Past, Present, First, Third…

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One of the hardest decisions you have to make whenever you start writing a book is choosing your voice. Do you write it in the first person or the third? (A handful of books have been written in the second person but they’re awkwardly self-conscious to read.)

If you choose the third person, you get to write stylistically. The whole panoply of English language becomes yours. You can fly above landscapes, dip into characters’ heads, be objective, move off-topic and basically do whatever you like. A five page digression on the dodo? A ten-year study of the sexual history of the leading character, as seen by her lovers? It’s all yours.

If you pick first person everything must be seen through the mind of your main character. That means all conversations that happen away from her/him are out of bounds to you. Your observations and your language are reduced to the mentality and vocabulary of your lead. When their friends are out of the room, so is their conversation. Now, this can work in your favour; you can have an unreliable narrator or leave gaps in the story for the reader to fill in. Alan Ayckbourn famously wrote ‘The Norman Conquests’, three plays involving the main character Norman that unfold over the same weekend, seen from three different rooms. This staggering feat works as three separate plays but also as one that’s very complex and richer seen in overview.

A lot of not-very-good crime and chick-lit writers pick the first person because you can run off at the mouth in simple language, making the prose light and gossipy. But it’s hard to get right; On reflection I think I made the mistake of making my lead character, June, too witty in ‘Plastic’. As a consequence her dialogue was hilarious but too many readers found her unrealistic. Different genres of novel attract different readers. Usually – not always – someone reading chick-lit does not want to think too hard. The last thing they expect is stream-of-conscious smart talk. So you should choose according to your main character.

If you are Charles Dickens, you would not consider writing ‘Bleak House’ in anything but the third person because it allows you to reveal an entire cross-section of society from a single over-arching point of view. Imagine how dull the book would be if it was only narrated by Joe the Crossing Sweeper.

Your other main decision is whether to write in the present or past tense. Obviously the present tense is more immediate, but for some reason I can’t fathom it also makes your prose sound hokier and more prone to cliché. You can also tangle yourself up quite spectacularly with conditional and intransitive verbs.

Using past tenses sets it in proper storyteller mode, and opens up the story to allow for wider observations. Many times I’ve switched from present to past halfway through a novel because I realise I’ve picked the wrong tense and it’s limiting me – so I then have to go back and rewrite the novel.

If you’re unsure which voice to use – past, present, first person, third person – try them out for a few paragraphs and discard the ones you find limiting.

21 comments on “Past, Present, First, Third…”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    It’s interesting that film study books tend to describe the scenario of films in the present tense, so that although a film that was made, say, 60 years ago-in a different world, the writing suggests the events are still happening. It’s good, as it gives a film an immediacy as so many are still available to watch.

    I have received my copy of “Forgotten Authors”, and look forward to reading it. Already I’m impressed by the number of people that have been covered. The cover is very pleasing too!

  2. Wild Edric says:

    I’ve never been a fan of writing in the presence tense (he types furiously, gulping the final mouthful of tea from the chipped mug). It seems unnecessarily urgent and get an odd feeling that the author was in desperate need of the loo.

    I remember reading a book recently where it actually switched from first to third person throughout. It might have been a John Connolly but I could be mistaken (it was a crime novel though). Seemed to work – you got things from the character’s perspective and also a sense of what was really going on.

  3. Chris Webb says:

    I remembered commenting something about this a while ago and after a bit of rummaging I found it:

    http://www.christopherfowler.co.uk/blog/2017/04/22/that-mystery-book-explained/

    I said then “I have only read three first-person books where it was actually necessary for the story” and while I don’t mind first-person narrative (you tend not to notice after a while) personally I’d prefer authors to write in the third person unless absolutely necessary.

    I’ve never read a second-person book, and cannot even imagine how that would work – it means the reader is also the protagonist which sounds plain weird (unless the reader is assumed to have amnesia and has to have their past explained to them!)

    A while ago I read Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody (McNeil). It’s mostly in the first person (Kate Shackleton, 1920s detective) but a few chapters are third person when the events are outside the “first person’s” direct experience. Unfortunately that feels like a bit of a botch – you get the impression the writer got some way into the book and realised she’d dug herself into a hole and had to resort to a few bits of third-person to get out of it.

    A few authors have written basically in the third person, but occasionally step in as themselves to remind you they are telling you a story. Walter Scott did it occasionally, as did Edith Nesbit; it is probably more common in children’s literature. (Interesting but irrelevant factoid of the day: E. Nesbit was married to the skipper of the Woolwich Ferry.)

    It was once common for fiction to be wrapped up or disguised as fact by pretending it was some kind of manuscript describing actual events. You know the sort of thing: the “first first” person writes “A rare and curious old manuscript recently came into my hands blah blah blah” before handing over to the “next first person” to actually tell the story. Wilkie Collins did this, and in one of his books (Moonstone?) there were several first persons. I’m not sure why it was that in the early days of novel writing authors often felt unable to just present a straightforward story but had to dress it up in some way as fact.

