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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Writing Wednesday -- Present v. Past tense; First v. Third person

Hi everyone -- how's life been treating you? All good, I hope :)

This Wednesday I'm adding my two cents to a debate which has been going on since the beginning of time -- okay, maybe not quite that long --and one which we're never going to reach a conclusion on, because it's almost entirely down to personal preference.

And that debate is: which is favoured by readers -- first person or third person? And what about the tenses -- present or past?

Let's do first v. third first. I think most YA is written in first person, but there is still a significant amount of third bobbing on the sidelines. I personally prefer first, because it's easier to relate to the protagonist. You are living their story as told by them, not living their story as told by some other guy you don't care about.

However, I'm not one of those people who will solely read one or the other, and person doesn't sway me in any way when buying a book -- that's the blurb's job, and to some extent the cover. But only a teensy weensy bit -- you can actually distinguish a lot from the cover. If it looks like a cliché -- emphasis on that word, I'll read un-cliché -- vampire novel, I'll run away screaming. The spine, if you think about, is actually really important, because it's the part people tend to see when it's on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or Waterstones or wherever. Bet you never considered that!

Reading I'm pretty impartial -- or at least accepting -- but writing I almost always write in first. I'm not sure why; I just prefer it, I guess. And I think I'm better with first than with third.

Now for present v. past. My preference on this is based on whether the book we're talking about is first or third person. If first, I prefer to read and write in present. I can't remember who, but someone said/wrote that present tense is awkward to read -- I couldn't disagree more. Many of my favourite books (Anna series, Dreaming Anastasia series...) are written in present, as is my current work-in-progress (WIP). I agree with Ms. Blake (yes, of Anna Dressed in Blood) when she said that it "lends a sense of immediacy" to the story which you just don't get with past. Suspense always strengthens a good story. And you can still foreshadow and use circularity and all that stuff writers use to heighten our reading experience -- in fact, the only thing you can't do is say stuff like "little did I know..." at the actual time when it is "happening" for the reader. Does that make sense? I hope you know what I mean, it's tough to explain. Meg Cabot uses it in Underworld when Pierce (the protagonist) says:

I didn't regret my decision. Except the part where I didn't stay where it was safe, the way Henry had warned me too. And that I'd left my candlestick behind.

This would be fine in a present-tense story AS LONG AS the event (not staying where it's safe) has already happened in the story "real time". In Underworld, this is right before Pierce leaves the safety zone and leaves her candlestick behind. Since the story is written in past, this is not a problem. However, if Cabot had been writing in present, and this was kept in the same place, it would be. See?

So yes, my favourite reading experience is first person present tense, hence why I'm writing my current manuscript in that way. But first person past is a close second, and I have many other favourite books that are written in this way (The Mediator series, Strange Angels series, Abandon trilogy...) -- more so than first person present, but that's because there are more books out there in first past, so statistically I'm more likely to have more favourites in the past, blah blah blah. I'm not here to bore you with maths, so I'll shut up now, but you get the picture.

Third person is a whole different story -- here I think past tense is definitely the way to go. In third, present can sound awkward -- and I'm not telling you not to do it (I'd never do that), I'm just saying that if you must, be careful. Also, it sounds plain stalkerish. Take this sentence:

She opened the car door, collapsed in with a sigh, and slammed it shut before speeding away.

All good, yes? Not the most exciting of sentences, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. Well, in present tense:

She opens the car door, collapses in with a sigh, and slams it shut before speeding away.

Can't you just picture the narrator watching her from a dark alleyway? I rest my case. It would be okay in the first person:

I open the car door, collapse in with a sigh, and slam it shut before speeding away.

You see? Maybe you want to sound stalkerish, or maybe you have another reason to use third person in the present tense -- in which case, go ahead. Knock yourself out. But don't say I didn't warn you. If I were you, I'd steer clear. (Car? Steer? Hahaha! XD)

And however you decide to write, beware of tense confusion. There is no other mistake that is simultaneously as easy to make and infuriating to read:

We walked side-by-side through the trees, dead leaves crunching under our feet. The darkness is suffocating, pressing down on our lungs and drawing all the air out. My friend was shivering beside me, cold air slithering under his thin coat.
There's a howl somewhere to my right.
"Did you hear that?" he asks, panic creeping into his voice like whatever creature prowled through the woods at night.
"Yes," I said. "A werewolf."

Can you spot all the mistakes in that? It's annoying, isn't it? Stick to one or the other, unless it's a flashback/memory/describing an event that has taken place bt was not important enough for the reader to "live" with the MC. Then it's okay to suddenly go into past, so long as you make it clear that it's a flashback or whatever.

On that note, my pretties, I'm going to go revise for my impending physics test of doom. See you on Friday :)
Love you all xoxo

Oh -- and if you're walking through the woods at night and you hear a howl, don't worry, it's not a werewolf. Probably...