Monday, April 23, 2007

Style, Part Two: Tense and Point of View

From the top-- Third person, Past tense:

Most stories occur in the past tense, and are conveyed with a third-person point of view. This is the classic way of telling a story, with a narrator describing the action as it happened in some historical episode.


Grim faced, Fred took up his sword and called for his armor. They girded his mail across his shoulders and held forth his shining helm. The women of the castle wept at the sight of him, so awful was his rage. Taking his retinue, he set out to the west gate, prepared for battle.

“If I do not return, remember me not for today, but for how I lived in the good, many years of peace,” he called out. These were the last words anyone heard him utter.

As you can see, the past tense, third person point of view is useful and comfortable. It allows us to tell stories that involve a great many characters and settings, since we don't rely on a character in the story to relay the information. In classical storytelling, the narrator knew all that occurred, and could convey both factual information and internal thoughts and emotions of all the characters. The classical storyteller could “hop from head to head” within a scene, conveying whatever information was required. This is called the Third Person Omniscient point of view.

More about the past tense:

The past tense is a distancing tense, however. Things are not in the process of happening. Rather, they have already occurred, and all that remains is to relate the tale of deeds and words. It is a conceptually understandable format, where no suspension of disbelief is required. What it gives up in immediacy, it gains in simplicity.

A drawback that some may encounter with the past tense is that, when referring to an event further in the past than the time frame at issue, it will require the use of the past perfect tense. This can “slow” the flow of information, and some verb forms become ugly in the past perfect, as well. The past perfect tense looks like this:


Many years before, the mill pond had been the backdrop for a tragedy. A young Gavelbohn, having been scorned by his lover, set upon a peasant and slew him out of hand. Years later, when Gavelbohn had become king, people still talked of the incident, saying that his eyes had been wild as a boar's.

The present tense:

The most frequent alternative to the past tense would be the present tense. In this tense, things are happening in real time. It is a very immediate tense, though it can prove nettlesome in some cases, since the flow of information must be handled carefully. Also, some readers have a hard time “believing” the present tense, since stories obviously take place in the author's mind, and the process is far from immediate.

A big plus to the present tense is that it “pushes” the action. Since all the verbs indicate current action, it lends the text vitality it might lack in the past tense. Also, the present tense allows you to use the simple past tense for previous events, thereby virtually eliminating the past perfect from your area of concern.


Angelina sits up, looking around. The battlefield stretches in all directions, smoke and dust rising up to meet the purple dusk. Her head aches. She can feel the sharp rasp in her ribs that tells of fracture points. The smell of old blood, fire, and spent gunpowder is cloying and horrible, but the noise of the killing field is muted.

“It's over,” she whispers. “We lost.”

A carrion bird flutters to the ground, studying her with its ebony eyes. It pecks at a fallen soldier's lifeless palm, pulling free a small chunk of flesh. Angelina wants to scream out, to shoo the bird away, but the sky turns pale in her vision. She gasps, and all returns to a blessed blackness.

In the example, I used a third person, present tense format. You'll notice that I restricted myself to the information that the character in question could know. The third person, limited point of view allows you to only take the part of one character per scene, so that the whole scene must be told from that character's point of view. Just because another character knows something or feels an emotion, that is not obvious to the current point of view character. Most modern stories are told in the third person limited point of view. Many people prefer it, since it “keeps the author honest” by making him/her stick with one character and examine that character's point of view. If in doubt, use the third person limited, past tense. It's the most common tense. The present tense, as above, is a somewhat more advanced technique, and will require you to edit carefully. It'll be tempting to drift back into the past, and you'll have to watch yourself all the time.

First Person:

Many of the stories that people tell orally will be first person narratives. They're the most natural form of story around. They tell a story in which you are the main character, or at least a present member of a group that can act as a chronicler. First person stories, like present tense point of view, tend to be fast and immediate in their storytelling. They tie the events to a particular character, giving immediate context.

The first person point of view also introduces us to a great new tool: the unreliable narrator. Sometimes, the way a story is related can reveal a lot about the person narrating the story. There may, in fact, always be an inherent bias present. Certainly, the bias of the writer will come through. You are who you are, and you'll have to write your stories from your own headspace. Any divergence from this is a mental exercise, and will always be imperfect. You can't simply “be” another person, with different likes, dislikes, and history. You can conceptually grasp that step, but you can't really take it.

