Ninja Writer Academy is a weekly series. Every Saturday morning, I post a lesson here. You can do the work, then come share it on our Facebook group. I’ll be on Facebook on Sunday for Office Hours so we can discuss the lesson, or anything else writing related. If you’d like to join the Academy and get an email on Saturday with a link to the lesson, plus notification when Office Hours start, Click Here.
The Who + How Assignment
I thought this week we’d talk about a more technical aspect of writing. Tense and Point of View.
Tense refers to when in time your story is taking place. Point of View refers to who is telling your story.
The two main forms tense takes in fiction are past and present. There are multiple ways to write both past and present, and then there are future tenses as well, but we’re just going to talk about regular old past and present today.
Past is written from some point in the future, looking back. A good example is Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is told from the point of view of Scout as an adult, looking back on an incident from her childhood.
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” —To Kill a Mockingbird
Present is written in the here and now. Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games books are a great example of present tense done well. The story is told from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen as the story is unfolding.
“This is the first kiss that we’re both fully aware of. Neither of us hobbled by sickness or pain or simply unconscious. Our lips neither burning with fever or icy cold. This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest. Warm and curious. This is the first kiss that makes me want another.” —Hunger Games
There are pros and cons for both. Past tense is easier to write, in my opinion. It can be hard to stick in present tense and not slip out of it. Present tense has more urgency. It’s very popular with young adult books for that reason. But, the trade off for that sense of urgency is that there is very little room for reflection. There isn’t any time for thinking about things or analyzing them as they are happening. When you write in past tense, your narrator has the benefit of some hindsight, which gives your reader the same benefit.
Point of View
Point of View is lens the reader gets the story through. The story can be told in the first, second, third, or omniscient point of view.
First person point of view is told using the pronoun ‘I.’ The narrator is telling their story directly. If you think of point of view as a telescope, first person is a very close view of the story. Both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hunger Games books are written in the first person point of view.
Second person point of view is told using the pronoun ‘you,’ as if the reader were the point of view character. This is very rare, but it happens. Bright Lights, Big City is an example.
Third person point of view is told using the pronouns ‘he, she, they.’ It tells the story from a wider, one-step-removed point of view than first person. This is sometimes called third person limited, to distinguish it from third person omniscient, because the point of view is limited to which ever character is narrating at the moment. The narrator or narrators of a story with a third person limited point of view only knows what THEY know. The Game of Thrones is a good example of limited third person with lots of POV characters.
Omniscient point of view is the widest lens of all. It tells the story from far away, looking down at all of the characters at once. You could think of it as God’s point of view. Omniscient point of view is not limited to a point of view character, since the narrator is all knowing. The narrator in this type of story knows everything that everyone in the story knows. This is a rather old fashioned way of telling a story and it’s rare these days. The Book Thief is a good modern example of an omniscient narrator (it’s narrated by death.)
Your story will have at least one point of view character. In some cases, the POV character isn’t revealed to the reader, as with the Harry Potter books. In many books there is an alternating POV, so that in one scene or chapter you’re in the head of your protagonist, for example, and the next in the head of the antagonist. Many stories are told through the point of view of the main character, but any character can tell the story. In The Great Gatsby, for example, the point of view character is the protagonist’s neighbor.
Head hopping happens when the point of view mantel moves around from one character to another within the same scene. Do your best not to let that happen, especially if you’re a new writer. Stephen King and Christine Feehan can do what they want–and so can we when we get to that level. We aren’t there yet. A good rule of thumb is to stick with one POV per chapter, or at the very least per scene.
My work in progress is a Robin Hood retelling set in modern Las Vegas. The story is told in the past tense from the limited third person point of view of both my Robin character and my Marion character (Rob and Mattie, respectively.)
Here’s an example of Rob’s POV:
The house smelled of Jack—cigars and the expensive cologne that was his one vanity. His books lined the walls. There were clean dishes in the drainer.
Mattie had been right. Jack’s ghost was here. Rob wanted his father, suddenly, so hard that it hurt like someone had reached into his chest and squeezed his heart. His father would know what to do about Guy. He’d know what Rob could do or say to make Mattie okay.
His father could tell him why he’d given the Nott away and why Guy Gisborne was living in Locksley.
“You should have waited for me.” Rob turned and saw Mattie standing in the doorway with her hair damp, wearing sweat pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt despite the heat outside. “I would have come with you.”
“I know you would have.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
He shook his head. He’d thought he wanted to be alone, but he needed her here with him. “Please don’t go.”
She closed the door. “Are we looking for something specific?”
“I don’t know. Probably not.” Rob started toward his bedroom. “I’ll pack some things to bring over to your place.”
Guy had a look on his face that Mattie didn’t particularly like when she turned back to him. Gloating. Smug. When he was standing in front of her, she said, “This is insane. You know that, right?”
Guy came closer to her. He hesitated when she backed away, but didn’t stop until he was close enough to run his palm over her cheek. She froze, her stomach and heart both turning over.
“Please, don’t touch me,” she said, quietly.
“I love you, Matilda. You have feelings for me, too. I know you do.”
“I don’t,” she said. When his face fell, she added, “Not the way you want me to.”
“But, that night—“
“That night,” Mattie said, wishing she could suck that night back in, “was a mistake. It never should have happened.”
He inhaled, tilted his head closer to her. “Come to Locksley with me.”
“You aren’t listening to me.”
“We’re good together.” Guy took her hand, holding it tighter when she tried to pull it back. “I know you can see that.”
“We aren’t together.” She didn’t want to hurt Guy. He seemed fragile to her, like her rejection might break him. She stopped trying to take her hand back. “We’re friends. That’s all.”
He shook his head, lowering his gaze to their hands. “You’re really going to friend zone me?”
“It’s Rob, isn’t it? He came back, and now we’re just friends?” Guy threw her hand away and she stepped back from him.
“We’ve only ever been just friends.”
“Does he know that we’ve been together?”
A deep, sharp pain shot between Mattie’s eyes. “We aren’t together, Guy.”
Guy took her shoulders in his hands and dragged her closer to him. “We could be. Marry me.”
“Marry you?” A burst of laughter escaped just as she saw he was dead serious. “Guy, I can’t marry you. I’m not even old enough to get married.”
“Your dad will sign the consent.”
He sounded so sure. Mattie really was going to be sick. “You’ve talked to my dad about this?”
Guy went down on one knee.
“Oh, Jesus.” Mattie looked at the door to the conference room and considered making enough noise to bring Philip or one of the attorneys to come help her. “Guy, don’t do this.”
Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!
Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.
Nail down your POV and tense. If you just aren’t sure, think about rewriting a scene in another tense or point of view.
Come by Facebook and something that reflects your story’s POV and tense. I’ll be there tomorrow at noon PST for office hours.
Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.
If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link every week to the Academy post and an invitation to my Sunday office hours.
If you want some extra accountability for your Academy work, check out the Ninja Writers Kick-in-the-Butt Crew. It’ll help you get it done.