First, another little announcement. I’ve been playing around with creating a book trailer. This is my effort so far.
Now, I’ve been thinking about point of view and tense lately, largely because of my reading. First person present tense is really big right now, especially in young adult books. Mostly, I think this is because of THE HUNGER GAMES, where it actually works very well. In fact, THE HUNGER GAMES is the only book I can think of in which first person present tense didn’t bother me.
The book I’m currently reading is written this way. Actually, I think it always was in first person, but I suspect the present tense was a later revision. I say this because I’ve caught a couple of places where the verbs are still past tense, like they got missed in the revision. Sadly, it’s not the only place where the text could have used a thorough copy editor.
I have actually written a couple of short stories in first person: “Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”. The first because the story really did demand to be that intimate and the second because I just started “hearing” the voice of the story that way.
I think the key to successful use of first person is a closeness to a single character. It has to be intimate, because you’re asking the reader to be the character. It’s much more than just changing pronouns and verb conjugations.
Not every story can or should be told in first person. For one thing, it can get downright confusing if you have two or more point of view characters, all written in first person. I’ve read a couple of stories like that. If the chapter headings hadn’t told me who “I” was at any given moment, I’d have been completely lost.
Another reason to avoid first person is because it is–or should be–impossible to withhold information known to the character from the reader. Conversely, it’s also impossible to let the reader know anything that the first person character doesn’t know. Sometimes, you want to do this so the reader can (silently) shout “Don’t open that door!” or something similar. And it can be darn tricky to make a heroic first-person character not come off as arrogant or a braggart. Also, in those cases where a protagonist is indecisive or not proactive (which I hate anyway), first person isn’t going to make the reader feel any more motivated to continue the story than the main character is. Sometimes, too, you just do need a little more narrative distance from the main character.
Present tense is a trickier question for me. I confess, I just don’t really like it. The only time it hasn’t bothered me, even a little, was in THE HUNGER GAMES. Part of that, of course, is that it was handled truly skilfully there. Skill and mastery of the craft will always make a difference. (Something I think debut authors do well to bear in mind.)
But that’s not all of it. Present tense worked so well in THE HUNGER GAMES, I think, because Katniss was rarely thinking very far ahead or, after the first couple of chapters, very much about the past. She was living in and just trying to survive the moment. And so present tense worked.
This particular young adult novel that I’m reading now almost fits into that same mold, at least in large sections. Just not quite enough to really pull it off. Or maybe it’s the difference between a veteran and a debut author.
Decisions of point of view and tense shouldn’t be taken lightly or leaped into just because it’s the latest thing. Those choices should only be made because they serve the story best, in my opinion.