Monday, November 24, 2008

Finding the Right Mix of POV and Tense

As Dominic Preziosi points out in Point of View and Tense: The Right Combination, the success of your story could depend on which perspective you tell it and whether told in present or past tense. As Mr. Preziosi indicates, your story will dictate which combo works best. Take your story on a test run and experiment with various types to know which will give your story the best feel.
Recently, I submitted a story to a publisher and received a rejection (though frankly, I think they only read the synopsis, not the story, but that’s a moot argument at this point. I’ve moved on. Really.) Part of the rejection said: “note that stories written in third person present tense tend to distance the reader from the action and we never accept them.”
Hmm. This made me pause.
Reading is a completely subjective experience, different for every reader. In fact, I disagree. I like the immediacy of present tense, and, like Alexander Steele, think the use of first person is a bit overdone.
First person seems more of a risk – what if your reader doesn’t readily identify with the protagonist, who is speaking as “I”?
And frankly, following a story in the past sense makes less sense than present tense. Consider it for a moment – you’re supposed to be engaged in the action with the hero/ine, yet it’s already happened. Readers are conditioned to expect, in general, third person past tense, or first person present.
But I’m curious what you think – does reading a story in third person present tense bother you? For example, my story to be released by the Wild Rose Press in March 2009 uses just that combo. Because it's set in the 1960s, I wanted to give it a more immediate feel by using present tense. Following is an excerpt from Seventh Heaven:
James stands in the open doorway. The choker gleams from his neck. “I came by to say thanks.”
“I didn’t know it was you.”
He closes the door. “So. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. It looks good. It’s an…”
“An ankh. I know.”
“The Egyptian symbol of eternity.” She doesn’t know what to do with her hands, and her breath is jagged. “Sorry. I mean, Ben told us. It really stinks.”
He runs a finger across a glazed jug. “Bad timing.”
She clasps her hands in front of her. “I guess it’s never a good time…”
He glances up, stifles a smile. “I mean, I wish we had more time.”
The air thins, seems rarified. “Me, too.”
He takes a step closer.
She folds her arms. “I hope you’ll write me, if you get a chance.”
The floor needs sweeping. And needs to be smaller. Or his steps need to be more expansive. “Sure, I’ll keep you up on the local gossip. Send you goodie packages.”
His eyes lock on hers. “That’d be nice.”
“We’re going to miss you around here.”
“You will?”
With his last step, he is so close, her skin tingles with his heat. “No one can make a margarita like you.”
He fingers her hair, tucks a strand behind her shoulder. “Come back tonight, I’ll make you all the margaritas you can drink.”
In her head she is already there, sipping at a wide-rimmed glass, serenaded by Dylan in the background, James waiting and watching, attending to her alone. “That sounds nice.”
“See you about seven, then?”
“Seven it is.” Seven, her lucky number.

So now I’m curious. Does it work for you? If not, why not? Should I have told the story from the first person perspective?

1 comment:

Cate Masters said...

This question had been bothering me - until last night, when I picked up Ian McEwan's Saturday. Third person, present tense! At least I'm in good company (though he's on a slightly more elevated level than me)