Now and Then in Novels

Last week I told you about Now and Then in my actual life, but every novelist lives in at least two worlds.

now and then in novelsNovelists wake up to one world every morning, but another always lives in our imaginations. Sometimes that imaginary world even creeps into our dreams.

Imaginary worlds have Now and Then, too. Every story has action in the present, but it also has moments where readers learn about the events that occurred before the book began. How an author introduces those events, past and present, has everything to do with how well a book works and whether a reader can sink into it and begin to live the story along with the characters.

The Perfect Daughter is a perfect example.

While I’ve known all along that I would write my new novel in first person, I assumed I would use the same first person point of view I’ve used in both my Ministry is Murder mysteries and more recently in When We Were Sisters. That point of view is called First Person past. Need an example?

Let’s take a few sentences from my first draft of chapter one, which may or may not appear in my story:

I pointed to my office window, more like a porthole close to the ceiling, a window too small to view much other than a Frisbee sailing back and forth. “The party’s going to fade to nothing unless you get back there. You’re the only one who can convince them to eat too much.”

Sophie made a noise low in her throat. It was the same noise she made when she conducted a preliminary interview for our podcast and didn’t believe what she was told.

You’ll note the narrator uses “I”. We aren’t being told about her. If we were, that introductory sentence would begin: She pointed to her office window…

In first person we’re inside the main character’s head. We’re listening to her tell her own story.

You may also have noticed that she’s telling the reader what she “did.” When she says “I pointed to my office window,” we know this is something she’s already done, perhaps just a heartbeat before. But it happened. It’s finished.

Did I start my first draft this way?

No, without giving the matter any thought, I began this chapter in First Person Present. Here’s a similar snippet from that first attempt:

I point to my office window, too high above me to see much other than a Frisbee sailing back and forth. “Nobody’s going to miss me immediately, but the party will dwindle to nothing without you. Besides, no one else can convince them to eat more food than’s good for them.” 

Sophie makes a noise low in her throat. It’s the same noise she makes on the telephone when she’s conducting a preliminary interview about a case we’re working on and doesn’t believe what she’s being told.

Can you see the difference? My character is describing what she does exactly as she does it. “I point” means she’s doing it as she tells the story. “She makes a noise” describes what another character is doing at that exact moment.

So how do I decide which way to go?

Writing the book this last way felt right. It felt easy. I was having a ball. Then everything ground to a halt. Suddenly I realized my writing had taken an unusual turn, and I had an entire book to write that way. I also knew, from keeping my ear to the ground, that books in present tense are a problem for many readers. There’s something too immediate, perhaps sometimes, too cute, too quirky. Did I want to risk that? And was it the right voice for this story, which is neither cute nor quirky and needs a careful recounting of facts?

What did I decide about now and then? Well, it’s tricky. I will say that above and beyond everything else, a story should be told in whatever way best conveys the theme, sinks deep into the minds of the characters, and engages the reader for a roller coaster ride to the finish. For now I think I know which will serve this book best. But we’ll see.

Now and then.

Something tells me I’ll be thinking a lot about this in the next months. How about you? Does the way an author tells a story affect your enjoyment? Will you read a novel set in present tense? Or don’t you notice as long as you’re captivated right away by the characters or plot?

Let me know.


  1. Nelda Steffen on April 18, 2018 at 9:56 am

    For me most of all can I put myself into that story and whether it is realistic.

  2. Nancy Lepri on April 18, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    I like a novel written in the first person as it makes me feel as though that person were talking directly to me.

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