Writing Excuses Episode 25: Viewpoint and Tense Part 2

We are pleased to present the second half of “Viewpoint and Tense,”  which, as we all know, is Tense. Part 1 was Viewpoint. It’s not two podcasts that both talk about tense and viewpoint, it’s two totally different podcasts that share a title for some reason. Why didn’t we just do two separate podcasts, one on tense and one on viewpoint, instead of trying to connect them like this? Because, as we tell you every week, we’re not that smart.

This week’s Writing Excuses Book of the Week: Warbreaker, by some hack.

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31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 25: Viewpoint and Tense Part 2”

  1. I really enjoyed this one.

    I think it was Brandon who asked the question whether your brain just accomodates an unusual tense and person and after some time begins to process it like the others. I find that when I get into my reading zone, I experience them all the same. It only takes about a page and my mind seems to just switch over. Which makes me wonder if the choice is one of convention more than effect.

  2. Very good podcast. It didn’t strike me as much as a Part II, but more like you were taking a mulligan for the first POV podcast and trying again. But it was really well done.

    It makes me want to write again.

  3. I’ve read several books that were first person present tense and it took me about ten plus pages to get used to it, and by that time my mind was automaticly changed the tense to past so I could read it easier without getting kicked out of the story becasue of the weird tense.

  4. I find that I write my story notes and initial story summary in present tense and then convert to past tense in the first draft. Weird. I had never given it a second thought until now.

    Maybe it’s because I read a lot of screenplays, all of which are written in present tense.

  5. I haven’t read a lot of present tense fantasy, but I can imagine it working in the first person. That would work for me because then I would read it in the historical present, which is the way a lot of people tell and re-tell exciting things that have happened to them.

    “So I’m at the bar, when this guy walks up…”

    But I have a hard time imagining the present tense working with most 3rd person situations, because the simple present doesn’t mean the same thing as the simple past. “Kai walked to work” means that he walked to work once, then it was done. “Kai walks to work” means he does it every day. You can get around that by using a non-eventive verb, “Kai decides to walk to work,” but I agree that it would be jarring to read, at least at first.

  6. Jen – Maybe it’s because story summaries (and most discussions *about* a book) are generally written in the present tense (sometimes called the historic present). Read the back-cover copy of just about any book on your shelf and it’ll be present tense. I made the switch automatically for a long time before I realized I was just mimicking everything I’d ever read that was *about* literature.

    Anyhow, I find that fiddling with viewpoint and tense allows me to take a closer look at my style and voice (probably because I start paying attention to the window). Right now I’m writing a retold fairy tale largely as an exercise in voice and style, so I chose first person present to help me do that. It’s about the only time I’ve ever really veered from past/third-person limited.

  7. The fact that almost all fiction is written in past tense begs the irrelevant question: why are critiques and thesis papers on said stories written entirely in present tense?
    Just wondering.
    I think past tense usually does work best though for the same reason we journalists write in AP style- to give a nice since of uniformity to the pattern of the words making them dissapear leaving only the story itself.

  8. I would guess that things like reviews and papers are written in present tense because of the eternal nature of the printed word: no matter what tense the story is in, the story is always happening every time you open the book. Open “The Grapes of Wrath” to the middle section, and the Joads are always there in that okie camp, just like they’ve always been every other time you opened the book to the middle. The story can tell itself in any tense it wants, but when we think about the story, we know that it exists in the present.

  9. Wha’da’ya know? Jen’s right! My scripts are written in present tense. Hadn’t really thought about, and had to go look at one to be sure. Even simple directions like ‘Fade in’ and ‘Fade to black’ are present tense.

    And every time you watch the John Ford classic The Grapes of Wrath Henry Fonda will always look about 35 years old.

  10. True; I should have said “the eternal nature of art” (though yes, I recognize that there are certain art forms designed to change over time)(but if we get too pedantic we’ll never get anything done). Regardless of how art chooses to present itself, from the audience’s perspective it is always immediate, and always happening right now.

  11. Dan,

    That’s what I tell my ESL students, anyway, to help them digest it (the eternal nature of the printed word, that is), but I’m not sure if that’s an actual rationale or not. It is possible to use the past tense if the author is dead, but that’s rarely done.

    I am constantly apologizing for stupid rules in English!

  12. I just tried and excersise in viewpoint; write a short story with 2-3 main characters and at least 3 viewpoints, do not use names. Either in thought or conversation, and see if you can keep them apart.

  13. I find that I adapt to present tense pretty quick. I’ve spend a fair amount of time on free-form roleplaying forums where present tense is usually used by convention. The problem with say 2nd person present or even past is that I tend to associate it with novelized chat logs. usually “dirty” ones at that. It’s a great format for embedding a person directly in the action, which is why it’s frequently used for tabletop roleplaying, but I’m not sure it makes much sense in any situation where the audience doesn’t have direct control. In fact I think it’s jarring because if the story’s being told from my point of view it disrupts suspension of disbelief when the view character does things differently than I would.

  14. I have read one book that successfully drew me in with a 2nd person viewpoint: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Sections in 2nd person are broken up by the beginnings of ten different stories which I think are in 3rd, but I’d have to look again to be sure. The 2nd person sections are what holds the book together. Of course, it was something of a commentary on reading. He couldn’t have pulled it off the same way with any other viewpoint. I think unless you have some specific purpose like that to be addressing the reader through the narrative, though, it would be pretty hard to get away with it.

