around with it for yourself.

Further, what about changing POV/tense within a chapter using line breaks. So, a couple of pages FPPT—break—a couple of pages third person centered on another character—repeat as needed.

Like Gordon I'm an advocate of using breaks for tense shifts (unless you're John le Carre who often shifts tenses in the middle of scenes and sometimes uses present tense for flashbacks, but that's a damn difficult style to effectively pull off, and every time I've tried I've felt it didn't really suit my content anyway). I'm doing a small side project at the moment where the main story is in 3rd present but when one character tells a big chunk of their life story to another I break off and go 1st person past, rather like a short story within a novel a la Hyperion. Making this effective is challenging because the past stuff has to hold a readers attention and almost make them feel like they're in the present. If what you're going for in your novel relies on lots of backstory that's just as important as what's in the present (and yes I do believe this is possible despite many saying the present is everything) then that's one way of doing it.

Is that cooky-talk? Can it work? Am I better off picking a POV/tense and sticking with it?

In conclusion then: no, yes, and what you're better off with depends entirely on your content but be prepared for differing reader responses if you pick narrative/tense switches - I love them; others don't.

 

 

 

Matt L.'s picture
Matt L. from Texas is reading Tenth of December: Stories April 15, 2014 - 10:55am

Man, you guys have given me a lot to chew on here. Which is great. That’s why I love bringing questions like this to Litreactor.

You all have done a good job of presenting the benefits, drawbacks, and challenges to first person only, third person only, and mixing the tenses.

The biggest issue I see right now is that, although FPPT allows me draw the reader closer to my main character (IMHO, of course), it could limit how I tell the story—as Dwayne said, it could prevent me from taking the reader on the ride I want them to experience. Also, Chacron, that issue of needing new POVs later in a series is something that concerns me. I foresee this story as taking at least two books to tell, maybe more as I continue to flesh it out.

It seems there is no easy answer, at least not at this stage (I have the broad strokes down in terms of the plot but am still far from having a scene-by-scene outline). I think I will choose the tense that feels right for any given scene and write it in that tense, perhaps even write two versions of the same scene. Hopefully as the structure begins to materialize, I will find out if a certain tense is going to limit me from going where I need to go and can adjust accordingly. This is going to make more work for me, but I’m not sure how else to come to a decision.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal April 15, 2014 - 7:32pm

Here are two parts from a lecture all about 1st vs. 3rd that I liked...  Thank Dwayne for posting a different link to this guy somewhere.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jabm5wy5dxE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssEIn9dKVpg

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated April 16, 2014 - 12:55am

Yeah, when we talked about imitating other people's voice.  He finished up a Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series last 3 books because Jordan died and I couldn't tell what wasn't Jodan except 2 or 3 paragraphs out of probably 450,000 words.