Log in

No account? Create an account
StephenT [userpic]

Thoughts on writing styles

4th March 2009 (13:44)
Tags: ,

This post was inspired by a discussion in gabrielleabelle's LJ about the potential difficulties in using first person POV when writing fiction. It inspired me to think about my own experiences when writing; the differences between using first person or third person (or second!), between writing in past or present tense, and so forth. And so I looked back through the fic I've written over the last couple of years for different examples of each style, and thought about why I chose to use them and what effect I hoped to produce by doing so, and whether or not I think it worked. The result of that was the following meta, which I hope some people might find interesting or thought-provoking...

First Person versus Third Person

I've only written two stories in first person: Hiywan's Story, and the related I Am Destruction (which is about the same character). I think my main problem with first person narrative is that it feels intrusive. Instead of describing what your characters do in a neutral fashion, as in a standard third person narrative, you have to consider that the narrator is herself a character in the story, and therefore is subject to bias and mistake and emotional entanglement in events. That's fine as a deliberate storytelling device when it's the effect you want to achieve, but for more conventional fics I find it interferes with the flow of creating the story.

There's another point, of course, which is that a first person fic is by its nature a spoiler. You already know that the main protagonist will survive to the end of the fic, because otherwise they wouldn't be there to narrate it for you! (Although that's less of an issue in the Buffyverse than it would be in more conventional genres; indeed, the opening line of 'Hiywan's Story' is "I am dead".)

As for why I chose to make an exception for Hiywan's Story and write it in the first person, it was, as I implied, a deliberate stylistic choice to serve the story. I was writing about the First Slayer's origins, and she's a character who is defined by the words "I have no speech. No name." If you want to get clever, you could say she represents the women silenced by 10,000 years of patriarchy. And so in writing her story, I wanted to do as Buffy said in 'Restless', and "Let her speak for herself."

Something stirs inside me. Deep and black and hungry, coiled around the hidden part of my soul. It wakes. And it is angry.

"No". A single word, but it is filled with all the passion and hatred and righteous fury that has lain within me, banked up like a fire, since my sister was taken from me when I was eight summers old. The thrall breaks and I see Awrelye for what he truly is. Nothing but a walking corpse, hideously pale like bleached bones, like a piece of dry wood to be cast into the inferno of my rage.

He shrugs, and turns his back on me once more. "Very well then." A casual wave of his arm to his massed followers. "Kill her."

There is a moment of stillness. A held breath, if there were any but me in all of this vast cavern who still needed to breathe. And within me, the Power stretches and expands and awakens, filling me with its awareness, stronger than I have ever know it before; and I see the nightwalkers rise and turn and start towards me as if in slow motion, and the emotion that fills me at that moment is nothing but pure delighted joy.

(From 'I Am Destruction')

One thing I've never done is write a fic in second person. I'm not even sure if it's possible or how it would work, although I've heard people discussing it. I can only imagine it would read like a session from a tabletop roleplaying game:

"You're walking through the graveyard late at night, when suddenly you hear a rustling in the bushes behind you! Wheeling round, you grab a stake from the inside pocket of your jacket and raise it high to thrust... but moments before you strike the killing blow, you realise it's Spike carrying a paper bag full of shopping. Roll under your dexterity to pull the blow, otherwise you'll have to roll to hit him..."

When it comes to third person narration - which describes the vast majority of my fics - the choice is between limited and omniscient narration. While it's not always been a conscious choice on my part, most of my earlier fics assumed an omniscient narrator: that is, I described the inner feelings and reactions of all my characters in an equal and neutral fashion, exchanging the point of view as needed. For example, in 'Intrusion' I have a scene where Kennedy is watching Willow cast a spell, described from Kennedy's perspective; then later on in the same fic I have Willow watching Kennedy fight a room full of bad guys, described from Willow's perspective. This just seemed like the most natural way to write, but I felt a little uncomfortable with it. However, it wasn't until I attempted writing my first PWP story - 'For A Few Kisses More' - that I realised why it felt awkward. The story lacked focus; by bouncing from one character POV to another it was hard to keep track of who was feeling what about whom. (Or in that particular case, who was feeling who's what... the fact that I was writing femslash and therefore encountering the infamous Pronoun Problem probably helped crystallise my realisation.)

