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Story Series (From idea to story-Part 7) by Rick Taubold

Read the original article at Write Well, Write to Sell

on  at 8:50 PM

Posted In: How to write a story, Point of view

From Rick:

In part 6, I promised to wrap up this series with some pointers on how to select, hopefully, the best point of view (POV) for your story. Along with those, I’m going to discuss choosing the right verb tense for the story as well.

Viewpoint in fiction writing really encompasses two concepts. The first involves which character is telling the story, and the second determines how that character’s perspective is portrayed.

Let’s deal with choosing the POV character first. In “Jury Duty” we really had only one choice since the story had only one main character: the one summoned for jury duty. Such will often be the case in most short stories. When the writer comes up with his story idea, he usually knows who his main/viewpoint character will be.

In novels, with more complex story lines, there may be more than one viewpoint character. When you have multiple potential viewpoint characters, a good rule of thumb for your primary (or perhaps only) viewpoint character is to select the one with the most to lose. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, the story could have been told from a number of character viewpoints, but Dorothy was the one with the most to lose. Twilight also had several possible viewpoints, but the author chose Bella.

I’ve often pointed out that in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the viewpoint character is not the expected title character, but Dr. Watson. In case you’ve not heard the reasoning before, the author did this because Holmes knew what was going on much of the time, and had the reader been given Holmes’ perspective, the stories would have been much less interesting. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose Watson because that way he could keep information from the reader and therefore build suspense.

An alternative viewpoint character can also be one with the most interesting perspective on matters, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby instead of using Gatsby’s perspective. Fitzgerald shows us Gatsby in the same way that Doyle shows us Holmes–from the outside.

Once we’ve decided who will tell the story, you need to decide how the character’s voice will be conveyed. You have two broad options there: person (third or first) and tense (past or present). Person has three sub-options: first (I), second (you), third (he/she).

If you recall, in the first part of this series I opened “Jury Duty” in third person. Later, I switched to first. The “standard” for most stories is third person, past tense. Present tense often gives a more immediate feel to the prose and the character, but not all readers are comfortable with present tense, and it’s immediacy is not always effective or right in all situations. If not used appropriately, it can feel stiff or forced. You generally see it used in stories that are more literary in tone.

Second person, present tense is rarely used outside literary stories, but it can be highly effective in the right situation. I’ve seen some very effective uses of it, and I’ve also seen some uses where the author is clearly experimenting or showing off his supposed prowess. The novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of few English-language novels written in this point of view, and it is indeed very in-your-face and excellently done in my opinion.

At this point, showing is better than telling. Therefore, I’ve rewritten the opening scene of “Jury Duty” in five different POVs: first person, past tense (original); first person, present; third person past; third person present; and second person present. I’ve omitted second person past because I don’t recall having seen any stories written with that (there may be some; I just haven’t seen any), and I suspect it wouldn’t be a very effective POV except in a small handful of cases.

Before I present the examples, I should caution you that because we’re so used to writing in past tense, it’s VERY easy to slip up when trying to write present tense, so be careful.

One more note. When writing in past tense, we use the past perfect tense (e.g. had done, had talked, had written) to indicate action prior to the main story. When writing in present tense, we use simple past tense to indicate prior events. Again, be careful.

Look over these example to see the differences.

[FIRST PERSON PAST]

I stared at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice addressed to me, David Blayne. I smiled. With enthusiasm, but care, I opened it. Just as I’d suspected. Jury duty–February 29, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall. Perfect. The poor unsuspecting fools had no idea what was in store for them.

My long-standing desire to proclaim some deserving scumbag of the world microwave-able was close at hand. Except that one cloud lay over my plans. Major societal trash did not appear in Town courts. I figured the best I could hope for was a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny claiming injuries from the stampede to a blue-light special at a local K-Mart. Still, landmark court decisions had to begin somewhere, and this would serve my purpose.

I marked my calendar. I didn’t want the police arresting me for dereliction of my civic duty. Jail would not provide the type of long-term relationships I desired to establish with my fellow man and woman.

=====

[FIRST PERSON, PRESENT]

I stare at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice addressed to me, David Blayne. I smile. With enthusiasm, but care, I open it. Just as I suspected. Jury duty–February 29, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall. Perfect. The poor unsuspecting fools have no idea what’s in store for them.

