Strangely, in this week before Christmas, I’ve been reading a lot about dystopia. (I’m hoping there isn’t a connection there, but who knows? The coming of Christ…a whole new world… hmmmm.)
Of the two different dystopian worlds I’ve read about in the last week or so, I’ve been sort of fascinated with two choices these writers had made: verb tense and point of view.
It struck me that both writers used present tense throughout their stories. Just interesting, isn’t it? They chose to use present tense to describe a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. I wondered if that was consciously influenced by their plot and subject matter. Is it best to speak about a created world – one that supposedly results from our own culture and society -- as if it is happening right now? Will readers invest themselves more readily in these worlds of despair and struggle? (Because, if you haven’t read much dystopian fiction lately, it is ALWAYS a world of despair and struggle.)
I haven’t taken the time to look at more adult fiction of this vein to see if those writers, too, present their stories in present tense… But I have Cronin’s The Passage on a shelf upstairs. I should look…
In Unwind by Neal Shusterman, for example, are we more in the action during this scene because it is told in present tense?
A nurse blots swat from his forehead. “Relax, I’m here to help you through this.”
He feels a sharp pinprick in the right side of his neck, and then in the left side.
“That,” says the nurse, “is the only pain you’ll be feeling today.”
“That’s it, then,” [he] says. “You’re putting me under?”
Although he can’t see her mouth beneath her surgical mask, he can see the smile in her eyes.
Would you feel differently (see the scene differently) if it was told with “saids” and “saws” instead? Would you have the same visceral reaction to what is going on with this character? Maybe…maybe not. I’m not sure. Perhaps it is up to each reader.
Each of the books I’ve read this week also chose a different point of view.
I’ve struggled with point of view with many of my own projects, and I know a few writers who have started a project in one POV, only to change their minds part way or all the way through, and rewrite the whole work from a different viewpoint.
In Unwind, Mr. Shusterman used alternating third person, sometimes called third person multiple vision. Each chapter was told from a different character’s point of view, focusing mostly on the main three characters, but with some minor ones thrown in for certain pivotal events. After all, things look different depending on who is doing the looking, right?
From a reader’s perspective, I found this constant switching around to be a little distracting. It made me feel a little uncomfortable with the narrative; it was harder to follow than a more traditional third person single perspective or even first person strategy. But again – I now find myself wondering if Mr. Shusterman chose this as a strategy. His story is all about discomfort. His story is about the aftermath of a civil war fought over reproductive rights and the resulting society where abortion is forbidden, but where children can be “unwound” after the age of 13. Discomfort, indeed. (You’ll have to read his book to find out what unwinding involves…no further spoilers here! But trust me – it is uncomfortable, to say the least, to read about it let alone immerse yourself in his dystopia.) So was the flitting back and forth between different views – different perspectives on events unfolding in the story – a conscious decision to transfer the tenuous sense of survival to the reader? Interesting thought, right?
The second novel – one which I haven’t finished yet, but will admit to being completely caught up in despite my initial hesitation – is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Also told in present tense, this one is told from first person POV. We learn about the settlement on a planet (not Earth) and the impact of a mysterious disease loosed on the settlers by another alien race. We see this world, society and the unfolding events of the plot through the eyes and voice of the main character, Todd Hewitt.
Told in this POV, we only know what Todd knows. We don’t glimpse any of the knowledge that might be held by other characters – older settlers who witnessed war with the other alien race, for example – until they decide to tell Todd what they know. The history of the settlement prior to Todd being old enough to remember his own life is just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Todd. For us readers – this leaves us with more of the unknown and maybe more of a relationship (I think) with our friend, Todd. We are on this ride with him. He is our narrator in a way that characters in third person stories never get to be.
The other benefit of first person (again, in my opinion) is that we hear the main character’s voice throughout the story. Well – I guess that depends on the skill of the writer, doesn’t it? At any rate, told from the “I see..” or “I ran…” or “I heard…” point of view, we hear the Voice of the character with every sentence. It isn’t limited to just dialog, as it is with other story structures.
So what do you think? Conscious decisions to help the dystopia come alive for readers? Or maybe decisions made based on the skill or tendencies of the authors? Either way – I’d say both strategies made for effective storytelling.
I did get out my Gotham Fiction Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction, The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School to see if they had a chapter on POV. Yep. They do. A pretty good one, too, in case you are looking to do a little light reading on craft over your holiday vacation.
Here’s a thought: Take a chapter or scene from a story you love. Pay attention to the POV. Rewrite it from another character’s POV or change the POV altogether. If the author wrote it in first person, you rewrite the events in third. Or vice versa. I did this once as an assignment for a class taught by the talented Lisa Klein, and it was a fantastic, thought-provoking exercise…A step toward making very conscious decisions in your own stories about how the POV will help or hinder your readers as you take them on a journey.
Happy Holidays, everyone! And Happy Writing.