Once I did move to a limited third person, I found I actually enjoyed the challenge of only being able to describe the inner thoughts of one protagonist in the story, and instead have to rely on body language and tone of voice and dialogue to reveal what the other people were thinking - just as we have to in real life:

Buffy wasn't sure what her expression looked like, but it seemed to have sent Willow into a fit of giggles. Her friend glanced over to smile fondly at Tara, then looked back to Buffy with a raised eyebrow and a "What can you do?" expression. Buffy decided she'd have to, um, re-evaluate some of her basic assumptions about her friends' relationship.

(From 'For A Few Kisses More')

Of course, that doesn't mean I don't get all worried that my readers won't notice any of the subtext and byplay I've tried to include in the story. Which is one reason why I write so many director's commentaries on my fic. :-)

Something I've only done once so far is to keep to limited third person, but swap between viewpoint characters throughout the story. I think that's a device that works better in longer, novel-length stories, where devoting an entire chapter to each protagonist is a good way to keep them separate. Such a framework can either be used to present a "chronicle" type story, with dozens of characters all living their individual lives but nevertheless contributing to the grand sweep of history; or it can create interest and tension by describing the same event from two contrasting perspectives. That was more or less what I tried to do with 'What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?', where I alternated between Buffy leading a rescue mission and her opponent, Ravel, preparing her defences and waiting for her to arrive. I used italics to distinguish between the two different viewpoints, and also changed the style: Ravel's sections used more Romantic language, metaphors and similes and elaborate descriptions and a 'high' style, while Buffy's sections were more immediate and fast-moving and colloquial and modern.

The woman sounds suspicious, but also somehow expectant. She knows. Oh yes, everybody knows about Ravel and her riddle.

"I'll release your friend, yes, and let you go, yes, if you answer my question. Just one question, then you can go." She takes a deep breath, then intones the words she's spoken so many times before.

"What can change the nature of a man?"
"What can change the nature of a man?"

Buffy hears the words click into place like a bullet into the chamber of a gun. For all she's been expecting them they make her just as uncomfortable as, well, as a gun would. They've heard the riddle whispered in the back alleys of Sigil, seen it written on the wall of a burned-out temple in the Wastelands, as they followed the trail that led them finally to this place. To this confrontation. To this question.

(from 'What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?')

Past tense versus present tense

The other big element of style to consider is the tense used. Past tense seems to be the natural choice; it's the one most used in conventional literature, and if I can hazard a guess, I'd say it stems from the idea that pure fiction was once frowned upon in Western society, and storytelling was "supposed" to be a matter of describing real-life events that happened to noted saints, heroes or figures of legend... or, of course, to the storyteller him- or herself. "Once upon a time..." One thing I've noticed is that even when I decide to write a story in present tense, if I'm not careful I tend to slip back into past tense automatically, and then have to go back and change all my word endings.

These days I write a lot of stories in present tense; so much so that I was actually surprised to discover, on checking, that the first one (excluding drabbles, where stylistic experimentation is more common) was 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare' written in February 2008, over a year after I first started writing. I do remember that I actually started writing that fic in past tense as well, then decided to switch to present instead part way through.

Silvery laughter greets her remark. "A wise answer, child. But what of this form, then? Does it please you? Does it fill you with the warmth of mortal passion? Would you share that with me?"

Gulp. Willow has read the books, knows what to expect, but this is sudden urgent reality and she fights the urge to panic. What is the correct reply? If she gets this wrong now, she'll never return home... although - a rebellious thought intrudes - it would probably be a really fun way to die. No. Not fun. Not fun at all. Think, Rosenberg. Get it right. She masters herself, and her voice comes back low and determined.

(from 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare').

The reason was, in part, because the story was set in an alternative dimension (Willow has gone to visit the snake goddess Saga Vasuki) and so playing around with the consciousness of time passing was part of creating the effect. My sequel to 'And All My Secrets Laid Bare', 'In Sure And Certain Hope', makes use of this device even more deliberately, because it begins with Kennedy being dead and a description of what her soul is experiencing at the time:

It's quiet here. Soft and warm. Enveloping. She drifts, empty, silent, still.
No. Wait...
There are no memories of pain or sorrow to shadow her existence. No grief or worry.
Something's wrong. This isn't...
Only an endless comforting blank nothingness, forever and ever.

