Saturday, June 6

Real Life Diagnostics: Should I Write in Third Person Present Tense?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four 


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This week’s question:

My critique partners and I are having a discussion about point of view and tense, and I’d like your opinion. I’m writing a YA contemporary novel with a third person omniscient narrator, in present tense. One of my critique partners emphatically dislikes the third person present POV and says I should change it to past tense.

I’ve been rereading your posts about POV and the potential for omniscient third person narration to sound like the author’s thoughts intruding, as well as a tendency for writers to “show not tell” when writing in this POV. I’ve also read other resources on whether third person present tense is an acceptable POV/tense and haven’t gotten a clear yes or no. Could you please share your thoughts on both third person present tense narration and whether this scene as written shows or tells?


Market/Genre: YA Contemporary

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Angela swings through the back door into the kitchen and leaves it open to let the hot breeze move through the stuffy house. She has almost an hour, plenty of time to get ready for Luke, except that he sometimes shows up early. She opens a cupboard, shoves aside outdated cereal boxes, and retrieves one of her mom’s bottles. A deep pull from it will calm her nerves. She needs to be calm and in control for Luke. He can’t suspect she’s thinking about anything or anyone but him. After another swallow, she returns the bottle to the cupboard and heads for the shower.

She’s still in her bra and black jeans, mascara brush loaded with black, when she hears the front door open. “Luke?” she calls.

“Hey, Babe,” he says, and then he’s standing in the bathroom doorway, the epitome of a Greek god, with wavy blonde hair, chiseled features, muscles rippling inside his t-shirt. He watches Angela apply the eye makeup.

She makes sure to lean forward just enough to tease him.

“I couldn’t wait another minute to see you,” he says, his deep blue eyes meeting her brown ones in the mirror.

Angela smiles at him as if she believes that’s why he’s here early.

After she wipes sweat from her chest with the shirt she took off a little while ago, Angela tosses it behind her and slithers into a black camisole. Then she tucks her short hair, bleached to the same color as Luke’s, behind her ears, finds hoops and studs for her earlobes, smiles at Luke in the mirror, and says, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Angela swings through the back door into the kitchen and leaves it open [to let] this tells her motive, though it’s not uncommon to see this in an omniscient POV the hot breeze move through the stuffy house. [She has almost an hour, plenty of time to get ready for Luke, except that he sometimes shows up early.] This feels distant to me. She opens a cupboard, shoves aside outdated cereal boxes, and retrieves one of her mom’s bottles. [A deep pull from it will calm her nerves.] This tells why she wants the bottle, but we don’t see her actually drink it [She needs to be calm and in control for Luke. He can’t suspect she’s thinking about anything or anyone but him.] This feels more like explanation of the scene than her thought After another swallow, she returns the bottle to the cupboard and heads for the shower.

She’s still in her bra and black jeans, mascara brush loaded with black, when she hears the front door open. “Luke?” she calls.

“Hey, Babe,” he says, and then he’s standing in the bathroom doorway, the epitome of a Greek god, with wavy blonde hair, chiseled features, muscles rippling inside his t-shirt. He watches Angela apply the eye makeup.

She [makes sure to] this feels a little explanatory lean forward just enough to tease him.

“I couldn’t wait another minute to see you,” he says, his deep blue eyes meeting her brown ones in the mirror.

Angela smiles at him as if she believes that’s why he’s here early.

[After she wipes sweat from her chest with the shirt she took off a little while ago,] This feels like an explanation of where she got the shirt Angela tosses it behind her and slithers into a black camisole. [Then she tucks her short hair, bleached to the same color as Luke’s, behind her ears, finds hoops and studs for her earlobes, smiles at Luke in the mirror, and says, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”] A lot happens in one sentence, which makes it feel more like someone watching and summarizing that her doing it

The questions:

1. My critique partners and I are having a discussion about point of view and tense, and I’d like your opinion. I’m writing a YA contemporary novel with a third person omniscient narrator, in present tense. One of my critique partners emphatically dislikes the third person present POV and says I should change it to past tense.


