Not long ago, a book I’d placed on hold at the library arrived for me. It was a book I’d seen a few weeks earlier, when another patron placed it on hold. At the time, I’d read the book flap and decided I liked the premise, so I was tickled when my turn popped up. As soon as I was done working for the day, I curled up on the couch to enjoy a few pages. Only to discover this:
“You walk into the hallway. The elevator is just closing, but you press the button. The doors open again, and you step into the empty car.”
Yes, the book was written in second person, present tense. I couldn’t get much past the first page. Instead of being able to lose myself in the wonder of the story, I was being ordered around by the author with every sentence. It felt like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with all the choices taken away. I guess it’s more like a This Is Your Adventure Whether You Like It Or Not book. I tried to let myself relax into the story, but I couldn’t. After another page, I gave up, and returned the book to the library, unread.
The tense and person you choose for your story matter. Certain tense/person choices are more comfortable for readers than others. If your main intention in writing your story is to have the largest number of people read it, you’ll want to present it in its best light, and this absolutely includes knowing which tense/person combination is going to work best for you.
The most common is third person, past tense. This is the way the vast majority of stories are written in, and the one you’ve seen most often over time. Here’s an example, from David B Coe’s The Sorcerer’s Plague:
“She could hear the last of the thunder rumbling in the distance; she could feel it pulsing in the ground beneath her feet, as if the earth itself trembled at the storm’s fury. The forest flickered with lightning, strange, frightening shapes flashing before her and then vanishing like wraiths. The rain had ceased long ago, but a cool wind swept among the trees, carving through her damp clothes, chilling her like death.”
Third person past tense feels normal because it has a long tradition of use behind it. All those fairy tales you heard as a child were told in the past tense, as if events that had already happened were being recounted. There’s a safety behind past tense – it’s already happened, so the listener/reader can be assured that the worst is behind the characters, even if we haven’t heard it yet ourselves. Third person creates a link between reader and character, one similar to the link between actor and character.
The next most common choice is first person past tense. First person, as anyone who’s decided to write a novel should already know, is the “I”. “I ran”, “I screamed”, “I wanted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.” An example from Faith Hunter’s Raven Cursed:
“I rode into Asheville, NC, for all the wrong reasons, from the wrong direction, on a borrowed bike, with no weapons, ready to work for the vamps again. It was stupid all around, but it was the gig I signed up for, and I was all about satisfying the client, keeping him safe, eliminating the danger and finishing the job. Or staking the vamp, depending on the job description. ‘Finish the job’ had become my second mantra, right behind ‘Have stakes, will travel.’”
Again, past tense is comfortable, but there’s a little more immediacy to first person because the reader is automatically drawn into the narrator’s thoughts. Most books written in first person will also keep to the single narrator’s thoughts, leaving the reader no more informed about what the secondary characters are thinking than the narrator herself is (although I have seen a few books that devote chapters to other characters, in third person. It’s a bit weird to read, rarely done at all and even more rarely done well.)
Present tense has been used for narratives for years now, but it’s still a little startling for the average reader. I think it’s because of the proximity of present tense – instead of something that’s already happened, it’s going on right now. Who knows if the story will end happily? We can’t see into the future, so we can’t guess if there’ll be a happy ending. But sometimes present tense is exactly the right choice for a story that needs to move hard and fast. A great example of first person present tense is Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim:
“I wake up on a pile of smoldering garbage and leaves in the old Hollywood Forever cemetery behind the Paramount Studio lot on Melrose, though these last details don’t come to me until later. Right now all I know is that I’m back in the world and I’m on fire. My mind hasn’t quite kicked in yet, but my body knows enough to roll off the burning trash and to keep rolling until I can’t feel the heat anymore.”
Some writers employ third person present tense. This is seen less often, but done well, it can work. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is mostly written in this style. “The magician’s smile vanishes. He glances back at the desk with a frown, and the spilled tea begins seeping back up from the floor. The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air.” Morgenstern also writes some of her chapters in the dreaded second person present, which I don’t actually like but which, in this particular case, works, mostly because it’s only done once every five or six chapters, so it doesn’t overwhelm the reader.
Second person past and present tense are the choices made least often by writers. They are quirky choices, mostly because of that commanding feel. Remember how I compared it to a Choose Your Own Adventure? At least those books are more along the lines of a game. Second person works well for nonfiction how-to books, but not so much for a novel. I had trouble finding an example, since I don’t own any books written this way, and very few authors use it, but I located Charles Stross’ Halting State:
“You file the email as you leave the coffee shop. Bob trails after you. The destination shows up, as a twirling diamond just visible over the buildings on the far side of the road as you get into the car.”
It’s difficult to fall into a story when the writer is constantly telling the reader what he or she is doing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it if that’s the way you believe your story must be told.
And as much as I may like or dislike one choice or the other, that’s the real truth – it’s up to you. If your story is best served with a traditional style, or if that’s merely the way you like the best, then that’s the choice for you. If you’re a renegade who likes to live a little on the edge, you might want to attempt one of the less common styles. Just be certain that the way you’re presenting your story is the best way for the story you want to tell.
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