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from Two Brothers Press

290Here are links to other
writing tips:

Fastest Gun in the West: writers often assume readers will fill in the details

Dialog: The elements and art in dialog

Novel Openings: Creating compelling openings for novels

Description: The red meat of storytelling.

Flashbacks: Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback

Freelance Pitfalls: Editors, Beware of Disturbed Writers; Writers, Beware of Editors with an Attitude...

Word Oddites: Is it Bring or Take? It depends on the destination...really.

Narrative Voice in Storytelling

a discussion of point of view and verb tense and how these elements affect the story

storyteller Probably one of the most important decisions a writer can make is to decide on (and stick to) a narrative voice through which to tell the story. The narrative voice will include two elements, each of which must be consistent throughout the story-telling process. The first is point of view, and the second is verb tense.

Narrative point of view can be one of the following:

Third-person omniscient
Third-person limited
First person
Second Person

Later, we'll discuss why mixing the narrative point of view can be existentially devastating to the logical sense of the story. We will also discuss why mixing first-person narration with present tense can cause existential chaos. Be aware that there are good writers and editors who will vociferously disagree on this point (about first-person, present tense), but I'll go out on a limb here and declare that in most cases, they're dead wrong. I'm using "existential" here to mean the logic of existence in time and place. Or "How can a dead person be telling a story?" The existential answer is he cannot, unless we get into a story involving the spirit world, ghosts that can word process, or channeling by another person.

Narrative verb tense can be either of the following:

Past tense
Present tense

(Although one can argue that narrative verb tense can also be other tenses, like future, past perfect, and conditional, they are subsets of either the past tense or present tense narration.)

We're now going to talk about the combinations of point of view and verb tense to get the full narrative voice one can choose through which to tell the story.

Third-person omniscient, past-tense narrative verb tense.
Such a voice is the most common way in which works of fiction are written. Here is an example of this Narrative Structure from "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor...

GoodMan-O'connerThe grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

Note that the narrator is some unseen voice telling this story. None of the characters is telling the story, but in the opening, we are in the consciousness of "the grandmother." We see what she wants and doesn't want. In the opening we see the scene through her eyes and see whom she sees, and we get her voice in the dialog. (Her "voice" is the way she speaks, most  indicative is "aloose.") Now note that the verbs in the narrative (not the dialog) are all in the past tense or some derivative of the past tense: "didn't want,"  "wanted," "was seizing,"  etc.

So we have third-person, past-tense narrative.

Third-person omniscient, present-tense narrative verb tense.
Now, let's take a look at third-person, present-tense narration as it could have been written by O'Connor:

The grandmother doesn't want to go to Florida. She wants to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she is seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey is the son she lives with, her only boy. "Now look here, Bailey," she says, "see here, read this," and she stands with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head...

From these two examples of third-person narration, it should be obvious that the writer can choose the verb tense from which to tell the story, either past tense or present tense.

First-person (limited), past-tense narrative verb tense.
In first-person narration, we can also choose either present tense or past tense. In either tense, however, the story is being told from the point of view of a character in the story. The story is necessarily limited and differs therefore from the "omniscient" third person. If a person is telling his or her own story, we can only know what the first-person narrator directly observes and experiences, or what other characters tell him or her. In a practical sense, the first person narrator cannot know what others are thinking, seeing, or hearing—only what they say and do in the narrator's presence. This limitation can be a strength, in that we can put ourselves in the place of the narrator and experience the story in a most personal way. Of course, the narrator might have the ability to read minds, astral project, or other powers, and in that case, the first-person narration is not limited.

Let's take a look at this first-person narration in the past tense, from Ronald L. Donaghe's The Salvation Mongers:

SalvationMongersCollect call from William...These are the words that ended it all or, perhaps explain how it all began, because when William came on the line, all I heard before the gunshot was his sobbing. That was October 1, 1997. By then, I had known William for a little over six years. What I did after that night and how I ended up here in the middle of nowhere in an army tent with ten other guys, scribbling these words on a sheaf of blank paper, is the subject of this journal.

