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  1. sean robins

    sean robins Member

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    Creating tension in first person POV

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by sean robins, Nov 11, 2018.

    I was jut wondering: it's understood that in the first person POV the narrator will end up surviving whatever he is going through since he is telling the story. The reader doesn't really expect the narrator to die, so how do you create tension?

    This brought me to my real question: If I feel the narrator is an old man sitting at his home by the fire telling a story that happened to him 50 years ago I'd be a lot less involved than when the narrator is telling the story that happened five minutes ago. How do you create the sense that the story has happened recently or even is happening now(other than narrating in present tense)?

    For example, I've found out phrases like "I later found out" and "this was the last time such and such happened"or anything that gives me a sense that the story is told much later kills the tension.

    Thank you all in advance:)
     
  2. MilesTro

    MilesTro Senior Member

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    Any good storyteller would keep the secrets to himself, no matter what. Since you want to write in the past tense, your character would already know what would happen next. But he keeps that information to himself until the end so the tension will build up. Don't reveal any secrets too soon and make your character a good storyteller.
     
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  3. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Well, there are countless sources of tension that are short of death. I assume that you're thinking primarily of a pure adventure story where death is the main stakes? But even there, there's the possibility of death of his friends, horrible experiences, whatever goal got him into the adventure in the first place, and so on.

    Past tense doesn't mean that the narrator is an old man. It's purely a grammatical choice.

    Imagine a friend comes to you and says, "I ordered extra fries. You want some?"

    You're not going to say, "You got extra fries? Past tense? Why do I care what you did ten years ago?" You're going to know that he ordered the fries moments ago, and that the outcome of that order is still coming up and unknown. Will they be underdone? Will they be burned? Will they come with tartar sauce? Aiee!

    OK, I'm getting weird. My point is that past tense doesn't mean that the whole story is over and the outcome already known.

    Sure, but past tense doesn't have to include that.
     
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  4. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There are uncounted losses a person can and will experience between birth and death. Death is not the only thing that serves as an anchor point for tension.

    I can remember when I lost my virginity.
    I remember the first time I found myself on the receiving end of genuine prejudice, the kind that was about to alter my life, not just inconvenience or annoy me.
    I remember the time I was on the receiving end of jurisprudence because of stupid choices, both in deed and acquaintance, all of which was my own making.

    Life isn't about just waiting to die. Lots of stuff happens in between.
     
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  5. sean robins

    sean robins Member

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    I got it:) I am just trying to find a way to emphasize immediacy. Avoiding those examples seems like a good start:)
     
  6. DeeDee

    DeeDee Contributor Contributor

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    The reader doesn't expect a character in a Romance to die either, and we know they are going to end up with a happy-ever-after ending, and still there's tension! Whoa, what a trick that is o_O. Or funny books. Why people read them? Nobody is in any sort of danger there. Cartoons? Tension doesn't mean scary stuff. Titanic sinks, they are all going to die, why are we sitting there for two and a half hours? Or crime series like Columbo, where we know what's going to happen, we see how the crime is being done in the beginning and we know that that clever detective will catch the perpetrator, so what keeps us watching? Well it's the fact that the reader/viewer has to be kept wondering, "What will happen next?".

    I honestly don't understand what you're asking here. Tenses and context tell us when the story happened. The time of when a story happened have nothing to do with tension.
     
  7. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Can you clarify what you mean by immediacy? I have some idea, but an expanded explanation of your specific goal might bring you more advice.
     
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  8. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    I could be wrong, but it sounds as though you're not just looking for ways to raise the stakes, but rather ways to atmospherically increase urgency. If this is the case, I would suggest focusing heavily on pacing. Be brief. Use economy of language. Don't stop to explain. Rapid-fire events in moments of high action or high-drama. Etc. All that being said, a big part of pacing a story is knowing exactly when to inject the adrenaline. You don't want your narrative careening down the autobahn at full speed the whole time, but these are helpful devices when you do want to use a higher gear.

