I have been assailed lately by books in the present tense, which I am assured is not only my experience. (It might be a trend, if not just a thing that lots of blossoming authors do before they learn better.) At first, I wasn’t sure what it was about these encounters that was really disturbing me, until I did some quick research. It seems, most of the time at least, reading in the present tense is distracting. So, I wanted to explore this further, as well as other narrative mode issues and basics. It’s one of those things that is important, but can be more complicated than is good for any of us.
Personally, as a new novelist, I struggled with switching tenses between past and present. (I do it as a blogger, all the time. My apologies.) Thanks to my editor, I believe that was all sorted out before Benevolent hit the book shelves AND I have learned enough that I do it less, on the first draft, now. I also believe that I like to switch voices between omniscient and limited. I find myself wondering if this is a matter of “voice” (as in, my personal sound as a writer), instead of a strict need to stick to one “voice” (as in, narrative voice). Wow, that’s a little confusing.
Here is a primer, needed as much by me as by anyone who might read this. For the purposes of The Starving Artist, I am talking in terms of fiction writing, and mostly in terms of novels.
Narrative mode is the way that a story is told. It can be broken down into point of view, voice, and time tense.
POINTS OF VIEW
First Person–In first person, the narrator participates in the story. Their account can be untrustworthy or skewed, since they are involved and limited (like all of us). Occasionally, first person can be in the plural. The first person narrator can be a major or a minor character. (Rarely, this character can be omniscient.) Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. I, me, mine. Our, ours.
Second Person–you, your, yours. The narrator speaks to the reader. Used very rarely (except in song-writing). Examples: Choose Your Own Adventures; Absolom! Absolom!, William Faulkner.
Third Person–Narrator is not a character, but can reveal how characters feel. He, she, they, it. (Never an “I” or “you.”) Examples: Just about any novel you’ll pick up on your bookshelf. For better understanding of this point of view, see narrative voice, below.
Generally, books choose one POV and stick to it, but sometimes they change perspectives. Examples: Harry Potter series (third person limited, except for occasional omniscience to other characters); The Poisonwood Bible (first person with occasional third person).
More complicated points of view can include flashbacks (Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome), serial first person points of view (William Faulkner, including The Sound and the Fury), or epistolary writing (using letters from one or more persons, see below).
Character–The narrator is a living being. May or may not be a part of the story or reliable (as opposed to unreliable, subjective, or even naive), but is an identifiable entity. If the narrator is in the action, they are called the viewpoint character. Examples: To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee; The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Third Person Voices
- Objective–Objective narrator, never divulging more than action and dialogue (never character’s feelings, etc). Unbiased narration, without interpretation. Can reveal what characters do not know. Examples: Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway.
- Omniscient–Narrator knows and can reveal everything about all the characters. Examples: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien, and lots and lots of others. Also universal omniscient, in which the narrator reveals things even the characters do not know. Example: A Series of Unfortunate Events series, Lemony Snickett.
- Subjective/Limited (Omniscient)–Narrator knows and can reveal everything about only one character, either major or minor. Examples: Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell; most of Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling.
Stream of Consciousness–Attempt at replicating the thought process. Is usually first person. Examples: Ulysses, James Joyce; To the Lighthouse, Virgina Woolf.
Epistolary–Conveying the action through a series of letters, by one or more persons. Examples: Frankenstein, Mary Shelley; Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding.
Past–Events in the story take place before the present or before narration was composed. Examples: Almost all books. Had, was, ran.
Present-– Events are depicted as taking place now. Have, is, runs.
Future–Events take place in the future. Examples: None, that I could find anywhere. Will have, will be, will run.
Of course, all of these narrative modes can change throughout the story, but that is not as common as sticking with one, at least basically. Purposefully changing narrative mode has been used to very successful, and powerful, effect. Randomly switching around, on the other hand, is the mark of a novice writer.
So here is the thing. Most writing is third person omniscient in past tense. Hardly ever are you going to find a second person epistolary in present tense. Or whatever. The main reason? Using narrative modes other than the common can be very distracting to the reader. Changing narrative modes can also be distracting. Or at worse, annoying. We are used to reading past tense, used to reading in the third person. The very thing that you choose to make your story stand out or draw attention to something special about your story (like how cool and collected the antagonist’s best friend is or how a character is going to die and become a ghost at the end of the events related), may be what keeps people from reading the thing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or should never. There are examples of successful execution in most of the narrative modes, with the exclusion of future tense and very few in objective third person.
Dubious that anyone should attempt present tense, I surfed the internet and came up with these examples:
- The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins. “I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.”
- The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger. “The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble.”
- House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III. “I pull my sack over my shoulder and to Mr. Torez I say, ‘In my country, I could have ordered him beaten.'”
- High Fidelity, Nick Hornby. “’Have you got any soul?’ a woman asks the next afternoon.”
- Parts of David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. “‘And how is Master David?’ he says, kindly. / I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.”
And actually, a brief categorization-in-the-mind of my own writing leaves me a little surprised: I thought I always wrote third person past because it is the most natural, but I have a recent short story in the limited voice and write many of my poems in the second person.
So next time I start a poem, story, or book, I am going to ask myself, “What is the point of view, voice, and time tense?” And then, “Is that the best narrative mode for this work?” If I come up with any answer other than the most common, I will have to weigh two additional things: will I be able to keep the reader reading through the distraction of it? and do I think I can pull it off, as an author?
For further reading on first versus third person writing, see a great blog article by a fellow author, Nathan Bransford.