Full disclosure: I’m also someone who dislikes third person present tense, but that’s just me. If you prefer present tense, and you feel it’s the strongest way to write this novel, then write it in present tense. No matter what POV/tense combo a book uses, there will be readers who dislike that style. Do what you feel is best for your novel.

The reason I don't care for it (which bears on your question, otherwise it wouldn't matter), is that it usually sounds told to me. Present tense is immediate, and third person present tense makes me feel like someone is following the characters around and narrating their every move. It puts an extra layer of narrative distance between me and the characters, and the farther that distance, the more told prose typically feels. Imagine if someone is watching a play and describes everything that happens to you. You get what they can see and hear, but there's nothing internal because they can't see what's going on inside the actors' heads.

(Here's more on narrative distance vs telling)

2. I’ve been rereading your posts about POV and the potential for omniscient third person narration to sound like the author’s thoughts intruding, as well as a tendency for writers to “show not tell” when writing in this POV. I’ve also read other resources on whether third person present tense is an acceptable POV/tense and haven’t gotten a clear yes or no. Could you please share your thoughts on both third person present tense narration and whether this scene as written shows or tells?

Both tenses are acceptable. I've been seeing more third person present tense over the last several years, though, possibly due to the success of The Night Circus (but that's just speculation). I've also noticed that I tend to see it in more literary fiction and young adult fiction. (readers chime in here and share your views on third person present tense, and why you like or dislike it)

For some YA examples, you might try Neal Shusterman's Unwind or Lisa McMann's Wake.

As for the author intrusion...these issues can apply regardless of the tense—it’s just the nature of omniscient POV. When the narrator is outside the characters the sense of tell increases, because readers see the story unfold through a third party—someone is literary telling the story.

This snippet does feel a little told to me, but it has nothing to do with the tense. There are a number of lines that explain motives (which often feels told) or why things are they way they are. There’s also no real internalization from the characters, so I feel even more on the outside watching, and not inside the story itself.

Let’s take a closer look at those lines:
Angela swings through the back door into the kitchen and leaves it open to let the hot breeze move through the stuffy house.
This one is fairly minor and most people would read right by it, but technically, it tells why Angela leaves the back door open. “To verb” is a common red flag for told prose, as it often explains motive and doesn’t actually show the action happening. Here it’s fine, as this is more common in an omniscient POV, but it’s something to be aware of for elsewhere in the novel. The more told pieces, the stronger the told feeling usually feels. It's cumulative.

(Here's more on show don't tell red flag words)

She has almost an hour, plenty of time to get ready for Luke, except that he sometimes shows up early.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except it feels distant to me overall because there’s no sense of Angela as a person. It’s more a statement by someone else about what she’s doing than her thinking about how much time she has to get ready. Is this her thought, or the narrator explaining the situation? I'm not sure.
A deep pull from it will calm her nerves.
This tells me what the drink will do, but I don’t see her drink. It’s the “will” that gives it that feeling for me. “Calms her nerves” would show, as I’d see her drink and see it calm her nerves (I do like the sentence overall though).
She needs to be calm and in control for Luke. He can’t suspect she’s thinking about anything or anyone but him.
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this passage, but I feel like it’s the author explaining the situation, not Angela or a narrator thinking it. There’s nothing personal in this, just statement of fact, and this could just as easily be a description of the scene in the outline. Her drinking and calming her nerves shows she's nervous, so this restates that idea.
After she wipes sweat from her chest with the shirt she took off a little while ago
This feels a little awkward, explaining where the shirt came from after she’s wiped her chest with it. It’s an outsider watching and filling the reader in, not the reader being in the scene as it unfolds.
She makes sure to lean forward just enough to tease him.
This feels like someone other than Angela explaining why she's leaning forward. This is a very sexual and deliberate act, yet it feels detached because there's nothing personal in it. It's the "makes sure to" that adds that extra detached layer for me.

On their own, none of these are terrible, but combined, they add up to a detached, told feeling of someone watching Angela and not being "in" the story. A line that could be Angela's internal thought winds up feeling detached, because readers have nothing of her voice to compare it to.

(Here's more on developing and showing character voice)

None of these would be hard to nudge over into shown prose. It’s just a matter of giving the detached areas a sense of someone behind the thoughts that isn’t the author (unless of course you wanted a detached, faceless narrator, which some books do).