  4. Chris Webb says:

    Forgot to mention that I gave up trying to match the silhouettes on The Book of Forgotten Authors with the authors themselves, but one looks like Stalin and another looks like Lenin!

  5. Ian Mason says:

    I can’t even imagine something written in the second person, except perhaps an adventure story for young children. Christopher, can you throw out a couple of examples of actual works?

    One scenario missing is the story told in the first person by different characters. It can be jarring trying to catch up with the viewpoint you’re now reading from as you move from character to character, but it allows a layering of the versions of events. Having differing viewpoints permits the writer to play with the objectivity/subjectivity of ‘facts’ as the story unfolds. Done well it can be great; just as in life, universal truths aren’t, objective fact proves to really be opinion and so on. Done badly it feels a little like literary motion sickness.

  6. Ken Mann says:

    First person can also lead to unnaturally detailed descriptions of other people. I love private eye novels, but narrators always know people’s weight to the pound and mention items of clothing I have to look up.

  7. Steveb says:

    It’s very rare an author uses the present tense both well and for a good reason.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    Are you saying that you shouldn’t mix first and third person? Though it may need some very careful construction, why shouldn’t June Cryer or Richard Hannay shouldn’t tell their stories in the first person, past tense, interspersed with a third person narrative of the activities of their pursuers? Or perhaps the readers’ and the hero’s lack of knowledge of the other protagonists provides the tension vital to the story.

    My writing is almost entirely restricted to the technical and scientific, where there’s a painful adoption of the third person. Remember school science: ‘the experiment was set up as shown in the diagram.’ If it’s necessary to say it was ‘set up,’ then it must be worth stating who did the setting up.

    The argument (I think) I’m trying to make is that some things are simple facts; others are personal emotions, impressions, opinions or interpretations. The former sit happily with the third person, while the latter benefit from some hint of the first person, either explicitly or indirectly via dialogue. I attempt to apply these ideas even in technical writing.

  9. keith page says:

    First person present tense can work but appears to need careful handling.

  10. Brooke says:

    “…I made the mistake of making my lead character, June, too witty in ‘Plastic’. As a consequence her dialogue was hilarious but too many readers found her unrealistic…

    Lord forbid we have a witty hilarious female character…What were you thinking…

  11. Richard Burton says:

    Iain Banks’ Complicity works the first and third person switcheroo nicely, as it’s part of the book structure/plot. Won’t say more as spoilers etc, plus it’s an enjoyably nasty tale. He was probably cackling as he typed. I know of one writer who regretted writing a book in first person as it’s success led to it becoming a trilogy. Rod for back etc.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I have no real preference when it comes to tense. Second sounds intriguing, though, and I once worked with a really nice bloke, who, like Pat Roach’s affable ‘Bomber’ character, in ‘Auf Wiedersehn, Pet’ always referred to himself in the third person, which was odd at first, but after a while, you stopped noticing it. By the way, I read somewhere, that Pat Roach (RIP) was Steven Spielberg’s favourite character actor/heavy. He’s in the first three Indiana Jones movies, usually under heavy prosthetics as a bad guy, and always meets a satisfyingly nasty end. He can be seen as himself as the bald Luftwaffe mechanic, in ‘Raiders’, who loses an argument with a propellor, after knocking seven bells out of Indiana Jones (whose reaction to his first punch is still the most realistic anywhere on film). Sorry, seem to have wandered there (but I did like Pat Roach). One thing I don’t really like, is books that seem to be all dialogue. I’m a big fan of Alan Garner, whose books ‘Elidor’, ‘The Weirdstone OF Brisingamen’, and ‘The Moon Of Gomrath’ scared the bejeezus out of me when I was a kid, and some of the ideas in ‘Elidor’, like the shadow men, and the black beam from the tumulus scanning the ruined world of Elidor, I’m still fond of even today. Anyway, Garner wrote a novel called ‘Red Shift’, which I have tried to read several times, but it’s frustrating total dialogue structure made me throw it away, and I went back to something far simpler, and more satisfying. In that case, it was ‘The Cone’, by HG Wells, which, along with ‘The Facts In The Case Of Lady Sannox’, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is possibly the very nastiest short story written by someone generally regarded as a ‘nice’ person. Case in point: the actress Dulcie Grey, who only ever seemed to play ‘nice’ characters, and was married to the urbane and charming actor, Michael Dennison, wrote several excellent, but utterly disgusting horror stories – one, where a babysitter brutally kills her charge sticks in my mind, as, sadly, it has occurred in real life. You think: how can someone obviously so nice, think of something so very terrible?