(from 'In Sure And Certain Hope')

My other reason for using present tense is the feeling of suspense it brings. When a story is in the past tense, there's a certain comfort factor involved: the events I'm describing are all over and done with and their ending is, in theory, already known to at least one person (me, in my role as narrator). With present tense, though, I don't think that certainty applies. The events in the story are happening right now, and that creates an immediacy and tension in the reader because it feels as if nobody knows what will happen next. Appropriately enough, the first story I planned from the start to be present tense was 'We Just Declared War', a suspense horror action story in which Buffy goes through a portal and finds herself in the plot of 'Aliens':

Now she can see again; and the room is a mess. Overturned shelves. Food and supplies scattered on the floor. No people.

No living people, at any rate.

Clearly there's been a fight here. She can't see any bodies, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. Across the back of the room is a large, solid counter. She walks cautiously over to it.

Leans on it, peering over the edge. Nothing.

Except... eww. The counter is sticky. She lifts her hand, and stringy grey slime clings to her glove like glue. Eww eww eww. She looks around for a cloth, and finding none, scrapes her hand over the edge of the counter, scrubbing away the slime.

Okay, this is creepy. She has a nasty feeling the inhabitants of this village have already met the demons of her dream. But where are the bodies?

And more importantly, where are the demons?

(From 'We Just Declared War')

I've never written a story in future tense. Nor have I ever written one in the subjunctive mood. I'm not sure I ever will.

All-Dialogue Fics

One of the more quirky stylistic devices I sometimes use is to write fics as dialogue-only. Usually, these are fairly short ficlets, which simply detail a conversation between two people. Stripping out the "he saids" and "she replieds" seems to me to be, quite simply, an economy of words that streamlines the fic. It's my job as a writer to make sure that I characterise the two people speaking well enough that readers can tell who's speaking each line - although of course you can usually tell that simply from the sequence. Still, I usually try to throw in people's names or other clues to their identity fairly often to keep things moving.

"We should totally have a party. Wet the baby's head."

"She's just a blastocyte, Buffy, her head hasn't formed yet... sorry. Been reading far too many medical books lately. Yes, we should definitely have a party. You need to start getting up to speed on your cool aunt routine, and Xan needs to get into training too. We were thinking of asking him to step in for role-model duties once she's older: teach her about carpentry and sports and things."

"Poor kid. I mean, great idea! But what if she wants to play with dollies and dress-up and girly stuff?"

"Xander's very adaptable."

(from 'Matthew 1.23, Except Not'. Which, yes, I'm afraid is baby!fic.)

Some people criticise the device of having characters address each other by name too often, saying it feels unnatural. I think this is a genuine difference of personal style and/or dialect, since in my experience using another person's name in conversation is actually quite common: to get their attention at the start, to emphasise a particular point, to stop them going off at a tangent or making a misapprehension, to tease them, or for many other reasons. For example, in the fic I quoted here, 'Matthew 1.23, Except Not', in just over a thousand words I have Buffy address Willow by name four times:

Will! It's wonderful to see you!
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.... Will! That's, um, that's -- Help me out here? Is that really good news or really bad news?
Willow Rosenberg, you are a very silly woman.
Oh, I see. Um, Will, you do know that 'Buffy' is my actual proper name? It's not short for anything.

And likewise, Willow addresses Buffy by name four times. It's perhaps slightly more forced than it would be in a non-all-dialogue fic, but still doesn't feel out of place to me. Others' kilometrage may vary.

While most fics of this type were short, the first one I wrote was in fact fairly long - 1500 words - and actually had a plot and action and drama rather than just recording a conversation. 'From Ancient Grudge' describes Willow and Faith sneaking into an evil cultists' base, and having a highly personal argument at the same time:

Heh. Well set your mind at rest, Red, I haven't. Though I'm kinda curious to know why you're so interested in my sex life all of a sudden?

What? I'm not!

So why are you blushing?

I'm, uh,.... oh, look! That must be the main cult temple up ahead! (Thank Goddess!)

Damn, there's a lot of them. I'm actually really hoping your spell won't fail now...

Mmm. Me too. Look, there's a balcony up there. Maybe we can get closer that way, hear what they're saying.

Good plan. Hey, will this glamour hold if I actually bump into these guys?