You could show more by adding internalization—either thoughts from Angela or the narrator—and a more distinct voice. The more voice used, the greater a sense of show you usually see, because voice feels like there's a soul behind the narration. Emotion and judgment go hand in hand with dramatizing a scene vs. explaining it. It's not a stated fact, it's someone with an opinion.

(Here's more on showing your internalization)

Overall, I think there are several factors giving this a told feeling that have nothing to do with the tense, so write it however you feel is best. But I'd suggest finding the "soul" of your narrator so the detached and told areas feel more like a person sharing this story to readers. Perhaps get a little more inside looking out so readers can connect to these characters and understand who they are. Less explanation, more clues so readers can figure out what you're explaining by how the characters are acting and thinking.

You can still maintain a far narrative distance if you prefer that style, it just takes a little more work. Or, you could tighten the distance and do limited third person present tense and make Angela your POV character (if she is indeed the protagonist she appears to be here). You can decide how near or far you want that narrative distance to be, as it is a sliding scale.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for entering this. I have learned from it too. The one line that stood out to me the most was ..."standing in the bathroom doorway, the epitome of a Greek god..." that phrase: "epitome of a Greek god" seemed a bit cliche to me. I look for inventive, creative ways an author describes a scene, crafts a sentence, or a person, and this looked to me like it could have been developed in a more interesting way. The story did draw me in. Keep at it. :)

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  2. I have a crit partner who loves to write in third person present tense. It works for her. I do see the pieces that are a bit telling in this, so as Janice says perhaps work a little more on developing a distinct personality to connect the character more to the readers.

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  3. Posting for someone who had trouble with the comments...

    "First and third person, present tense, is a storytelling mode where the voice can be colored according to the situational requirements of person/s things and/of places. A story in a story, e.g. where someone is spinning yarns, 3rd person present tense can even reinforce a story in the story, as well as its pace (more so in the 1st present). Strangely enough in a full length novel the 3rd person present is almost static with the pace moving the mass grindingly forward. For the reader toilsome because the emphasis is too much on the 3rd person and the now. I.m.o. very difficult to stay focused on the content and course of the story. Maybe someone else could read out loud three to four chapters of the novel (to several persons at the same time) and see how it affects them."

    Best regards,

    Teddy Linck

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  4. If you want to write in present tense why not try it from first person POV. Readers might find that they will connect better with the story if the narration is through the protagonists eyes.
    As a side note, present tense often works best in fast paced, high action novels, whereas past tense works best for third person POV if the story's pace is a touch slower.
    Think of your genre and what you're wanting to achieve from your plot and the reactions you're wanting to get from your readers.
    Also, if you want to have your readers find a character attractive, hot, drop dead gorgeous, the character needs to act it - as in, readers seeing it through how they speak, their body language, their reactions and opinions on things. Telling us that he or she is the epitome of a Greek god means jack squat to someone that doesn't think Greek gods are attractive. Attractiveness comes from personality and a person's take on things, and whether or not the reader agrees with them. It does, of course, come from physical appearance, but the reader cant see your character and being told that someone is hot won't make people believe they're hot. Also the Greek god, wash-board abs, wavy blonde hair has become a trope - meaning it's been done to death.

    Think of it like this.
    How does this persons presence make your protagonist react. Does she burn up on sight, flutter in the stomach, swallow repeatedly? Readers don't want to be bombarded right away with someone's attractiveness, the want to find out for themselves, in small doses, an then make their opinion.

    For example:

    ---She took another swig of liquid courage as the front door swung open. She swallowed hard and hid the bottle, footsteps approaching.
    "Hey Babe." His breath was at her ear, shivers now running up and down her spine.
    She turned and met his deep blue eyes, his blond hair falling into them. He smiled, slightly crooked, as he leaned in close. "I've waited all day to see you." ---

    This is just an example explaining what I mean about POV, tense and showing actions to prove attractiveness. We now know he's blond, blue eyed and a little cheeky, but it's his actions and the protagonists reactions that elude to his hotness.

    Hopefully this helps. This is just an opinion. Take from it, ignore it, it's up to you. :)



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