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Romance Novels: Do They Have to Be 3rd-Person/Past-Tense? #amwriting

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, before I went traveling throughout the southeast (southwest, from my perspective in Tennessee, since I was in Arkansas and Louisiana), we were discussing the expectations of Romance readers when it comes to what a “Romance” genre novel truly is, and what it should contain. Those two posts covered HEA/HFN endings and story structure. But what about the technicality of viewpoint—do romance novels always have to be written in third-person/past-tense?

What are Viewpoint, POV, or Tense, and Why Should I Care?

  • Viewpoint means the character(s) through whose eyes (inside whose head) the reader gets to experience the story.
  • Point of View (POV) means the “person” the narration is written in (think back to elementary school)—in first person, the narrative is written from the viewpoint of I, me, my, ours, we, etc.; in third person, it’s he/she/they, etc., even in the main characters’ viewpoints. (Second person—you, your—is very rare in fiction.)
  • Tense means the “time” of the prose—present tense means it’s written as if it’s happening right now (I go to the cabinet and open the drawer. I take out a knife . . .) and it’s usually used with first-person POV; past tense means it’s written as if it happened in the past—but the writer’s challenge is to still make it feel immediate (She opened the cabinet drawer and yanked out a knife . . .).

Now, as to why you should care . . . that’s going to take a little longer to try to explain.

Why Should You Care—As a Reader?
As a reader of romance novels, this may not be something you’ve given much thought to—especially since the majority of romance novels, both contemporary and historical, tend to be written in third-person/limited (only one viewpoint at a time, no head-hopping), with the viewpoints of just the two main characters (perhaps one or two additional important secondary characters) and in past tense. You may not have ever been able to identify it, but you know it when you see it. Just pick up any random romance novel sitting near you (I know there’s one there) and open it to the first page. Most likely, it’s third person and past tense.

But why is it 3rd/Past? Well, that’s the way it’s been written in for hundreds of years (think of Jane Austen) and it’s what the vast majority of the reading audience for the genre prefer—and, thus, what we expect when we pick up something labeled “romance”—just like we expect a happy/hopeful ending (HEA, HFN) and a focus on the developing relationship between the H/H. There’s a reason why the romance genre has the largest reader-base: because readers know specifically what we want in a book.

But how do you even know how to recognize it—and which one you prefer? Let’s do an experiment.

Original:
“I hate weddings.”

Flannery McNeill sank down on the top step of the broad stage as the rest of the wedding party gathered around the wedding planner. She didn’t need to hear all of the dickering and whys and wherefores. She just wanted the bottom line: where to stand, and how to get there.

“You don’t mean that.” A gorgeous man with sandy brown hair, vivid blue eyes, and dimples to die for plopped down on the step beside her.

Flannery looked at her boss, and friend, Jack Colby. “Yes, I do. A wedding is a flashing neon sign warning everyone that they’re never going to have the same relationship with these people ever again.”

Jack’s broad forehead creased. “What do you mean?”

Flannery braced her hands on the stage floor behind her and locked her elbows. “Take my sisters, for example. They were fine before they got engaged. But then they couldn’t carry on an intelligent conversation. They morphed into this unrecognizable we-us entity and couldn’t see anything in terms of me-I or make their own decisions.”

Jack laughed. “People just get caught up in the excitement of planning a wedding. They’ve both been married a long time—it can’t still be that bad.”

“Ha!” Flannery’s cheeks burned a little when several people turned at her echoing derision. “Emily was one of the youngest junior executives in the bank where she worked before she had kids—now she can’t even balance her own checkbook; her husband does it.”

Yes, that’s the beginning of Chapter 1 of Turnabout’s Fair Plain, as originally written in third-person-limited/past-tense. The book, as all of my books do, also includes the viewpoint of the hero, Jamie.

But what if I’d written it differently? Let’s see:

“I hate weddings.”

I sink down on the top step of the broad stage as the rest of the wedding party gathered around the wedding planner. I’m so sick of hearing all of the dickering and whys and wherefores. I just want the bottom line: where I’m supposed to stand, and how I’m supposed to get there.

“You don’t mean that, Flannery.” My boss, and friend, Jack Colby—a gorgeous man with sandy brown hair, vivid blue eyes, and dimples to die for—plops down on the step beside me.

I look up at him. “Yes, I do. A wedding is a flashing neon sign warning everyone that they’re never going to have the same relationship with these people ever again.”

Jack’s broad forehead creases with what I recognize as his confusion over what he calls girl-stuff. “What do you mean?”