Okay, that's an aside, but let's get back to the real issue: unreliable narrators. What a narrator says and doesn't say, how they portray themselves and others in the narrative—these things give the reader clues as to how much to trust their judgment. If the narrator is an egotistical snob who always views himself as being in the right, that should be clear. A clever writer can make a lot of hay with this concept. Think about it. Work with it. The first person has this power.

Now, just like any stylistic choice, going with the first person will limit you in some ways. For one thing, you'll have to limit the scope of the narrative to what one character knows, thinks, and finds out from some third party. You can't really leap around from one location to another very smoothly. Many things will always be a mystery to your narrator, unless your first person is some god or omniscient being (which sounds interesting, but hard to pull off). You could even go with more than one first person narrators, but that seems like the road to madness to me.

No, in general, you're stuck with one narrator, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you're going with first person, make sure that you REALLY LIKE the narrator, because you'll be with her for a long haul. If she isn't very interesting, the story is probably ready to squat down before you've even gotten into it very far. If your story relies on a massively multi-threaded tale going on across several continents, you're probably not going to like trying to write it from the first person, either. It can be done. With enough cleverness and skill ANYTHING can be done, but are you going to be the one to try it? If you're not a WRITING GOD, maybe you want to say, “no.”

What about...

So, you ask, what about the other tenses? What about the other points of view? Yes, it's possible to write a story in the future tense, but think back to all the stories you've read. Any one of them sound like this?


It will be wonderful. I will say things like, “Hey, Bob, what's shaking?”

Bob will answer, “Jim, I'm doing well.”

Sound fun to you? If it does, have at it! You'll be one of the first to try something like that. You could write a story in the second person, too. Here's second person, present tense.


You gasp, barely able to keep running. The creature behind you is gaining ground with every minute. You don't know how you got this far, with all those cigarettes you've smoked in the last ten years. And all those donuts. Holy mackerel! The donuts alone could have killed you ten times over.

Sure, you could take the road less traveled, but if you're a beginning writer, maybe you want to get your chops up to speed before you take on a big project in an unusual tense/POV. Give yourself a break. Starting out on a novel in first person, present tense is like deciding you're going to write a symphony in 9/8 time, just as soon as you learn to play the piano. It's a tall order.

So, here's a rundown of tense/POV combinations for you, with notes, in case some of you skipped the big speeches and went for the sweet spot.

Third Person, Past Tense: The most common combo. Most of what you read will be in this tense/POV. You can choose to have a limited narrator, as if one of the characters were experiencing the story from ground level, or an omniscient narrator, who knows what everyone is thinking and feeling, and even knows how everything will turn out in the end. The “limited” narrator is more popular in modern fiction, but some good authors have used the omniscient. The key with that much power is to use it wisely. You can say and show too much, ruining the symmetry of the tale.

Third Person, Present Tense: Less common, but a viable choice. Essentially, you're trading in the “already happened” for the “happening right now” here. The present tense takes a little more concentration, but is otherwise utilitarian, just like the third person past. Both limited and omniscient narrators can be used.

First Person, Past Tense: Probably the second most common choice. You can hear a lot of this voice in old detective stories. “I could tell she was trouble as soon as she walked in.” You can “push” the story here, and you need only furnish the details the narrator needs to tell the tale. If there are gaps in her knowledge, that's fine. It can sometimes improve the tension. “I wonder why?” can keep a reader going though the night, if it's done well. Unreliable narrators can add another layer of intrigue, if done right. You lose the ability to tell such a vast story, however, since you're tied to the knowledge and experience of one person.

First Person, Present Tense: Much of what was said above counts for this choice, too. This is probably the “fastest” of the choices, but also can cause logical difficulties, since it's like riding in someone's head in real time. Not a particularly common technique, but it's worth a try, especially on a short project. The immediacy of the voice is somewhat addictive.

If you find a story seems flat with the same old tense/POV you've always used, maybe you need to give it a kick in the pants with a new technique. Try to rewrite a page or two with an alternative tense, and you might find that spark you've been missing.

Next Time: Word Choice/Linguistic Complexity

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