Third-Person Present: POV and Tense as World-Building

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

Over the course of the last couple of months, I found myself picking up two books that had something rare in common: both were written in third-person present tense. I hadn’t encountered that combination much in romance, and while I enjoyed both books immensely, those narrative choices felt extremely noticeable to me, never really fading into the background of my reading experience.

In some ways, this goes against the conventional wisdom about narrative voice. I often hear it said that any tense/POV combination is acceptable as long as readers don’t notice it, and that the best writers can make even an “unconventional” narrative choice fade into the background. 

To the extent that I like immersing myself in a story without sweating the mechanics, this makes sense. I don’t want thoughts about verb tense to get in the way of the plot or characterization or feelings. But reading these two novels, I realized that there’s something intriguing about a tense/POV combination that wants to be noticed, that creates some rough edges in the narrative. How can third-person present – which I’ve seen described as “distracting” and “relentless” – use its unconventionality to good effect? That’s what I’m going to talk about today: two novels where the tense and point of view live close to the surface in a way that adds to, rather than detracts from, the reading experience. 

I’m going to start with Morgan Rogers’ Honey Girl, and a disclaimer: while I usually stick to genre romance on this blog, Honey Girl is not one, as the author herself has stated. In this case, the “Romance” in Close Reading Romance represents the presence of strong romantic elements in the plot: which I underline not because it had anything to do with how much I loved the book, but to be clear with readers and respectful of how the author herself classifies the book. 

Here’s a cover photo and blurb:

With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.
This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her parent’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows.
In New York, she’s able to ignore all the constant questions about her future plans and falls hard for her creative and beautiful wife, Yuki Yamamoto. But when reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood.

Buy links and content warnings can be found at the author’s website here.

Honey Girl opens on its main character, Grace Porter, in a moment of fundamental instability. Always a meticulous, reliable person, she has suddenly awoken in Vegas with the vague recollection that she married a woman she doesn’t know. The use of the present tense for the primary narration provides a stark contrast with the past of a marriage that doesn’t seem like it happened to the same person:

The hotel bed smells like sea salt and spell herbs. The kind people cut up and put in tea, in bottles soaking into oil and sealed with a little chant. It smells like kitchen magic. She finds the will to roll over into the warm patch. Her memories begin to trickle in from the night before like a movie in rewind. There were bright lights and too-sweet drinks and one club after another. There was a girl with rose pink cheeks and pitch-black hair and, yes, sea salt and sage behind her ears and over the soft, veiny parts of her wrists. Her name clings to the tip of Grace’s tongue but does not pull free.

The highlighted parts of this passage occur in a kind of temporal “high-contrast”: while of course it’s possible to talk about previous events in past-tense narration, Honey Girl‘s use of present-tense as the primary narration brings the past into starker relief.

Given the novel’s themes, it makes sense that the prose is constantly soliciting the reader’s awareness of time. A fundamental journey of this novel – perhaps more so than the romance – is about reconciling Grace’s past to her present and her future. There’s a moment, for example, where we learn how Grace met her two best friends. Unlike most other episodes from Grace’s past, which are narrated in the past tense, this one maintains narration in the present. The lack of a break in tense reminds readers of how present these friendships are to Grace: they have formed who she is, they sit with her in the same tense of narration from the very start. 

“Agnes is her best friend. Ximena is who she will grab on to when the world ends, and they will watch it burn to ash before they follow. They are two girls with their backs against the wall, and on the very good days, Grace likes their odds.
She meets Ximena for the very first time at the hospital where the Colonel is recovering…” 

It takes a lot longer for Grace’s Vegas marriage to a woman she eventually learns is named Yuki to become part of Grace’s present (and even longer to imagine it as part of her future). But the text still plays with Yuki and Grace’s relationship to time, leaving open all kinds of possibility. The first time that Grace listens to Yuki’s radio show, for example, she deliberately picks an episode from Yuki’s back catalog:

“Are you there?”
It’s Yuki’s voice, as clear as Grace remembers. 

As Grace listens to Yuki’s previously-recorded present tense narration, we watch her pulling Yuki forward into the future, even as she’s still struggling to imagine a romantic future for them together. 

The novel is constantly asking readers to be aware of time: not just in the narration of past and present events, but in the construction of prose passages as well. Something that struck me as I was reading is how the register of the text is almost aphoristic. Aphorisms are usually written in the present, to signify their timeless value, and often in the third or second person, to make them appear more generalizable. By writing the entire narrative in the present tense, mostly in third (and, in the prologue, second) person, Honey Girl’s aphorisms blend into the mundane details of the text, producing deliberately disjunctive sentences like this: 

“The balcony creaks and she makes a decision. There is only so much you can hold until you are holding too much. Grace can let this go. This one thing.” 

“Grace is trying to come to terms with her loneliness. It is not as clear-cut as being alone. She is not alone. But she finds herself missing the familiarity of Portland” 

The fact that tiny details like creaking balconies and the familiarity of Portland are on the same footing as loneliness and holding emotional weight isn’t just a nice bit of prose rhythm. It’s also destabilizing: it ties the broad and timeless to the here-and-now in a way that’s hard to ignore. The idea that humans are made up of the same stuff as the cosmos is fundamental to Grace’s work in astronomy, and these disjuncts in scale are fundamental to the ideas the novel tries to explore. So there’s something meaningful in the way the novel asks the reader to be as thoughtful as Grace, especially about differences in scale: between the present details of the every day, the pressing weight of the past, and the vast open unknown of the future.

