Lets face it, there are a million and one ways to tell a story. (Probably more than that but lets just go with it.) Finding the right way can sometimes become a nightmare. Well, if you’re me anyway.
I’m on the second draft of my first novel, and about a month ago, I began to question everything. Sound familiar? I hope so, because I’ve been told this happens to everyone. Either I’m being lied to (I will find out and come after you), or I am human, and prone to self doubt. I’m choosing to believe the later. Anyway, I began to seriously doubt my story. Specifically my chosen style of first person present tense. I’m not even sure where the doubt came from. Maybe it was when I read a friend’s story and fell in love with it. It was written in third person, and her descriptions were so good they made my mouth water. Or it could have been from another friend’s story that made me cry. Literally. Tears falling from my eyes, with sniffles and everything. Of course, that was first person past tense.
Naturally, I began picking my story apart. That’s what any sane writer would do, right? Wait… is there such thing as a sane writer? Or is that an urban myth? Regardless, I began writing everything over again. I wrote a single chapter ten different ways. I’m not kidding. I wrote in past, in third, and changed from my male, to my female characters point of view, and back again. I was obsessed.
It still wasn’t perfect. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I picked each style apart, analyzed each change for days, and now I will share my findings with all you lucky readers. Here goes.
Third Person: There are times when this is the obvious choice. If you are writing a novel where something life threatening happen to one of your main characters, and you want the suspense to remain of whether they live or die, I think everyone would agree third is the best option.
When it comes to most romance however, It’s just another way to tell the story. There were pros and cons for me with this method. First, I could step away from the character a bit, which both allowed me to see the scene, and even the character a bit more. I’m not going to say better because it wasn’t. It was just different. I knew things about them maybe they didn’t know themselves. Removing myself from their head revealed things I hadn’t known before. (Do I sound crazy yet? ‘Cause these are real people with real pasts and real feelings, right?)
Setting the scene became easier. I could see it from above their heads, instead of through their eyes. This allowed some creative freedom that I really enjoyed. Third person also allowed a seamless transition from my female main character, to my male main character. The reference to he/she never changes in third person, thus preventing the confusion some reader have with figuring out who *I* is in that chapter or scene. The transition can be so smooth you almost don’t feel it happening.
There was a downside for me though, which lead to my biggest concern with telling my story in third person narrative. Readers expect to hear both character’s point of view. Now in some stories, this is a given. In mine, I worried about revealing too much, too soon. It became a big fear, and I agonised over it. Do you see a pattern here?
Next comes first person past. Oh, how I love this style of narrative. After a long and thorough exploration of my kindle, I would say most of my all time favorite novels have been written in this style. Number one being “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, I’m watching the series on Stars, and falling in love all over again. Did you know Diana was told she was crazy for writing in first person? Yeah. I’m not even going to say more about that.
Now obviously, first person past is very close to my current method of first person present, but there is a bit of a difference. It’s a story being told about the past. (I know, I’m brilliant for figuring this out.) Because of this, even thoughts and feelings your characters weren’t aware of in the moment, can be explored. Kind of like when you’re in an argument, and you can’t think of a single thing to say until you walk out of the room. It’s like that. You’re telling the story once you left the room. You can have that little bit of reflection that only comes when you step away from the moment. Honestly, It’s kind of like a super power.
First person present: Again, I do love this narrative. I think that’s why I chose it in the first place. Many of my favorite novels have been written this way. “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins being just one. This style allows you to walk with the character, feel everything they’re feeling, move as they do, and really become a part of them. I love that. Similar to first person past, though in present tense things happen much faster. This can be both good and bad, depending on the story you want to tell.
Anyway, this went on for weeks. I agonized over every word, I talked to my writer friends who held my hand, listened, and shared their thoughts. I committed to one method, then flipped back to another. I’m sure I drove them crazy, but they kept listening. You know who you are, and I love you all!
After flipping at least ten different ways, I came to a conclusion. You may want to sit down for this…There is no right way to tell a story. There is only a way that feels right to you. Maybe it won’t ever be perfect. Honestly, I’m guessing it wont. If you’re chasing perfect, chances are, you’re never going to find it. When I think about it, the artistic side of writing is actually what drew me in. Art will never be mastered, it will always have flaws, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Sometimes flaws are what make the story. The flaws in your characters, or even the flaws in the way it’s told. Sometimes being wrong, is what makes things right. I can think of a few authors who are torn apart repeatedly about their horrible writing, yet their novels make millions. Why? Because something they did worked. Because something others say is wrong is connecting with millions of readers.
I think my ‘Aha’ moment, came when a friend critiqued one of my chapters. It was one I shared before starting my walk with crazy, and it was written in first person present tense. When I read her critique, I was able to see the chapter through her eyes. I realized I loved it that way, that I would miss that connection I had with my protagonist. I would miss walking right by her side, and living each moment with her as it came. I was able to see that I enjoyed the story how it started. Is it perfect? No. Though I suspect it will never be.
Looking back, I can honestly tell you I don’t regret all the weeks I spent agonizing, I learned a lot from the experience. I learned about feelings my characters were having that I didn’t even realize. I was able to get into my male characters head, and it felt like I was meeting him for the first time. I learned about his past, which helps me understand why he does the things he does.
It turned out to be an great exercise, and I can see myself exploring it again in the future. Maybe next time with a bit less hair pulling. I recommend it to you too. Try it. What you discover may surprise you.