    Another trick here might be to simply scare the narrator. If he or she is sweating bullets and for good reason, the reader will too. It's no different from writing third person in that respect, regardless of tense. Let us know how and why the character is afraid, whether it's over current physical peril or even inflated concerns over trivialities down the road. "I was utterly frozen with fear." is just as effective as "Harry Potter was utterly frozen with fear." "Frozen with fear" is trite though. You should definitely use better metaphors than I'm apparently willing to think up right now.

    Don't forget, we're all very accustomed to reading in the past tense. Most of us still form pictures of the events in our mind as if they're occurring word by word. So avoid the exact examples you gave that draw us out of the moment and into the "present", and I think you'll be fine.
     
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2018
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  9. sean robins

    sean robins Member

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    I'd love to hear your ideas;)

    What I mean by immediacy is I want to create a sense that the action happened a moment ago. Let me give you an example: There is a scene where my MC is in a courtroom, being sentenced to death (to be carried out two weeks later). The scene itself is fine, but right before the section break, I have this (after he is taken to prison):


    I did not just sit on my hands, waiting for my appointment with the guillotine. During the first ten days in prison, I tried to start a riot, but one of the people I talked to turned out to be a snitch, and the guards nipped that in the bud. Then I tried to break out. Twice. I got caught both times. After the second attempt, the prison officials got fed up with my antics. The guards beat me up until I wished I were dead and threw me in solitary for the rest of the last week.

    In a way it's a terrible example since I have already decided to rewrite it into the MC's thought process in the beginning of the next scene, but it illustrates my problem. I don't want to spend a couple of scenes showing how he tried to escape because it's not integral to the plot. The way it is now, it sound like there is an old man telling this story fifty years later (IMHO).

    and today I realized it's not only my first person POVs. Look at this at the middle of an action scene:

    His mouth set in a hard line, Kurt gunned down several enemy soldiers, using his machine gun with such precision it could very well have been a sniper rifle.

    My POV here is middle-distant limited third person. Again, I feel like this was reported a long time after the action was finished:(

    Thank you for your help:)
     
  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I see this as an issue with narrative summary, rather than an issue with past versus present tense. My first try at fixing it would be to go to scene rather than summary, and let the scene communicate what happened in the interim.

    A hurried example:

    Thirteen days later I woke to what was most likely my last glimpse of sunlight, a shaft of sun that entered my cell for a bare few minutes every day at dawn. It was the only charm that the filthy cell could boast of--I'd been in solitary for four days, after my second escape attempt exceeded the last of the guards' patience. The process of changing residence had included a beating; as I stood, the better to enjoy the brief warm light, I wondered if the sharp pain near my heart meant a broken rib. Odds are I wouldn't live long enough to find out. Certainly not long enough to heal.

    A key rattled in the door, and I fought panic. Too early for a meal. Had I miscalculated the day? Was this my executioner?

    Again, this looks to me like narrative summary rather than scene. Can you present the events rather than summarizing them?

    Kurt scanned the courtyard, forcing calm. Frantic automatic fire was not an option; he had no bullets to waste. Two soldiers walked down the long dark corridor, both of them calm, one even smiling. They hadn't seen him yet. The man at the south gate, on the other hand... (etc., etc.)
     
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  11. Rzero

    Rzero Reluctant voice of his generation Contributor

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    I get it now. @ChickenFreak is absolutely right. You're explaining what happened target than writing the scene. You've probably heard this before, hell, I've said it a number of times this week myself. The first page of every writer's manual, the first lesson in every creative writing class is "show, don't tell." Is a damned cliche, but that's because it's everyone's first pitfall. Unless you just want to rush through a bit of background exposition, you should be explaining each of those events. Take us through the scenes one by one. Start with the day you arrived. Explain how that looked and sounded and felt. Write it as if it's a story by itself, even if it only last a paragraph or two. Then move on to the riot attempt. Explain how you came to the decision, who you spoke to and what that was like. Next the guards came to get you. That's when you knew you'd trusted a snitch... and so on.