My long-standing desire to proclaim some deserving scumbag of the world microwave-able is close at hand. Except that one cloud lies over my plans. Major societal trash does not appear in Town courts. I figure the best I can hope for is a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny claiming injuries from the stampede to a blue-light special at a local K-Mart. Still, landmark court decisions have to begin somewhere, and this will serve my purpose.

I mark my calendar. I don’t want the police arresting me for dereliction of my civic duty. Jail will not provide the type of long-term relationships I desire to establish with my fellow man and woman.

=====

[THIRD PERSON PAST]

He stared at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice addressed to him, David Blayne. He smiled. With enthusiasm, but care, he opened it. Just as he’d suspected. Jury duty–February 29, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall. This was perfect. The poor unsuspecting fools would have no idea what was in store for them.

His long-standing desire to proclaim some deserving scumbag of the world microwave-able was close at hand. Except that one cloud lay over his plans. Major societal trash did not appear in Town courts. He figured the best he could hope for was a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny claiming injuries from the stampede to a blue-light special at a local K-Mart. Still, landmark court decisions had to begin somewhere, and this would serve his purpose.

He marked his calendar. He didn’t want the police arresting him for dereliction of his civic duty. Jail would not provide the type of long-term relationships he desired to establish with him fellow man and woman.

=====

[THIRD PERSON PRESENT]

He stares at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice addressed to him, David Blayne. He smiles. With enthusiasm, but care, he opens it. Just as he suspected. Jury duty–February 29, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall. Perfect. The poor unsuspecting fools have no idea what’s in store for them.

His long-standing desire to proclaim some deserving scumbag of the world microwave-able is close at hand. Except that one cloud lies over his plans. Major societal trash does not appear in Town courts. He figures the best he can hope for is a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny claiming injuries from the stampede to a blue-light special at a local K-Mart. Still, landmark court decisions have to begin somewhere, and this will serve his purpose.

He marks his calendar. He doesn’t want the police arresting him for dereliction of his civic duty. Jail will not provide the type of long-term relationships he desires to establish with his fellow man and woman.

=====

[SECOND PERSON PRESENT]

You stare at the computer-printed, tear-open-here, official notice addressed to you, David Blayne. You smile. With enthusiasm, but care, you open it. Just as you suspected. Jury duty–February 29, 9 A.M. at the Town Hall. Perfect. The poor unsuspecting fools have no idea what’s in store for them.

Your long-standing desire to proclaim some deserving scumbag of the world microwave-able is close at hand. Except that one cloud lies over your plans. Major societal trash does not appear in Town courts. You figure the best you can hope for is a civil suit of an eighty-year-old granny claiming injuries from the stampede to a blue-light special at a local K-Mart. Still, landmark court decisions have to begin somewhere, and this will serve your purpose.

You mark your calendar. You don’t want the police arresting you for dereliction of your civic duty. Jail will not provide the type of long-term relationships you desire to establish with your fellow man and woman.

=====

After you have examined these, you should have a good idea of how to use each one. Now, it’s up to you to decide in any given story which one works best. My choice of first person, past tense for “Jury Duty” was the way I originally saw the story (and at the time I really hadn’t experimented with present tense or second person). Even now, I still think it’s the best choice for THIS story as written. It reflects the character’s voice appropriately.

The use of present tense, especially combined with second person, would make the voice grittier. It depends on the impact and audience you’re going for, but as I said above, not all readers like present tense, and even fewer will tolerate the second person point of view (mainly because it’s odd to them). Under the right circumstances, though, readers can sometimes be persuaded to accept–and even endorse–the unconventional.

I encourage you to experiment with that various viewpoints and to try more than one in the opening of your next story or novel because sometimes your first instinct is wrong. The main thing to remember is whichever viewpoint and voice you choose, it should serve the story and not appear as if you’re just showing off your literary prowess.

Having read Bright Lights, Big City, I cannot see it being written effectively any other way, despite the criticism it received for being innovative. Read the Amazon.com 1-star reviews for a sampling, then compare with the 5-star reviews. These should give you a perspective on both reader tastes and the risks of being unconventional. Nevertheless, the needs of the story, not public opinion, should be your motivation. If you step outside the boundaries for the right reasons, your reviewers will be (mostly) on your side.

I hope this series has helped you. Best wishes on crafting your next story!

–Rick

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