  15. Gail Carson Levine’s new book, Ever, is written in first-person present. She did a reading from it at LTUE this year, and when asked why she chose that tense, she said that as it’s about a girl who’s fated to die, writing in past tense would cause the reader to draw conclusions. Darling book. The perspective was a little jarring at first, but it draws you in to the point that you hardly notice anymore. My problem with present tense is that it then makes backstory explanations sound awkward.

    Unrelated question:
    My current creative project is development of a new webcomic, but it’s not a perpetual-story strip, it’s a finite graphic novel. I find I can glean great tips from both Howard’s comic perspective and Dan & Brandon’s novel perspective – thanks! But I want to make this project print-friendly, and I struggle with the unknowns of print-comic structure (how many pages to an issue, how many issues in a volume, how that all fits with story arcs and flow, etc, and are all those planned out beforehand?). I’d *love* for you to get a guest comic writer on the podcast (Jake Black, perhaps? Who else is local?) to talk about writing print-format comics.

  16. I really noticed the difference between present and past when, in Stephen Lawhead’s Avalon, one character makes a sudden shift to present tense – as he gets more involved in the story. It really heightened the immediacy of the story being relayed. Overall in a book, I tend to get in gear and I doubt there’s much overall difference in choosing one tense or the other, but as with Elizabeth Moon’s book, a shift in tense can have a real effect on the reader.

  17. Dean Koontz wrote a book (Odd Thomas) in first person. In which the narrator is unreliabile. He also Quoted Agatha Christie as having also used this style.

    My question is: just what is an unreliabile narrator as it pertains to first person?

  18. Most art includes the implicit premise that what you’re seeing or hearing is ‘true’ within its own context–after all, why would the author of a book take the time to create one story and then tell us a completely different one? Unreliable narrators are simply those who don’t tell the “truth,” either because they’re lying, or they can’t remember, or they’re going insane, and so on.

    The classic example of an unreliable narrator is the move The Usual Suspects, in which the entire story is related to us in flashbacks by a man named Verbal Kint, who’s talking to a cop. I won’t spoil it by saying what exactly happens, but it turns out that he’s not a reliable narrator.

    A more literary example, and one that’s much easier for you to go out and study, is the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. It’s basically a monologue, spoken by a duke, talking about his former wife who died. On the surface he says that she “had a heart too soon made glad,” and that she smiled at too many people and so on. Reading between the lines, however, it becomes glaringly obvious that the duke himself is a vain and selfish man, who couldn’t stand the thought of his hot wife smiling at other men, and that in the end he almost certainly had her killed. But none of this is made explicit–the man is speaking about himself, and saying what he thinks are good things, but he is obviously unreliable and the poet is skillful enough to imply a second, much darker story underneath.

  19. Admin:

    So this could then be “A” way of using “smoke and mirrors” to hide an ending or just certain events: to keep the reader on their toes.

    However, would this technique be too advanced for a beginning writer: or would it be good practice anyhow?

  20. I think I’m developing “Writing Excuses” disease. Since this episode aired, the short story I’ve been working on has gone from third person past, to cinematic, and finally to first person past. AAAAHHHH!

    But I learned a lot.

  21. Ben – one of the difficulties of an unreliable narrator is that by definition they are not keeping faith with the readers, and most readers get upset with that. To hide an ending or events . . . the first person narrator or the third person limited simply doesn’t need to be there to hide an event? As for hiding an ending — you want the reader to be surprised, but feel that it’s a logical or reasonable outcome of what’s come before. You don’t want the reader to feel that they have been lied to or even misled, just that they didn’t make the right interpretation. I suspect that getting the right nuance to the ending is even harder with an unreliable narrator because we (the reader) doesn’t trust him or her?

    My personal feeling — first person is harder than third, and first person with an unreliable narrator is even harder. Probably not for the average beginner, but remember Kipling’s advice? “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays . . . “

  22. Mike Barker:

    That’s true.

    Unfortunately, a story popped into my head, but as a first person. I’m not too sure, how exactly I want to do it. I mean, I’m not too experienced with it as a first person, in whatever tense. Moreover, while I don’t mind experimenting: I would rather know what I’m doing.

  23. My advice would be to go ahead and get the story down in whatever way feels natural to you. Then in revision you can decide whether you want to change the presentation. But Bradbury and quite a few others have pointed out that you need to take advantage of that first rush, when the words drag you along as fast as you can get them down, when it happens.

    I mean, there are some writers who go through character charts, outlines, and all the rest of the stuff before they write. But there are quite a few who start boldly and see where the words take them, then go back and revise.

  24. Thank you. I think that’s what I need to do. I find that it is much harder to get the ideas out if I’ve sat and over-thought them.

    My big problem is to keep in mind about revisions. I don’t need to write it all out the first time. Get it all down: then make it better.

  25. The conversation has probably moved on, and the following part of this sentence may constitute spoilers, but during most of the Life of Pi, Pi is quite an unreliable narrator.

  26. I have a tense question. Is there a computer program that will prompt you to change all present tense in a manuscript to past tense? I seem to be having alot of trouble with this in a fantasy ms I am working on. Also am I right in thinking to do this, I will have to use alot of passive verbs and people in my writers group say this a very bad thing? At this point I am very confused and fear part of my ms is in present tense and part in past tense. That’s why I ask about the computer program to help me straighten the whole thing out without missing anything. I don’t know if there is anything that sophiscated out there. All help will be appreciated. Not sure how to know when you answer so an email from you would be nice.

    Thanks, Sunni

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