    Each of these points you rushed through is an opportunity to take us on another part of the adventure and will automatically come off as more immediate, real and present if you do. It sounds like a good book that you're robbing me of the opportunity to read.
     
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  12. sean robins

    sean robins Member

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    Thirteen days later I woke to what was most likely my last glimpse of sunlight, a shaft of sun that entered my cell for a bare few minutes every day at dawn. It was the only charm that the filthy cell could boast of--I'd been in solitary for four days, after my second escape attempt exceeded the last of the guards' patience. The process of changing residence had included a beating; as I stood, the better to enjoy the brief warm light, I wondered if the sharp pain near my heart meant a broken rib. Odds are I wouldn't live long enough to find out. Certainly not long enough to heal.

    A key rattled in the door, and I fought panic. Too early for a meal. Had I miscalculated the day? Was this my executioner?




    Wow!! This is excellent. I wish I could write like this:(

    Where is the sunlight coming from in a windowless cell? And why does it last only a few minutes? Pardon my lack of imagination. I'm sure there is a good answer for it.

    I wrote that paragraph into the beginning of the next scene too, but mine is more a reflection on the last two weeks events. The way you write it into action is genius.
     
  13. sean robins

    sean robins Member

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    Unless you just want to rush through a bit of background exposition, you should be explaining each of those events.

    That's just it though. The scene (courtroom, sentencing the MC to death) was important. The execution scene is pivotal. What happened in between has no bearing on the plot, so i wanted to rush through it to get to the good parts. If i completely remove this paragraph it makes no difference in the story, but I think it is shows the MC's never-give-up attitude.

    That said, as both you and @ChickenFreak have correctly mentioned, i have a tendency to summarize. It does not happen all the time, but a lot. I am going to through my manuscript and try to find them all. Thank you both:)
     
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  14. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Not sure. :) Sometimes I write these things into first drafts (of a scene, not a whole book) and get them solidified in later drafts.

    I'm imagining that at dawn, the sun that's nearly on the horizon comes in through a window at the end of the corridor that begins across from his cell, and travels in through the bars of his cell, but as it rises in the sky it's gone. Or maybe his cell is in a poorly maintained building, so sun actually comes in through one crack in the wall itself, but, again, it's blocked when it rises in the sky.

    Thirteen days later I woke to what was most likely my last glimpse of sunlight, a shaft of sun that entered my cell through the bars of the door for a bare few minutes every day at dawn.

    Thirteen days later I woke to what was most likely my last glimpse of sunlight, a shaft of sun that entered my cell through a crack in the crumbling bricks for a bare few minutes every day at dawn.
    (This one is more problematic because the reader would think, "That's the escape!" and I'd have to waste words explaining that he tried and failed to pry away the bricks.)

    Or I sit down for the second draft of the scene and say, "Eh...implausible," and the bit of comforting normality becomes the scent of the morning coffee made by one of the guards--never shared with him, but he takes pleasure in the scent.

    The purpose is an immediate sensory event that draws us in (so I make it pleasant) and anchors us into the story present, so that we can be pulled gently into the past (the escape attempts and the beatings) and the future (the imminent execution.)
     
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  15. DeeDee

    DeeDee Contributor Contributor

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    It doesn't sound like that to me but I think your problem is with the "voice" not with the "immediacy". If your character sounds (to you) like "an old man" then it's probably because the way he's telling the story seems calm, like he's not in danger at the moment when he's telling it, like the events don't affect him at the moment, he's safe and he's taking his time because there's no hurry. That's all a matter of voice (and how you imagine an old man vs a young man would talk). For best results you could focus on that character's state of mind. If he's being freshly sentenced would he be scared and jittery or would he be in peace, or sad or nervous or angry or what. And write his speech in a way that reflects that.
     
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