Don't know. It should, but let's, uh, not risk it, OK?

(from 'From Ancient Grudge')

This was actually not planned as all-dialogue; but when I got half-way through and realised it was almost all dialogue, I decided to go all the way and remove the few elements of authorial intrusion I'd included. I also tweaked things around to make the dialogue follow a strictly alternating sequence, Willow-Faith-Willow-Faith, to help keep it clear who was speaking each line. Sometimes that meant adding laughter or interjections as a line of dialogue in themselves, just to keep things flowing.

Finally, I recently wrote 'Lost and Found', which is not a narrative at all, but a series of objets trouvés: news reports, letters, logs of telephone calls, etc, which appear disconnected but when you read them in sequence and follow the clues in each one, tell you a story. It was an interesting experiment and fun to write, although (as a commenter noted) it's a style that lends itself to mystery and action Gen stories without the in-depth characterisation study that seem more popular in LJ-style fic. A related story structure which I've not used myself, although I've seen it done well by others, is to frame the story as a series of letters being exchanged between the protagonists.

Email (PGP encrypted) sent 25 January 2005

To: buffy@slayernet.org
Subject: Satsu's evaluation

B -
More when I get back, but in a word: :-)
Okay, that's an emoticon not a word. Sue me.
- K

(from 'Lost And Found')

There's doubtless much, much more I could go on to write about on this subject - such as story genres (fluff, dark, action, pr0n, etc), the use of language - depicting dialect, swearing, use of pronouns in sex scenes, words for body parts, British versus American English, and more; which characters I prefer to depict, the choice between writing gen, slash or femslash, and much much more. But I think I've bored you all enough already for today. :-)



Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 14:58 (UTC)

Interesting. I think almost all of my fics (my LJ ones, at least) have been third-person, past tense, with a single POV character whose thoughts are available to the reader. Nine times out of ten, that's just the way stories present themselves in my mind.

(Actually, one exception. My Dawn/Amanda story starts out first-person, then switches to third-person flashback, then back to first-person. Not sure if it was the best choice or not.)

I find that certain characters lend themselves more to first-person style... I'm not sure why. Faith is a good example from the Buffyverse. I've got a multi-chapter Faith fic in the planning stages, and I'm strongly considering going first-person with that one.

I don't think I've ever written a genuine all-dialog story, but I certainly use waaaaay more dialog in Buffy stories than in other ones. Because the character voices are so important to the BtVS feel, I guess.

I do run into the "Dark-Haired Slayer" problem, where I'm writing about multiple characters at once and having to come up with ways to refer to them without constantly repeating their names or coming up with contrived-sounding substitutes.

Since I write a lot of erotica (no, really!) a special issue I run into is what kind of sexual terminology to use. I try to avoid using "porn" terminology, and when I do it's usually for effect. I guess this also depends on who the POV character is... different terminology for the female genitalia, for example, depending on whether the story focuses on Faith, or Buffy, or Willow.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 15:32 (UTC)

I find that certain characters lend themselves more to first-person style

I think part of that is whether they have a very distinctive personal style - an attitude, if you like. Faith definitely has that; you couldn't imagine anybody else speaking quite like her.

Plus, there's the whole "storytelling" element. With first person, I find it's easiest to imagine the narrator is sitting back in their chair, a beer in their hand, telling you about what happened to them this one time. We know from 'Faith, Hope and Trick' that Faith enjoys that kind of thing.

I do run into the "Dark-Haired Slayer" problem

I know the feeling. :-) I usually end up using names a lot more than I normally would, or trying to think of epithets that the main POV character would actually use when thinking about that person. 'Her lover' or 'her friend' would work. 'The dark-haired Slayer' probably wouldn't... though having said that, enough people do canonically refer to Willow by her hair colour that 'the redhead' isn't actually all that out of place.

different terminology for the female genitalia, for example, depending on whether the story focuses on Faith, or Buffy, or Willow.

I've faced exactly the same issue (and my answer would probably be, in order, 'cunt', 'pussy' and 'vagina' - using the terms I imagine the character herself would use. It's a big problem, because I've seen people say outright that using the 'wrong' word will throw them out of the fic and stop them reading it... and unfortunately, the words some people prefer are the exact words that other people can never accept, and vice versa.

