Choosing the Right Narrative Tense/POV

The minute I finished Draft Zero of my upcoming novel, White Rabbit, I was seized with doubt. I had written the entire novel—all 92,000 words—in first-person past tense…but had that been a mistake? The issues I grappled with as I considered this question led me to an even broader one: How do you determine the proper combination of tense and POV for a story, anyway?

I wrote my debut novel, Last Seen Leaving, in first-person past, and never second-guessed my decision to do so. It’s a narrative approach favored by many of my detective fiction heroes—from Raymond Chandler to Sara Paretsky to Sue Grafton—and the choice seemed obvious to me as I was outlining the story. A first-person POV is wonderfully conducive for voice-driven projects, letting a reader really cozy up to the protagonist’s thought process; and past tense requires fewer acrobatics when writing in the subjunctive mood and sketching out complicated “what if” scenarios—something that happens quite a lot when your plot revolves around a mystery. (What I mean, here, is that it’s much easier to speculate clearly on successive actions that all would have happened in the past, than to speculate on unfolding actions in the present and what they might lead to in the future, based on actions that might have happened in the past.) (And if you followed that, we both deserve a drink.)

Writing in the past tense also gives you access to certain tried-and-true gimmicks for creating suspense, if that’s your thing. American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, for example, was famous for the “Had I But Known” technique of foreshadowing—as in, “Had I but known the true meaning of that faint mark on the fireplace, I’d have called the police that moment, and three murders could have been prevented!” A little of this goes a long way, perhaps, but it’s a device you can only employ in the past tense, and Rinehart built a very impressive career around it. (Even if you’ve never heard of Rinehart before, you’ve surely felt her cultural influence; the clichéd phrase “the butler did it” came from one of her novels.)

I approached the writing of my second title with all this in mind, feeling quite comfortable in my familiar first-person past territory; but before I submitted it to my editor, I found myself thinking over some of the peculiarities of the plot. The events of White Rabbit unfold over the course of a single night—a period of roughly eight hours, which is all the time the main character has to save someone he cares about—and involve a number of sharp turns, as surprise revelations routinely back-foot the MC and leave him questioning what he knows. Self, I asked myself, might this narrative not work better in the present tense? Shifting the voice from the then into the now, I realized, would enhance the sense of immediacy, and would subtly reinforce the tensions that run throughout the novel as time ticks down.

I revised the entire manuscript, dear reader. It was a pain in the butt, but it was worth it, and White Rabbit (coming to shelves in 2018!) will be my first-ever work written in the present tense.

My third novel (in progress now!) presents another unique case. With a larger cast of characters, and multiple POVs sharing narrative duties, I had yet another quandary on my hands. I couldn’t decide between third-person past, omniscient (think Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows) or first-person present, multiple (think Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On)—I could even mix it up, if I wanted, and write first-person for the actual MC and third-person for the supporting cast. Each method comes with strengths and weaknesses, and it took me a lot of mental simulations to figure out which one would work best.

Ultimately, this proved to be (I think) a choice of personal taste. I’m opting for the Six of Crows model, because it feels more streamlined to me, and because I had much more confidence in what I was producing in my experimental forays into crafting the narrative. Your mileage may vary, obviously—and who knows? I may get to the end of the novel, decide I did it all wrong, and go back and rewrite it again. After all, I’ve established precedent for that.

The truth, I’m learning, is that sometimes you can’t be sure how a story needs to be told until it tells you itself.

3 Responses to Choosing the Right Narrative Tense/POV

  1. Gwen Cole May 22 2017 at 8:47 am #

    This happened to me after my last WIP! I had written it in first person, but something felt off until I realized it needed to be in third person. I have a lot of work ahead, haha.

  2. Marc Vun Kannon May 22 2017 at 9:10 am #

    First-person present-tense is definitely a good choice for immediacy and tension. In my most recent MS, I have a character who’s having a vision and describing it for those around him in present tense, driving them all crazy with the reversals of fortune at every turn. That book was an outer story with smaller tales embedded in it, giving me all sorts of possibilities at once. I’d never written in first person before. I’ve been having trouble with my current story, possibly because of POV/voice concerns, so I’ll take this advice to heart and re-consider. Thanks.

  3. Katherine May 22 2017 at 10:08 pm #

    Apparently some agents and editors hate FP PT, but I love it; it feels so natural and NOW. It’s appropriate for some books, but not others, you’re right. I’m glad it’s working for you.
    I too revised half of a novel to change it from past to present tense – tough to do!

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