Saturday, August 27, 2011

An in-tense effort: revisiting verb tenses and POV

I've discussed tenses and points of view (POV) before.  Fact is, the subject is a Writers 101 level topic.  In fact, if you're considering becoming a successful, professional writer, it seems they belong at an 099, or remedial, level.  It's not always as easy as that, though.  There are some subtleties involved, and I ran across one last night. 

My new Work In Progress (WIP) is a science fiction short (ish) novella in which a young Stacy gets to know Matt and Sorscha.  I'd written about 4,000 words as of my arrival at home last night, and--to be frank--it was boring me.  Yes, I thought (and still do) that I'd come up with a pretty decent idea for plot and conflict, but the storytelling wasn't popping.  Then I remembered the deal with first person POV.  It has the potential to make storytelling pop, so why not?  Clearly, this is Stacy's story, so it should be her POV. I sat down last night, then, and started the task that somehow, in my naivete, I thought would be a simple search-and-replace, "Stacy" for "I," "her" for "my," etc.  It wasn't so simple, though. 

My Facebook post from while I was working on it:

Well, crap. Changing from third person to first person point of view also involves changing the past tense to the past perfect tense. It's a P.I.T.A.

My friend responded, and we had some back and forth:
Her: Thank you for realizing that ... I would hate to read your book with imperfect tenses.
Me: Wouldn't want to make you tense.
Her: Too late ...
Me: It's past?
Her: tense
Me: As long as you're present for it.
Her: you got me a present?? what is it?
Me: The future.
Her: Well, that doesn't work ... I'm not there yet. Or am I?
Me: You weren't, but now you are. No, wait--now! No, wait--now! That's the problem with the future; it's always in the past before you realize it's present.
Her: Dammit! Don't do this to me aprés-martini!
Me: The mere fact that you can type it means you win....
Her: Yay, I win! Wait, what did I win?
Me: The future.
Her: Oh, crap ... that's not looking good ...

After the exchange above, another friend of mine (an actual English teacher--a college level one, at that) signed in to the conversation.  She understandably complained that too many people overuse the perfect tenses in their writing.  She's right; I've seen it myself.  "I had gone to the store, and then I had bought a pack of gum, and then I had come home," instead of "I went to the store, bought a pack of gum, and came home."  Ick.  I think she was worried that I was falling into that trap.  Not so! 

See, there's a subtle shift that comes about when you switch who's telling the story.  The Almighty Narrator of Awesome Almightiness (that would be me) tells the story in past tense.  Sure, sometimes a perfect tense or a progressive tense has to have slipped in (ahem) but 99% of the verbs in a third person story, I think, should be straight past tense.  Stacy, though, doesn't see the story like I do.  She lived it.  As she's telling it, she's thinking about what was happening then, what was going to happen, and what had happened.  That's part of the pop of the first person POV, I think, but it's also a challenge in terms of technical verb tense management coupled with smooth storytelling. 

It's done with the shift, now, and it made for an interesting challenge.  It also made for a much more interesting story, IMHO.  I'm looking forward to finishing this thing and getting it out for people to read. 

Some day I'll also be able to shift tenses from "I was going to publish a novel" to "I published a novel" to "I made a lot of money after I had published the first novel."  Looking forward to that last. 

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