  13. Roger says:

    Bleak House does contain first-person narratives from Esther Summerson, though, as well as the third-person main narrative. The problem with Jo, the crossing sweeper as a narrator even for a part would be that Jo is too trapped by his circumstances, including his helplessness and ignorance, to be a persuasive narrator except for brief passive passages. On the other hand, Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins produced a masterpiece – The Moonstone – constructed entirely from different first-person narratives.
    The only second-person narration I’ve come across is by the OULIPIAN Georges Perec. As the whole point of OULIPO was to do things just because they were difficult and pointless,attempting to do it was more admirable than actually doing it.
    I’m resisting the temptation to buy Forgotten Authors: my To Read Pile is already Alkanian in its height and one book I have read lately is E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley…How long my resistance will last is another matter.

  14. Mark Pontin says:

    Ian Mason writes: ‘I can’t even imagine something written in the second person, except perhaps an adventure story for young children.’

    There is a very fine short story, ‘The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories’ by Gene Wolfe, that uses 2nd person singular present tense POV. Our host, Mr. Fowler, may well know of it.

    Despite its title, Wolfe’s story not an adventure story for young children, although its 2nd person POV — ‘you’– belongs to a young boy witnessing adult doings that he imperfectly understands (or maybe perfectly understands but cannot emotionally process) somewhat after the fashion of Henry James’s ‘What Maisie Knew.’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Island_of_Doctor_Death_and_Other_Stories_and_Other_Stories

    http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Stories.TheIslandOfDoctorDeathAndOtherStories

  15. Vivienne says:

    I still haven’t got through George’s Perec’s book without an e, as translated by Gilbert Adair: Void Avoid. Clearly a complicated chap.

    Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone can’t be unique, surely, but its power is to make the reader examine the characters and try to guess their honesty. Really sorry but it’s late at night so I can’t recall the exact title, but Chris’s latest about the lost boy found used two points of view and one was definitely led up the garden path. I jump into books avidly and rather believe what I’m told too often, which I suppose reflects the ability of the author, as on the other hand I feel much more detached with television serials/programmes and, especially detective series, and manage to make good deductions quite often.

  16. Mark Pontin says:

    Also, it can be very effective to predominantly use close 3rd person past POV and transition into 1st person present by dropping into a character’s thoughts/stream of consciousness.

    Hemingway is the master of this and of POV generally, despite the popular cliche of him being stylistically simplistic. See forex how he transition backs and forth between 3rd person past and 1st person present in ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. And in the short story, ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ Hemingway even drops for one short section of about 500 words into the POV of a gutshot lion that’s making its final charge at the human hunters who shot it.

  17. admin says:

    An interesting thread. There are a number of authors here I can’t read (Gilbert Adair, awful).
    I agree with Ian Luck, about Conan Doyle delivering one of the nastiest short stories ever – ‘The Case of Lady Sannox’ – and love ‘Red Shift’, which for some reason I don’t find hard to read.
    And Brooke, while I absolutely agree that a woman should be allowed to be witty, I think I pushed the humorous observation level beyond most readers’ capacity in ‘Plastic’.

  18. SimonB says:

    I think the mix of First and Third can work well – especially if the story is broad in scope and the reader needs to know motivations, concepts or events that could not possibly be observed by a single narrator. I’m a fan of Julian May’s Exile/Galactic Milieu series. They start off entirely in the third person, but the second half take the form of memoirs with interleaved chapters covering the parts of the tale he did not personally attend (or to show ones he was at from a different POV).

    My biggest concerns with first person are the potential lack of suspense (I know there are exceptions, but generally your narrator will survive everything they encounter, so it is hard to see them in real peril as you know they will find a way out) and as already mentioned the amount of detail. I can barely recall what I did yesterday but the narrator has perfect recall of all conversations, clues, meals and so forth. Plus, when did they have time to write it all down?

  19. Roger says:

    Adair’s own books I looked at I disliked, but A Void I enjoyed. I’d guess that he might be a good translator because he isn’t good in his own writing – he needs to be held down, you might say, or he gets stuck in his own mannerisms.

    The greatest feat of dialogue writing I know is William Gaddis’s JR – a continuous narrative, almost entirely in dialogue, covering about 700 pages. Wonderfully funny and almost unreadable!

  20. Bill Maxted says:

    Perhaps we should have a short story written by ‘Crippen’ in the first person, maybe a “Christmas Charity Special”, (S)he might have a rather different perspective of the staff of PCU and the two ‘Daves’

  21. John Griffin says:

    “Not ever, not now” as I recall was the quote from Red Shift that was inscribed on the book, the gift of it being the end of my most romantic, mistaken and self-destructive relationship, with a woman I still pine for today. I read it and wept, then threw it into a bin two decades later, weeping again, as I cleared out some old boxes of books. The end of the relationship was my own fault BTW. It was also a step up for Garner, but also a step into the void. Lady Sannox is gruesomely horrid, agreed, but ‘Plastic’ for me was just perfect and I wanted so much more of June.

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