Maybe I should do a poll... :-)

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 16:06 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:38 (UTC)

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:56 (UTC)

Posted by: Emmie (angearia)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 19:11 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 01:57 (UTC)

Posted by: Emmie (angearia)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:13 (UTC)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 00:21 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:01 (UTC)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:09 (UTC)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 20:07 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:03 (UTC)

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:02 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:45 (UTC)

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 18:05 (UTC)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 21:45 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:07 (UTC)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:12 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:43 (UTC)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:49 (UTC)

Posted by: The One Who Isn't Chosen (gabrielleabelle)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:20 (UTC)

Oooo...thinky thoughts.

The "discussion" on my LJ is less a discussion and more me whining and angsting about my first-person suckage. ;)

I traditionally write in third-person limited with possible POV changes at scene breaks or chapter breaks (As a reader, I get easily annoyed when POV shifts in the middle of a scene unless you're using a consistent omniscient style). It's just the easiest way for me to think of narrating in my head and makes nice, logical sense to me.

As you've no doubt noticed, first-person drives me crazy. :) I think I get a bit too caught up in some of the issues there that may not matter. Also, I'm just not very experienced in it, obviously.

I have actually, come to think of it, written a fic partially in first-person and present tense. Scarlet Folds of Heaven starts with a dream sequence in that style to emphasize the dreaminess and the immediacy of the events (And partially, also, to conceal the identity of the narrator). In that fic, I pull the major no-no of switching both tense and POV for the last scene when I go to past-tense third-person. It was a stylistic choice, and should make some sense if you're reading (Nobody really seemed to notice it).

I should experiment more outside my comfort zone, really. Using different tenses/POVs can be a very interesting and effective narration tool, depending on the type of fic you're working on. Although I still think the traditional third-person, past-tense usually works best for long fic, which is what I mostly write.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 17:55 (UTC)

Oooo...thinky thoughts

I have them occasionally. :-)

I was surprised myself to discover how many of my stories are conventional third person past tense; I thought the proportion would be lower. I suppose it's the more inventive or experimental stories that stick in my memory more.

You're right that the traditional narrative format is better if you want people to concentrate on your characters and plot rather than getting distracted by all the flashy authorial fireworks... although I'm not sure present tense falls into that category so much. Do people actually notice it when reading? Or do they only notice when the author screws up and changes tense halfway through? :-)

I pull the major no-no of switching both tense and POV for the last scene

I think that sort of thing can work really well sometimes as a deliberate framing device: an epilogue, or Grandpa promising to come back and tell the rest of the story to the sick kid tomorrow, or whatever. It can seem too arch or humorous, of course, but sometimes that's exactly the effect you want.

Posted by: The One Who Isn't Chosen (gabrielleabelle)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 22:20 (UTC)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 19:55 (UTC)

Ah, self-meta, the love that dare explain its name. :-)

Interesting as always.

I don't think I've ever written fanfic in the first person... at least not kept it in the first person, much for the same reasons you mention. I keep meaning to write a truly unreliable narrator, but that's a lot of extra work...

One thing I've never done is write a fic in second person. I'm not even sure if it's possible or how it would work, although I've heard people discussing it.

2nd person can be well done, but it's very rare. I'm not sure I've ever come across a good example in fanfic. The standard example here in "real" fiction would be Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, one of my favourite novels. Fight Club switches between first and second person throughout, too. But yeah, it takes a lot to not make it seem a like roleplaying. The real challenge here, of course, is to really draw the readers in and make them believe they could do that. I once read a second-person story about a rapist; boy, was I OOC.

But yeah... limited third is probably my favourite perspective too. It allows you to creep inside someone's head while still maintaining at least a semblance of objectivity... ;-) Unless it's comedy, for some reason, where more-or-less omniscient third often works better. I suppose it's a way of replicating the rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue that often comes with comedy, and is a lot harder to capture if you're just sitting in someone's head watching the tennis balls fly back and forth.

I'd say it stems from the idea that pure fiction was once frowned upon in Western society, and storytelling was "supposed" to be a matter of describing real-life events that happened to noted saints, heroes or figures of legend...

I'd say it's more a case of "pure fiction" (and "pure non-fiction") being a fairly recent invention; most older civilisations didn't always make a distinction between history and stories. But that might be splitting hairs.

