Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Do tenses make you tense? A reviewer's Point of View

I'm writing the House of Closed Doors series in the first person past tense, because I like the format where the protagonist tells his or her story and because this particular tale seemed to ask for first person past. But this style of storytelling always begs the question: where and when is the narrator while he/she’s telling the tale?

Older novels got round this problem by encasing a tale in a tale (“Mary sat down by the fireplace and began to speak…”) or by wrapping up the story as a letter or discovered document. At the time of writing I’m reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which adopts the frequently encountered 19th-century technique of getting several characters to tell their own story, one at a time, in this case in chronological order.

But most novels written in the 20th century and beyond just leave the question of the narrator’s current time and age hanging, assuming that you don’t really care because you’re just looking for a good story—and seeing events through the protagonist’s eyes lends a certain immediacy to the scene, even if it does impose limitations. It can be hard to keep a first person narrative going over the span of several books; for example, in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, she eventually has to introduce an alternate first person POV in the shape of Amelia’s son Ramses as Amelia can’t possibly be involved in both the main murder mystery and the historically-inspired subplot that begins to develop around Ramses and other younger-generation characters. Most first-person series that I’ve read have to introduce another POV by around book five.

And supposing the main character is injured or stuck in a snowdrift or otherwise unable to access the action that you want to describe? AAAAGH you have to fall back on secondary descriptions or, horrors, letters, and there’s your immediacy blown right out of the water. First person narratives are tricky that way, not to mention the perennial problem that people rarely describe to everyone what they look like and you STILL, despite all the mocking this engenders in bookish circles, get writers who have their protagonist look in the mirror in Chapter One.

Then, of course, there’s the trendy first person present tense (think The Hunger Games) which really plunges you, the reader, deep into the action because, logically, the protagonist has NO IDEA what’s going to happen next and you have to live the story alongside her. First person present tense is risky as some readers find it deeply annoying. Why? I’m not sure, but they do. I’ve seen dislike of—and even rage against—the present tense expressed in many reviews.

Personally I’m becoming rather fond of the Hilary Mantel-style third person present tense, but it could easily begin to grate on me if too many people use it. Mantel was derided for the plethora of “he” pronouns in Wolf Hall (yes, I did some deriding, but very gently) and solved the problem in Bring Up the Bodies by the repetitive use of “he, Cromwell,” which may be an efficient solution but is hardly an elegant one.

It’s no wonder that so many writers fall back on the good old third person past tense. Not many of today’s novelists put the classic omniscient narrator on the payroll, that guy who knows everyone’s secrets and has a breezy tendency to make comments and foreshadow events (“Little did he know what lay behind the green curtain…”) It’s too, well, stagey, a little phony, not authentic enough for the 21st-century mind.

When it comes to third person past tense I generally enjoy the alternate-point-of-view technique where each chapter (or, sometimes, scene) is seen through the eyes of one of a limited number of protagonists or even antagonists. Great for thriller writers who like their evil villain to be closing in on the hero WHO DOESN’T KNOW HE’S THERE LOOK OUT NATHAN! And when you have Chapter One in the female POV and Chapter Two in the male, you can be pretty sure that there’s going to be romance in the air. Unless one of them is evil. And even then.

What drives me completely round the bend is the tendency of SO many authors to just jump in and out of people’s heads with no warning. I just can’t tell you how many novels I read where the author indulges in serious head-hopping; in fact, I’ve pretty much given up going on about it in my reviews because it’s so widespread that I don’t honestly believe most readers notice, and I feel like I’m being Miss Picky Pick-Pick to complain about it so often.

The worst manifestation of this horror is the writer who keeps us in one POV for much of the time but will leap into someone else’s head for just a line or two whenever it suits her. Here’s a made-up example:

Simon [so Simon is the main character through whose eyes we’ve been seeing the story] could see that Jeffrey was starting to lose his cool. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t find out?” he snapped. 
Jeffrey felt a hot wave of embarrassment rush to his head. Why did Simon have to be so judgmental? “I—I only wear those clothes on weekends.” Sweat pooled between his shoulder blades. 
Now I’ve got him, thought Simon. “But Charlene saw you in your high heels on Wednesday night…” 

And then we continue in Simon’s head until the next time the author decides to head-hop for a moment. Why do I get so bent out of shape about this? As I just said, it’s commonly encountered. In fact in the majority of 21st-century novels I read the POV flops around like a fish on the beach, one moment omniscient, next moment limited, then deep deep deep in the character’s psyche.

It gets my goat, I suppose, because it’s inelegant. Messy, like a room strewn with unwashed cardigans. I’d rather have Mantel and her “he, Cromwell” any day. Generally speaking, REALLY good writers have their tenses and points of view under control, and it’s one of the factors that separate the sheep from the goats. Like, y’know, there’s been some editing done. Actual editing of the old-fashioned intelligent kind. It’s getting rarer.

Of course writing being what it is, rules are made to be broken and some of my favorite scribblers get away with an undisciplined approach to POV and even, occasionally, tenses. The POV-switcher who springs to mind is Dorothy L. Sayers, and I have to say I re-read her books several times before noticing the head-hopping. I was enjoying myself too much to nitpick!

So c’mon, writers and readers alike: where do you stand? Are you a fan of first person present tense? Or do you love the Dickensian, mocking know-it-all commentator who hands you every character’s little foibles on a silver salver? What makes you throw a book across the room? What is your position on Mantel? (Every reader should have one, darling, it’s this year’s latest accessory.)

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