Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Person vs Third Person – Present Tense vs Past Tense

As a reader and a writer, I know that third person past tense is the best approach to writing fiction, but for some reason I felt compelled to mix things up in this novel. I thought it would be intriguing if the chapters that centered on the characters that would become ghosts was set in the past tense, while the chapters that centered around the present day protagonist would be written in present tense. Briefly, I even considered changing the perspective from third person with the ghosts to first person with the protagonist. I thought that by using first person present tense in the protagonist sections of the novel, I would create a sense of immediacy that could be effective with a haunting. All the main action would be happening in the now and the reader would experience the frightening circumstances at the same time as does the protagonist. It sounded reasonable, but I didn’t know how the reader would feel about it. Additionally, I didn’t know if switching the tenses or writing in first person was considered stylistically acceptable in fiction writing.

Acceptable. An odd concept for the creative mind. As artists, do we really want to attach ourselves to what’s acceptable or do we want to expand the boundaries of acceptability, even break through them, and create something completely unique. That’s what Herman Melville did when he wrote Moby Dick. In trying to understand the process of creativity, I took a closer look at Melville’s process of creating.

The now classic author and one of the founding authors of the American literary canon began his career garnering modest success with short novels known as travel logs. They were exotic tales that followed the adventures of some sort of sailor who either traveled to or got stranded on a far away island. The average income reader of the mid 19th century had little opportunity to travel, so they would live vicariously through these travel tales of adventure. When Melville was deciding to write what would become Moby Dick, he was embarking on yet another travel log. When nearly finished with this latest book, his friend and contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, encouraged him to change it. His reason was he recognized Melville’s potential to break down the barriers of the acceptable and create something unique, something that went beyond a step-by-step account of a traveler and delved into the exploration of the human condition. Trusting his friend, Melville went back to the beginning and completely rewrote what he had originally been called The Whale, a simple tale about a sailor on a whaling ship. When finished, he had created the allegorical masterpiece, Moby Dick. He wrote not only in differing tenses throughout the novel, but in differing perspectives, genres, and switched from “fact,” or what was thought to be fact at the time, to fiction. There’s even a section of the book that’s laid out like a stage play. So, you say, if Melville can do it, and to such an extreme, well, so can I! Well, yes, he did do it, but it was an unadulterated failure! It was panned by readers, critics and the public at large. It was such a disaster, it made the sinking of the Pequod a metaphor for his career. His public expected one thing and got another, and they weren’t happy about it. Although he continued to write, he never recovered from the failure of Moby Dick, and instead of making a living as a writer, as he did with his travel logs, he ended up working for the New York Port Authority and when Herman Melville died, the one and only obituary notice in New York spelled his name wrong. True story!

Sure, we’re glad now Melville ruined his career to create his magnum opus, but I’m not certain he was so thrilled about it. He would never know the success of Moby Dick. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that scholars decided to take another look at Moby Dick and with a new more “contemporary” eye, found its brilliance. Unfortunately, Melville died in 1891.

So, what’s the moral of the story? That’s what I pondered for over a week before making my decision and my decision ultimately rested in the answer to this next question. Am I looking for monetary success with this novel, or literary success? Well, both would be nice, but if I had to choose, I would most certainly choose literary success. I’m not being lofty and I can prove it. I’ve been writing for 35 years and I still keep my day job!

Keeping in mind the literary value of the work, I reasoned that using past tense for the ghosts could be effective in defining them as characters of the past, living lives that have already happened. When the reader gets to the protagonist’s present situation and the tense switches over to the present, it could make the action more exciting. To tackle this, however, would take tremendous effort, and that effort would likely be felt in the writing.

To analyze my dilemma further, I decided to think logically instead of creatively. We think in past tense. Our thoughts are reflective. Logically, a novel is most effective when it reads like we think. To force the reader to alter the way he or she thinks would be cumbersome. Do I really want to alter the way a reader thinks when going from page to page through my entire novel? Will the reader be willing to do that? Unlikely. If the act of reading becomes cumbersome, then the words are lost to the style. Style takes precedence over content. In Melville’s situation, his novel was all about style. That was the point, and that’s what makes it work. The novel wasn’t necessarily about a specific plot. Yes, there was a definite plot, several actually, but the main point of the creation was to explore the human condition.

Is that what I am writing, a grand exploration of humanity? NO! I’m writing a fiction story about ghosts. Hardly the place to go crashing down the gates and driving over the well-manicured lawns of acceptable writing styles. I want the reader to focus on the story, not the style of writing. It is the plot of the story that is important, and there is only one tried and true way to get the reader engrossed in the plot, and that’s to write in a style in which they are familiar. But what about the perspective? Should I write Mercy Amoretto’s chapters in the first person while keeping the ghosts in the past?

Well, having blocked out my chapters already, I know that as the novel progresses, most of the chapters become Mercy Amoretto chapters. Therefore, I would essentially be writing the entire second half of the novel in first person perspective. That could be limiting, considering there are other characters at play: her husband, Donovan, and her three children, not to mention her best friend Mary Beth. I would have to relate everything that is happening through the perspective of Mercy. Would that be effective? I think not, mostly because the scary parts of a ghost story often happen when the reader sees something that the main character does not. The scope would be too narrow, less three-dimensional. Plus, switching back and forth would, again, force the reader to change his or her way of thinking throughout the novel. Getting settled into one tense, just to be thrown out and into another one. It could be quite painful, intellectually speaking, and I don’t think I want to torture my reader.

Giving it one final thought, I asked myself, does it really make the novel better to change from the traditional style of writing to something considered unacceptable? The answer again was an unequivocal no!

So, third person past tense it is, all the way through. I’m not caving to convention, ladies and gentlemen. I am simply writing the best novel I can possibly write at this point in my life. If this particular piece works best in the traditional style, then that’s what works best. Period. There’s no need to mess with what works!

Thanks for following along the process. I will come back shortly with my next update on my progress. Until then, happy writing!

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