Part of the reason I love Coffee Boy as a companion to Honey Girl is that the exact same tense and POV choices feel worlds apart in tone, yet both novels make the protagonist’s relationship to time and point of view a fundamental part of the fictional world. Here’s the cover and blurb for Chant’s novel:

After graduation, Kieran expected to go straight into a career of flipping burgers-only to be offered the internship of his dreams at a political campaign. But the pressure of being an out trans man in the workplace quickly sucks the joy out of things, as does Seth, the humorless campaign strategist who watches his every move.

Soon, the only upside to the job is that Seth has a painful crush on their painfully straight boss, and Kieran has a front row seat to the drama. But when Seth proves to be as respectful and supportive as he is prickly, Kieran develops an awkward crush of his own-one which Seth is far too prim and proper to ever reciprocate.

 Buy links at the author’s website here. Content warnings can be found here.

Both Rogers’ and Chant’s novels deal with characters who are on a journey to find their place in the world, and they have moments of disconnect from their own sense of self which echo poignantly in the third-person present narration. But the differences in the two also highlight the flexibility of what might otherwise seem like a rigid or awkward tense. Just a few glimpses of the narration of Coffee Boy show just how different it is: 

He squares his shoulders, gets up, and walks brusquely over to Seth’s door. He ignores Marie’s hurried protest and knocks, hard. Because honestly, fuck this guy’s phone call. 

He probably shouldn’t swear in front of his superiors, but his shift ended two minutes ago, so technically this is off the record. Ish. 

Scratch that- he doesn’t have the organizational skills to do either of those jobs. 

The conversational tone of “Honestly” and “Scratch that” and “Ish” are miles removed from the aphoristic tone of the present tense in Honey Girl. Instead, deep third-person POV in Chant’s novel creates a more informal relationship between Kieran and the readers, giving us the impression that we’re almost being spoken to directly. 

It’s that almost that kept floating to the surface of my consciousness as I read, though. I perpetually felt a sense of distance from Kieran that seemed meaningful, even through the temporal immediacy of the present tense.

Take, for example, the way Kieran and his boss – and eventual love interest – Seth are first presented:  

Kieran stands in the door for a long moment, his work-appropriate satchel clasped under his arm, feeling altogether more anxious than he wanted to. 

A tall, thin guy with black hair – Seth, presumably – glares down at Kieran from the doorway. He has a landline pressed to his ear, the cord stretching away toward a desk across the room.

What struck me here is that third-person ensures that Kieran and Seth are presented on a kind of equal footing. They are standing in similar poses, of course, but they are also described with the same sense of slight remove that the third person permits. Given their relative positions – Kieran as an intern and Seth as his supervisor – narrative moves that put them on more equal footing are particularly meaningful.

While first-person narration’s intense subjectivity allows a character full control of how the world is seen, at times it can feel like the reader has been granted unfettered access to the character’s brain. Keeping readers out can be a form of power as well. Like Seth, Kieran is granted a degree of power to be seen as he wants to be seen, from the outside, with a third-person narration that has a slightly broader mandate to let readers in or keep them out. 

There’s another way that the narrative uses the third person to allow Kieran to command respect, and the most important gap between first and third becomes thematically essential here: pronoun use. Keiran talks a lot about his experience of being misgendered by the people in his office. In fact, that’s the first kind of interaction he has at his new workplace. Third-person narration ensures that there’s at least one voice – the narrator’s – getting Kieran’s pronouns right every time. Let’s take a look back at the first introduction of Kieran, just to compare how it would read in first-person: 

Kieran stands in the door for a long moment, his work-appropriate satchel clasped under his arm, feeling altogether more anxious than he wanted to. 

I stand in the door for a long moment, my work-appropriate satchel clasped under my arm, feeling altogether more anxious than I wanted to. 

Unlike first-person narration, which in English carries few gender markers, the third-person passage uses Kieran’s he/him pronouns three times in one sentence. It’s well-established within the novel how important that is to Kieran: the first time he hears Seth correct someone on his pronouns, here’s how he reacts: 

There had been a magical moment of sheer relief when he’d heard a voice that wasn’t his own reminding Marie of his pronouns

The narrative itself, in opting for the third person, acts as that “voice that wasn’t his own.” It creates a space of consistent affirmation and draws the reader’s attention continually to it. This aspect of the narration is where I think the present tense also plays an important role. It reinforces the experience of Kieran being gendered correctly without effort, instinctually. This is something that is explicitly absent from his workplace, where coworkers “desperately try to remember” his gender or pause “for a long awkward moment to restructure a sentence around avoiding his pronouns.” Third-person present tense, in contrast, creates constant affirmation in the moment, without hesitation or retrospection, in a way that subtly builds the world that Kieran is not always able to find. 

In reading these two books, I experienced the tense and POV less as unobtrusive vehicles for storytelling, and more as elements of world-building. In Honey Girl, the moments I noticed switches in tense were also moments I was made aware of Grace’s relationship to past, her future, and her self-conception. Hearing Kieran’s third-person pronouns integrated in the moment, at every moment of the text, showed me an alternate world outside his office in which he could experience his narrative arc with safety and respect.

Tense and POV are these novels’ organizing principle, shaping not just how readers understand the characters, but also how they experience concepts as fundamental as time and the self. That doesn’t, of course, invalidate the fact that readers might simply not enjoy certain combinations of tense and point of view, nor does it mean that there aren’t degrees of skill in using them, leading to more or less discordant reading experiences. But reading these two books made me want to push back a little on the idea that tense and POV are best executed when they aren’t noticed. Seamless narration can be magical, but sometimes the seams are there to provide just a little bit of dissonance, a deviation from the norm, a signal to readers how to position themselves in the world of the text. 

One thought on “Third-Person Present: POV and Tense as World-Building

  1. Pingback: The Great Smut Debate: Point of View – The Smut Report

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