I brace my hands on the stage floor behind me and lock my elbows for support. “Take my sisters, for example. They were fine before they got engaged. But then they couldn’t carry on an intelligent conversation. They morphed into this unrecognizable we-us entity and couldn’t see anything in terms of me-I or make their own decisions.”

Jack laughs. “People just get caught up in the excitement of planning a wedding. They’ve both been married a long time—it can’t still be that bad.”

Annoyed, I let out a loud, “Ha!” Then my cheeks burn a little when several people turn at the echoing sound. “Emily was one of the youngest junior executives in the bank where she worked before she had kids—now she can’t even balance her own checkbook; her husband does it.”

Although it nearly made my skin crawl to rewrite that passage in first person/present tense, even I’ll admit that’s a personal preference—I just don’t like reading (or writing) 1st/present in fiction. However, what other changes would that have made in this particular novel? Well, I wouldn’t have been able to include any of Jamie’s, Cookie’s, or Big Daddy’s viewpoint scenes—everything would have been only from Flannery’s viewpoint. Imagine if the movie You’ve Got Mail had been shown only from the Meg Ryan character’s viewpoint. We never would have known anything about Tom Hanks’s character—we never would have gotten Joe’s viewpoint, nor known that, deep-down, he’s really a nice person, not just some cut-throat businessman intent on putting Kathleen’s store out of business. And then we wouldn’t have been rooting for her to get together with him because we wouldn’t have known that he was worthy of her. (And to take that example even further, with another Ryan–Hanks outing, imagine if Sleepless in Seattle had been told only from Sam’s viewpoint—if we never knew anything about Annie except for the three random times Sam sees her: at the airport and from across the street when she’s stalking him, and the other at the very end when he’s just found his runaway child at the top of the Empire State Building. What kind of a romance would that have been?)

So, yes, as a reader, it’s important to know what you like when it comes to viewpoint/POV/tense.

Why Should You Care—As a Writer?
As a writer of romance novels, it’s your job to know what the expected conventions—including storyline, tropes, and technical aspects—are for your genre as well as for the publisher(s) (and/or audience) you’re targeting.

As readers, we like our romance novels to be written in third-person because it usually means we’re going to get the viewpoints of both main characters—and that’s something that we’ve not only come to expect but demand from our romance novels*.

      *Except for in certain subgenres of romance, like Gothic, in which we expect first person because of the reader expectations of that specific subgenre.

The biggest problem with trying to write adult-level romance in first person is because the definition of a romance novel is that it focuses on the developing relationship between the two main characters. That’s awfully hard to do when you only get the viewpoint of one of the characters. And dual (dueling) first-person POVs in a book are very hard on most readers—its so hard to tell, most of the time, whose viewpoint the scenes are in, especially when readers set down and pick up the book time and time again—it’s not always clear who the “I” character is.

The genre is ever growing and evolving, though. And it takes authors who push the boundaries to do that. Otherwise, we’d still be reading/writing the bodice-ripping headhoppers of the 1970s/80s/90s (or, for Christian/Inspy writers—prairie romances or the coming-of-age, tame/save the backslidden/ungodly hero stories of Grace Livingston Hill). And I’m not knocking any of those on either side of the market—I grew up reading them voraciously; however, when I go back and try to reread them now . . . yikes!

The authors who helped evolve the genre into what it is today were those who knew and understood the readers’ expectations and started out writing within those guidelines/expectations—then, once they’d created their audience/brand, they started subtly pushing the envelope and introducing their readers to new elements—the hero’s viewpoint, limited POV, [consensual initial sex encounter and non-virgin heroines in the general-market], [characters without squeaky-clean pasts and grittier/edgier subject matters in Christian/inspy], beta heroes and alpha heroines, etc. Once readers learned to like those elements, the market for books featuring those grew, and the former tropes diminished. But it took a long time. We romance readers like what’s familiar and don’t like to let go of it easily.

As we’re so accustomed to hearing from our mentors/instructors: You have to know the rules before you can break them. And learning the “rules” of writing romance means knowing the genre, its readers, and the expectations well. Which means extensive reading of the genre—especially if you’re pursuing traditional publication, you must read what the specific publisher is putting out to learn their expectations.

However, you can write your story any way you want to. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t do well when pitching it or with readers. You never know. There could be an audience out there waiting for exactly what you want to write. You’ll never know if you don’t try, especially if you feel strongly about breaking all the genre conventions. You may turn out to be the person who starts the next big trend in publishing. Just don’t be disappointed/surprised if you don’t.

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