Nor have I ever written one in the subjunctive mood.

Now that would be interesting. I know it can be done, but it's very rare.



frame the story as a series of letters being exchanged between the protagonists.

Ooo! I've written one or two like that! :-) It's interesting that the epistolary-type stories are making a comeback as we move from a telephone-and-RL-meeting society to an e-mail-and-text-message one. I've even seen entire novels consisting of text messages... not sure I've ever seen a good one, but hey.

Now, your challenge, should you accept it, is to write a first-person plural future-tense fic in which anyone can die at any time. ;-)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 23:13 (UTC)

I've even seen entire novels consisting of text messages... not sure I've ever seen a good one, but hey.

I've seen a novel that was entirely made of office emails. That was pretty good...

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 23:19 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:14 (UTC)

I imagine limited third would work for comedy if the point was the protagonist comically misunderstanding things, or something like that?

most older civilisations didn't always make a distinction between history and stories

Maybe; the way I learned it, pure fiction was considered rather disreputable - "making things up" was just a type of lying to your audience; but sure, everybody expected the storyteller to "elaborate" on the true story, fill in the blanks, put words in people's mouths. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'History of the Kings of Britain' is by modern standards pure fiction (Britain being named after Brutus the Trojan who came here in 1200 BC?), but he made a big point of assuring his readers that he'd talked to Welsh folk-historians and studied all the available literature and his 'History' was therefore as true as possible.

a first-person plural future-tense fic in which anyone can die at any time


...I'm not sure where I'm going with that. :-)

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 22:35 (UTC)

Ooh, very fascinating!


*trying to arrange my thoughts in some kind of coherent order*

1st person
Apart from letters, diaries, and so forth, the only time I've ever used 1st person was for my self-inserts - both of whom were insanely unreliable narrators. I just loved writing my OC giving more and more ludicrous excuses (and, in fact, not being able to mention a single piece of plot without offering up an excuse for it) as the story got worse and worse.

I have no idea how I'd write a 1st person narrative starring an actual Buffyverse character. It seems like it'd be insanely hard.

2nd person
I don't understand quite why people think this is so tricky.

I've used it a lot, mostly in situations with a fair amount of angst. I find it works really well as a way to put the readers uncomfortably close to the situation.

One thing: I've noticed a lot of people seem to assume that 2nd person always means that "you" refers to the reader. Sometimes it doesn't at all.
For instance:

You thought you knew – what was true. What was real. You had it all worked out.
And then came the girl, the day, the death, the HST hiding in plain sight, the questions, and suddenly reality is all mixed up with stories, and the truth might just be lies after all.
You don’t know.
You really don’t know anymore.
And all you can do is clutch this scarf, this piece of the girl who loves you, and hope that in the morning there will be answers…

Tomorrow you’ll find out that robots can look real.
But right now, we can’t really help you.

You play, you lose, you play, you lose, the pea is nowhere in sight, and before you know it he’s taken everything you ever had, and all you have left is the shell.

But a Shell, at least, is something.

In the first, "you" is Riley, in the second, it's Buffy, and in the third it is simultaneously Illyria and Trish Burkle. The person talking is always un-named, and assumed to be personality-less. (But whoever they are, they're a bit of a cynical bastard, based on the way I tend to have them being detached and slightly mocking...)


Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 4th March 2009 22:35 (UTC)

Past and Present
Having just been curious enough to check through all my fic, I've discovered that almost exactly a third of the stuff I write is in present tense - and, generally, it's going to be
a) more serious than comical
b) trying to give the feeling of timelessness (being stuck in situations, dreaming, etc)
c) nastier

My comical fics are, it seems, almost invariably in 3rd person past. So is my fluff.
Whereas, in present tense, people tend to be stuck in serious situations.

And speaking of "stuck"...
I use it to keep people stuck in Pylea (even though she's out by the end of the fic, the present tense helps keep her feeling stranded), stuck in a neverending cycle of bad choices, and stuck in a world that just keeps getting worse.

I've also used it to be inside a dream - I think present tense helps emphasise the dreamlike nature, as follows:
And they stand, watching each other, just a few feet of carpet keeping them apart.

Fifty short moments later, the cat jumps onto her bed, and starts washing itself.
Faith watches it. Buffy watches Faith – the curls of her hair catching tiny glances of light as it comes through the window – and realises it must be almost evening. The window faces west, after all.

