Tag Archives: third person

Elements of Critique: Tense

Some of my favorite sci-fi stories involve time travel.

Back to the Future was a fun and silly adventure when I was younger. The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I remember clearly involved an alternate timeline created by a starship accidentally traveling through time. Later, movies like 12 Monkeys and Terminator 1 & 2 echoed elements of some of the classics I read in high school English, like Oedipus. We also read the short story that captures the meaning of the term “Butterfly Effect.”

These all posed questions like, “If you know the future, can you change it?” Or “If you can travel to the past, could you affect the present?”

Though it can be fun to wonder and read stories that give possible answers, we may never know. Time travel seems impossible.

Even so, it’s something I look for when critiquing a piece of writing.

By that I mean I look for changes between past and present tense.

One of the fundamental decisions a writer makes is selecting the tense of the piece. Will this be written in present tense – actions as they happen – or past tense – actions completed?

Which one chooses doesn’t matter so much. (I mean, yes, of course there are debates that could go on about what tense is best for which genre, for which POV, for which type of story, and so on.)

What matters is consistency. The tense cannot change mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-article, mid-chapter, mid-novel. Writers can give us glimpses into other times through their creativity and skill, but they must not make us travel through time through failure to maintain the verb tense of their piece.

Consider this example:

I looked across the room and my eyes met hers. She walks over to my table and introduces herself. “Hey there,” she said. “My name’s Amanda.” Her lips part into a sultry smile and she winks at me.

Pick a tense and stick with it. All past tense completed, or all present tense as it happens.

Most often, I’ve seen first person POV writing use the present tense.

I turn to him and level the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” I say, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicks back. His look tells me he doesn’t think I’ll do it. Then he lunges.

I close my eyes and pull the trigger.

The idea here is that, like life, we see what’s happening as the POV character does. We react to emotions and events because we’re in the passenger seat right next to them as this roller-coaster plot careens down the tracks. It can make for interesting action, though first person POV comes with its own set of challenges.

Certainly a first person work could tell the story in the past tense. A personal account of an experience as an example in a self-help article is an instance of this kind of writing. It’s the friend sitting over tea saying, “Have I told you what happened to me twenty years ago? Well, I struggled with self-loathing for years, and it got to the point that I considered…”

I’m personally not a fan of a novel or fiction story written in first person past tense unless done exceptionally well. I don’t like the idea that the character in the book is recounting to me the way things happened in his or her story. (For one, that’s almost always a good spoiler clue this character survived whatever conflict the story contains.) I’m not saying it’s impossible, just less common.

For third person works, most often I see verbs in past tense, actions completed, events written as though they already happened long ago.

She turned to him and leveled the gun at his face. “You can’t take her,” she said, “unless you go through me.” The hammer clicked back and she noted the sneer in his smile. He doesn’t think I’ll do it.

He lunged at her.

She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.

Even though all these actions are written like they happened in the past and the conflict is already resolved, our brains process the story like it’s happening now because we don’t know what happens — er, what happened next.

So what might seem like a boring, conflict-already-settled choice actually creates a dynamic tension in the reader. It’s just like how no one watches a movie thinking, “Well, this story has already been filmed completely. The ending is set. All these events already happened.”

Third person present tense is also an option not commonly seen, but possible to pull off with great skill.

She says to him, “We aren’t meant to be together.” So he grabs her arm, demands her affection one more time, and counts off all the reasons she ‘owes’ him.

She slaps him across the face so hard his nose starts bleeding. The other women in the room spontaneously cheer and give her a standing ovation as she stalks off.

To me this has the feel of a guy at the bar telling a wild tale. “You wouldn’t believe what I just saw happen.” I’m not a fan.

Past tense is generally preferred in 3rd person.

But sometimes a sentence may start with a past tense completed verb then show an ongoing action: “She thrust the spear at the bandit, yelling a formation command to her troops.” Even in that case, it’s clear that the action happened in the past, and another action was happening at the same time. It’s a way of depicting what’s going on in the “present” moment of the past tense story.

I’ve heard both sides of debate that such a formation is wrong or acceptable. I personally use it. And I don’t care one way or the other.

The only thing I’m looking for as far as verb tense is concerned is consistency. I’ll borrow a David Tennant Doctor Who quote here:

The Doctor: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

No, it’s not. Not in good writing. Broken verb tense creates a mess even the Doctor cannot fix.

Elements of Critique: Point of View

What I wouldn’t give to be able to jump into her head and know what she’s thinking…

Married couples can relate easily to that thought, I’m sure.

But all of us at one time or another have looked at the inscrutable expression of someone whose opinion we value, and wondered what was taking place in those dark recesses of their mind. Or we’ve made assumptions about their thoughts, only to find out later that our guesses were way off.

If only telepathy was possible.

