Tuesday, April 8, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Two Persons, Two Tenses

NOT LONG AGO, I enjoyed Singularity, the latest Jevin Banks novel from bestselling thriller writer Steven James. This is a book that is told from two narrative points of view: one is that of Jevin Banks (the protagonist), and the other is that of a general, limited narrator. As the story occasionally talks about other characters, even when it is in Jevin's voice, one would think this would become confusing, although it never did. 
   I was about a third of the way into the novel, wondering how Steve accomplished this, when it struck me: when the story was being told from Jevin's point of view, it was being told in first person, present tense, but it shifted to third person, past tense when the more general narrator took over.
   When I realized this, I laughed aloud (earning me a quizzical look from my wife, who was sitting next to me on the lanai).
   You see, in my 2009 novel, Pirate Hunter, I also had two narrative points of view, one historical and one contemporary. To distinguish one from the other, I told the former in third person and the latter in first person. And later, when I spoke to my beta readers, all reported that they had no issue keeping the two stories separate. They knew immediately which point of view they were in when they went to a new chapter. But they didn't know why they knew.
   In Singularity, Steve went the further step of changing tense, as well as person, and as a writer who'd done something similar, you'd think I would have picked up on it right away. But I didn't: not until I noticed how easily the two points of view remained distinct, and wondered why that was.
   Jevin Banks, the protagonist of Singularity, is a magician, which is appropriate, because the person and tense shifts in the narrative are like a magician's illusion: amazing until you understand how it is accomplished, and then it becomes simple.
   And the ability to accomplish those person and tense shifts is a great skill for any novelist: a way to have the intimacy and immediacy of a first-person, present-tense narrative, plus the more general scope of a conventional novel. 

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