Note that, while the overriding tense is past tense, it allows for slipping into and out of other tenses, depending upon the time line. For example, if a narrator is taking us into a flashback (something that started in the past and ended in the past), then he/she uses past-perfect tense to get us into the flashback.

Thus far, we have taken a look at the two most common narrative points of view, omniscient and first person. There is a third narrative point of view—that of second person. This point of view is a narrator speaking directly to the audience (and probably bouncing back and forth between first and second person: I/You. It is very rare to find this point of view in fiction, so we won't discuss it here.

Earlier, I said that we would discuss the problems of mixing narrative points of view as well as mixing first-person narration with the present tense.

First-Person, Present-Tense Narration
This is a very dangerous and awkward narrative choice, fraught with all kinds of problems. For examples of these problems, I will have to use a new and unseasoned writer without mentioning his name. One young writer recently sent me a story, written in first-person, present-tense narrative in which the opening was how the narrator had just slit his wrists and was bleeding profusely. As his life is rapidly draining out of him, it doesn't apparently stop the narrator from sitting on the porch steps and reflecting on his life (and presumably writing about it sometime after this scene). Upon further reflection, he decides to go see his friend; so, bleeding profusely from slit wrists, he gets in his car and drives to his friend's house, parks about a block away, and walks up to the front door, knocks, and waits on his friend to answer it. Then, when the friend answers the door, they sit on the couch and talk. "I faint," says the narrator, and now that he's unconscious, we still get him writing the story. In his unconscious state, he relates his feelings to the readers, how it feels to be unconscious, the peace he feels, the freedom. Now, we're getting into very murky existentialist concepts.

No, this is not a supernatural story. It then moves to the second chapter, switches to third-person omniscient, present tense, in a scene between the cops and the friend the young man has gone to see, where we get a series of questions and answers. And then the first-person narrator switches to the friend of the young man who slit his wrists, and we get his story from the present tense, as well.

Obviously we want to know, are the two friends sitting somewhere jointly writing their story ? We have to assume, even when a story is written in present tense that there is a time after the story has taken place when the first-person narrator takes the time to write. Can a first person narrator die in his own story and "live" to write about it? These are obviously existential questions that will drive readers away from the story. This example is also one in which we get mixed narrative point of view:

  • First-person narration (first character), present tense
  • Third-person omniscient narration, present tense (and the story having to be told from a non-character)
  • First-person narration (another character), present tense

In other words, there is no consistent point of view; there is also an extremely challenging and chaotic existentialism going on here. The story loses all focus, and readers are bounced around like passengers in a puddle jumper, flying at low altitude in a stormy sky.

The solution is to have the story narrative written in third-person past tense, to make room for the points of view of the suicidal young man, the friend, and any other characters who might have thinking parts. So my advice to this writer was to rethink the narrative structure.

I had a somewhat different example from another writer who started his first-person narration at the end of the story. He is sitting next to a cliff writing the story that he has just lived through. While it was not in the present tense, it still had the difficulty of existential logic. Once we've read the story we're back to the narrator sitting in a chair, next to a cliff, writing his story. But this time, the narrator is attacked by the character in the story who has caused the narrator all his problems and sends the narrator over a cliff onto the rocks below. So, this first-person narrator presumably died and yet "lived" to tell about it at some later, later time. It was also not presented as a supernatural story.

These are the kinds of problems that writers must determine early in the writing process. If the story is going to be written in the first person, it is very dangerous and existentially nonsensical to also write it in the present tense. And if it is written in the past tense, we still can't have the narrator die, unless the writer can find a smooth way of having the narrator die and his writing be discovered sometime thereafter and close in third person, which begs the question: why not have the first-person narrator's story framed in the beginning by that third-person narrator who discovers the person's writing and tells the readers up front: I found this notebook and here's what was in it.

I would hazard a guess and say the vast majority of fiction is written in third-person omniscient, past tense; I would also say that most first-person narrative stories are also written in past tense. Then some fiction is written in third-person, present tense, but not nearly as often as the first two narrative structures. And finally, I would say that few stories are written in first-person, present tense, without some existential chaos.