Well, surprise, it is.*

With some routine training, we can jump into the heads of other people and read their thoughts as if they were words written on a page.

*Offer void outside of works of fiction

Yes, today is P on the A to Z Blog challenge, and for my series that means looking at critiquing Point of View.

Once I know the point of view characters, or POV characters, and the overall style, I look for anything that disrupts the selected point of view. Maybe it’s a thought the POV character can’t know, or access to information they can’t have.

So that means knowing the basic options available to choose:

First person: Written as if someone is telling the story personally. The reader is in the head of one character and sees only what that character sees. They can hear that character’s thoughts only. The POV character’s eyes are the “movie camera” showing the story to the reader.

I stepped into the office and saw Mr. Smith waiting for me, back turned, staring out the window. What could this be about? I hope he doesn’t know I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

‘Hello, Mr. Anderson,’ he said in that slow, dragging monotone as he turned to face me. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person limited: Written from one or a few characters’ points of view, but only one at a time. The reader hears the selected POV character’s thoughts, and no others. They see what takes place around the selected character and are aware of only what that character might know or witness. The “camera” can only see what the POV character sees, though there are likely a few POV characters to choose from throughout the course of the work.

Even though the summons seemed urgent, Anderson strolled down the hall. What does Smith want now?

He turned the corner and saw the office at the end of the hall. Sudden panic twisted up his insides. I hope the company hasn’t figured out I’ve been hacking government computers on my off-time.

With a deep breath, Anderson rapped the doorframe once and stepped into the office.

Mr. Smith stood at the floor-to-ceiling window, looking out at the hazy city. His lanky figure and balding head made a silhouette in the bright sunlight.

“Hello, Mr. Anderson,” he said as he turned toward the door, his mouth in that perpetual almost-snarl. “You’re late. Again.”

Man, I hate his condescending voice.

Third person omniscient: Written with as many POV characters as the writer desires. The writer can jump into anyone’s head and show any scene desired to tell the story. The “camera” can go anywhere.

Haze settled over the city like every other morning. The streets filled with bodies plodding to and fro, eyes glued to their cellphones, hands desperately gripping cups of coffee. The corporate headquarters of Neodyne Information Systems loomed over the skyscrapers surrounding it, and swarms of workers rushed in the main doors to start the day.

Inside a sea of cubicles, Anderson got a message from the manager’s secretary. “Smith wants you. Urgent.” Great. What now?

He sipped his coffee, set the cup down on the desk, and strolled down the long aisle to reach the hall. What does Smith want now?

* * *

In the large office, Mr. Smith looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight filtered through the haze, and Mr. Smith almost reached for his nondescript black sunglasses.

He paused.

No need to look like an Agent. I don’t want to give Mr. Anderson any ideas.
A rap sounded at the door. Mr. Smith checked his watch and turned toward the new arrival. “Hello, Mr. Anderson. You’re late. Again.”

Mr. Smith thought of what he’d seen in Anderson’s file. He shows a callous disregard for authority and a problematic lack of discipline. The records showed several letters of counseling over the last two years of employment.

This one matches the profile of a trouble-maker. And I really hate his face.

There are other points of view but they go beyond the scope of this blog post.

Hopefully those scenes give a rough idea of the differences. So, what do we watch out for when we critique a piece?

Does the POV character ever know something from a scene where they were not present? Does jamming the POV character into a scene in order to give us access to that moment feel forced, unnecessary, or awkward?

Similarly, does the writer show us something the POV character can’t see? In first person and third person limited POV, that character’s eyes are the movie camera from which the story is told. Anything that character can’t see is “off camera” and thus doesn’t belong in the story.

Does the writer ever give us insight into the thoughts of someone other than this POV character? The POV character can only assume the thoughts of another. This distinction has to be made clear, or it might appear the writer is telling us thoughts we shouldn’t have access to.

Also, sudden shifts in POV should be corrected. A piece of writing can’t start in first and jump to omniscient.

And if there’s more than one POV character, shifts between those characters should at the very least come as a new paragraph. Better yet, wait for a new scene to shift the “camera” view. Books often use some centered squiggles or symbols to show the break between POV characters. The three asterisks in my last example are meant to mimic that.

What about non-fiction? If the piece contains a story or anecdote, the rules of point of view still apply. If the piece is more academic or factual, then the only possible breach of point of view is the writer injecting opinion or a personal voice into the writing. Whether that is acceptable will depend on the purpose of the writing. A blog post on a historical event might be fine with the writer sharing thoughts on how that event mattered. A research paper not so much.

Whatever style we use, the purpose of writing is to communicate thought. Understanding the rules of that special form of telepathy helps us write clearer and avoid pitfalls that distract. This will better ensure the reader sees the topic from our point of view.

And that’s the whole point.