...and also, like I said, I use present tense to be nasty.
In present tense, I have:
- tortured Angel in explicit detail
- killed off Oz
- had Andrew kill off all the Slayers he's been working with
- sent Riley spiralling downwards in despair
- driven Angel crazy
- watched Faith try to convince herself that Willow deserves to be horribly murdered
- written something apparently fluffy that promptly whacked a whole bunch of readers in the face with some very harsh reality
- had Darla viciously slaughter a bunch of men just because they looked sort of like Angel
- left Buffy stranded in the middle of massive amounts of angst, on several occasions.
...among other things.

Whereas, the worst thing I've ever done in past tense was end the world a few times.


Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:32 (UTC)

The timelessness and dream-like nature of present tense is also why I frequently use it. I suppose the fact that I use it for tension and suspense rather than fluff also parallels your 'serious not comical' distinction.

I don't do nasty, though. In fact, I'm coming to the conclusion that it's one of the few genuine squicks I have in fic, in the sense that I can read a perfectly good, well-written and imaginative story and be left thinking afterwards "I really wish I hadn't read that." I don't mind angst, or death, or epic tragedy... just nastiness. Oh well.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:16 (UTC)

Nice second-person examples. But I'm not sure how well it would work translated into a full-length fic rather than an attention-grabbing first paragraph?

Posted by: The Mezzanine (deird1)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:20 (UTC)

...actually, those were all attention-grabbing final paragraphs.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:33 (UTC)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 00:38 (UTC)
Preacher Man

I generally don't make a conscious decision about POV or tense for a story - I just write it the way it flows out of my brain, which 90% of the time is third person past tense. On the rare occasions I've written in other POVs or tenses, it wasn't because I said, "Self, let's try something different." It's because it just came out that way. In fact, the first story I wrote in first person (which, incidentally, was also my first present tense story), I tried to change it to third person past because I thought that was better. That's how I write! But the story stubbornly insisted it was in first person present, and so I ended up giving in.

Most of my forays out of my comfort zone are in drabbles. It's just easier to experiment when you don't have to sustain it for a long time. Also, I find that third person (omniscient or limited with multiple POV characters) is just necessary for my ensemble fics, because what happens when I want a scene that my POV character's not in? Those fics tend to be modeled off the show's balance, and so Buffy may be the main character, but she's not in every single scene, so it's impossible to stick with one character's POV.

I've never written a story in future tense. Nor have I ever written one in the subjunctive mood.

Do people actually do that? LOL That sounds like it would be incredibly annoying to read OR write.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:35 (UTC)

Do people actually do that?

Not to my actual knowledge, but nothing would surprise me. After all, one guy once wrote an entire full-length novel that didn't contain the letter 'e'...

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 07:06 (UTC)

Posted by: Barb (rahirah)
Posted at: 5th March 2009 02:56 (UTC)

Hm. I've written more than half a dozen first-person stories - not nearly as many as I've written in third person, but a fair number. I really enjoy writing in first person, getting all the way into a character's skin. I use it when I don't want an impersonal, unbiased narrative. It's especially effective in comedies, for stories which depend on an unreliable Though honestly, I think that writing in tight third person can lead to almost as much narrative bias as first person. You're not in the character's head, perhaps, but you're certainly following them around and peering over their shoulder.

I usually write in third person limited - usually sticking to one character's POV, but in some longer stories I've swapped between two or more characters at scene or chapter breaks. I've avoided third person omniscient ever since margdean took me to task for clumsy use of it twenty years ago. It's by far the hardest POV to do well, IMO, and its main use seems to me to be creating distance between the reader and the character. It is (or can be) far more mannered than the other POVs, very much a storyteller's POV. So far, I haven't had occasion to write a story where that would be useful. I have written in second person, OTOH. Not for any great length, but the first scene of Chapter 12 of Necessary Evils is in second person. (The rest of the novel is in third.) As a literary device, I think it worked pretty well in that instance, though it would probably get tiresome if it went on for much longer than that.

I do a fair number of my shorter pieces in present tense, but it's something else that I think works better in small doses. I've also written stories that alternate between past and present tense. I've done a couple of all-dialog fics, but I'm not entirely satisfied with them.

38 Read Comments