POV, Tense and Tension in YA Literature
As I embark on transforming my teenage horror screenplay The Shadows into a YA novel, I’ve been reading current YA novels to make sure my style is on trend. I haven’t worried about this in the past because I wasn’t writing with the “market” in mind. I grew up reading the classics of literature, so I’m not naturally in tune with wider pop cultural styles in fiction. In fact, I ‘m a bit older these days, so I really need to do some studying.
Dark Fantasy is a Very Popular Genre, Though…
I am in tune with my genre though, and as the Harry Potter generation comes of age, Fantasy and Magic and Dark Sorceries abound in YA literature. Films and TV also lean this way. This is a genre I have loved since I was a YA and even younger, ao my stories and poems have always had a paranormal, spooky, witchy quality.
The genre of Gothic, of Dark Fantasy began with the advent of the modern novel. The Gothic style in literature began in 1764 with the publication of the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. A few works and decades later, the works by Charlotte and Emily Bronte took this genre to the next level. The genre continues to morph along two divergent paths of the old romanticized, glamorized gloom, or outright graphic horror. Certain conventions are still in play, but, in YA, the writing style has changed.
First Person POV + Present Tense
I haven’t really enjoyed many YA books in my genre. I find them a bit flat and lacking in the depth and sense of mystery and menace that, for me, fuel these kinds of stories. This puzzled me until I realized almost every one of these books was written in Present Tense and First Person, either one or the other, or both.
First Person narration derives its power from the backward glance. usually the protagonist has traveled a long, adventurous road. They are reflecting on their past experiences and assessing how those experiences forged them into the person they have since become. First Person narration has the intimacy of the beckoning finger and the whisper, “Come, let me tell you my story.” Depth is gained by the teller’s foreknowledge of how the plot plays with the audience’s curiosity. The teller, now older and wiser, finally understands the meaning of their story. This generates a sense of growth and meaning in the reader as they reflect on their own pasts.
Present Tense, or a story told as it is happening, gives immediacy. Events seem to unfold in real time. Its the sensation you get when you are caught up in a movie or TV show. The plot can move very quickly with Present Tense, the protagonist is in a constant of surprise, and supposed suspense, though I have yet to read a YA book written in this style is very suspenseful. Why is that?
Sometimes I think the plots are too predictable: high school crushes, boy meets girl, one turns out to be gay, they go to the prom… Even in the scary stories there is this sort of prom element. (That’s why I put Twilight down after the first book) This is interesting because there is no genre that is so laden with conventions like the Gothic Genre: dark forests, creepy castles, graveyards, faded aristocrats, vampires, werewolves, full moons, witchcraft… I could go on. And that’s just it—-I could go on and on with the almost cliched elements that lovers of Gothic Fantasy thrive on. But in the best stories, there is still suspense.
So the issue isn’t about plot elements, its about dramatic tension.
First Person and Past Tense are made for each other, because the I character can remember and reflect, bring in premonitions, flashbacks, even sub plots.
In Present Tense, the I character has nowhere to go except into the action. This may be great for an Action Thriller, but how does a writer get any depth into the story? How does she sock in the wonderful layers of the past of both the I character and others who impact on him?
We are all used to Third Person, Past Tense. This works great because it allows the story to move in greater territories. This is the tradition of story-telling since old ladies drew children to sit by the fire as they spun their yarn and told stories.
I think Third Person, Present Tense has a lot of possibilities for writers who want to experiment with the omniscient POV. This combination can be very dramatic. It gives distance, but also deep involvement as the narrator seems to observe the action through a glass darkly. For Gothic fiction this suggestive, voyeuristic quality can lend the air of transgression or disclosed secrets that the genre thrives on.
So, why is First Person, Present Tense so often the choice of YA authors?
If you have an answer, I’d love to know.