Posted in Writing

Tense and Person

When writing a story, before even getting into the writing, there are some important choices to make. Aside from the plot, I mean, that’s kind of central to the whole thing. But you need to decide how you’re going to write it. Two of the most basic things are the tense you’re going to use, and what point of view the story will be told from.

I’m not sure how it is for other people, but for me this is often an instinctive decision,one I barely even think about. I use different tenses and points of view for different stories, but I just sort of decide automatically whether I’ll be using third person past tense, first person past tense, or first person present tense for whatever particular one I’m writing. Those are the ones I use.

But I think it’s probably a choice which requires a bit more thought than that. Sometimes I have had to change my original choice because I’ve realised it’s just not working. Maybe if I’d thought a bit more to begin with then… well, I may well still have had to change it. You don’t always get things right first time – in fact, you’re certain to get at least some things wrong on your first attempt to write a story.

But the fact remains that these are things that deserve thought. I’d say most stories can probably work in different tenses and points of view, but such a fundamental thing is going to have a big effect on the writing, obviously it is. I state the obvious quite a lot, don’t I? So this post is just going to be me musing about the benefits and drawbacks of different tense/point of view combinations. I claim no authority on the subject, it’s just, as I may, my musings.

So, to begin with, third person past tense. I’ve always seen that one as the default. Past tense, certainly, is the traditional choice. Most of my stories are written this way, because it just feels good and solid. I can’t believe there’s many stories that wouldn’t work being written this way. It might not always be the best choice, but I don’t imagine it would ever be a bad choice. OK, there’s probably some stories that would not work, but, as I say, it won’t be many.

The benefits to writing in the third person are clear. You can move between points of view, you can have multiple main characters, and also get into the heads of the supporting cast and the villains. You can tell the reader things before letting the characters know about them, which can be a really good thing. For instance, if your villain sets a trap, then the reader can know about it ahead of time while the heroes remain oblivious, so then you get the tension of not knowing if they’re going to figure it out or walk right into the trap.
You can also, I feel, give more detailed descriptions doing this. I admit I’m not great with descriptions, and while I need to make mine better, you can certainly go overboard. But they are still important, and sometimes detail is necessary, and if you’re working from a first person narrative, then I personally find it kind of weird when they point out every detail. Because people don’t tend to notice every detail, whereas with a third person narration, you can mention more, whether the characters notice it all or not.

Of course, there are things to be careful about. Head hopping is something you can do with third person narration, but you don’t want to be doing it too much. Personally, if I’m in one character’s head, I don’t feel I should be jumping into another’s without a break in the narration, either a new chapter or a new scene. I don’t like to just switch from paragraph to paragraph, I think that gets confusing. That’s my rule, it’s probably stricter than is necessary, but definitely, the ability to go into different characters’ minds should not be abused. If I’m reading a book, and the point of view is just jumping around every few sentences, then as I say, that can be confusing. And even if it isn’t, even if I understand perfectly what’s going on, it’s still annoying.

Then there’s also the matter of just how close to the characters you want to be. Is the narration just following them around, noting their actions but not really getting into their heads? I like to know what characters are thinking, I like to get into my characters’ minds, and I can’t think of anything I’ve read where the narration hasn’t done this to at least some extent, but I’m sure it can work sometimes. But even when you’re in their heads, as I say, there’s different extents. Sometimes the reader is just getting some of the character’s thoughts and feelings given to them, other times you’re in their heads as much as if that character was narrating themselves. And of course, you can vary within the story. The narration can be completely removed from the characters while setting a scene, then move in onto them. That’s one of the benefits, you can be like a camera; going for a sweeping landscape shots, then zooming in one specific thing. It’s not just third person you can do this in, but it definitely lends itself more to it.

As with the head hopping, though, I’d say you want to be careful with this. ‘Zooming in’ on a character is one thing, but zooming out, I think, you need to be a bit more careful with. I can’t really put it into words – which is bad for an aspiring author, I know – but once you’re in someone’s head, it’s weird for me to then leave it without, once again, some kind of break in the narration. That’s probably just me, but, once again, you don’t want to be doing it too much, drawing in and out constantly. I suppose you could do it, it could possibly make for an interesting effect in the hands of a skilled writer, but I think it would have to be someone very skilled. It’s exactly like the head hopping, really, except instead of jumping into another character’s mind, you’re jumping away from the characters completely. And once again, if you do it too frequently or erratically, it will be confusing and annoying.

And then there’s the matter of addressing the reader, when the narration starts asking the reader direct questions or instructing them to think of some specific thing. This is usually indicative of an informal tone. I like reading this style of writing, where it feels like the narrator is a character themselves, but I don’t write it, because when I’ve tried I’m not very good at it. My natural inclination is not to, so it’s ended up before that I’ve had a story written completely normally, then suddenly starts talking to the reader. As with everything, you’ve got to be careful. If you’re going to do this then it has to be somewhat consistent, and if the third person narrator is being given a personality, they have to keep it as much as any of the characters in the story do. As I say, I like stories written this way, but they’re not my thing to write.

I’ve been talking a lot more about the point of view than the tense here. I can’t really think of a lot to say about tense when it comes to this combination. It’s just something that, according to the narration, happened, and now that story is being recounted. The readers don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters, and unless you deliberately drop hints, they won’t be able to guess. They don’t know if any of the characters survived, because it’s not one of the characters telling the story, but I’ll put more on that in the next bit.

The next bit being first person past tense, the other standard, default way of telling a story. Before opening a book I just assume it will be in either first or third person past tense, because those really were the two main ways to tell a story. That’s changed a little now, but more on that later.

For now, past tense. I’ve already said the drawbacks of this combination, really. In third person past tense you don’t know which characters survived, but in this there’s one who you know will be alive by the end. Alright, that’s not necessarily true. You can do whatever you want, and while finding out the character who is narrating couldn’t possibly be doing so is something readers will notice, and some will complain, I don’t really think it’s the kind of thing people would really get upset over, more kind of irritated. Still, I don’t think I would personally do it, but that’s mostly because of how I tend to write first person past tense narrators. I said I don’t like talking to the audience in third person narration but I absolutely do in this, my narrators are well aware that they’re telling a story, I have a tendency to write it as though they, the narrator, were actually writing it all down. I don’t think I could get away with killing them off in this case.

I also tend to use this style while writing stories that I would say are less serious, small scale. The most appropriate way I’ve got to describe the majority of my stories is action-adventure for older children or young adults – the target audience varies a bit, but I think action adventure is a fair descriptor. Anyway, when I write in first person past tense that’s generally in stories aimed at the younger end of that range. I think this may be tied in to what I put in the last paragraph; I wouldn’t say these stories have no danger, no tension – I think they do. But I don’t think anyone would ever honestly believe I would kill off the main characters in them. They’re just nowhere near dark enough for that. Sometimes you’re reading or watching something, and the main characters are in danger, and it’s still very tense, you’re still worried for them, but you know, really, they will be OK. And other times, you don’t know, but these stories of mine are very much the first category.

They also tend to be smaller scale, when I choose to write this way. Because in larger scale stories, you sometimes need to know more than a first person narrator should be able to tell you, a complicated story may be very difficult to understand without different viewpoints. So sometimes, the narrator ends up knowing more than they logically should, people tell them stuff they wouldn’t have any real reason to tell them, or they stumble into scenes and conversations that let them know exactly what needs to be known. These aren’t generally good writing choices, and while they can occur in third person narration, I think it’s easier to fall into the trap with first person, because it’s not just the character who needs information, it’s the reader. I’m not saying this will always happen when using a first person viewpoint, you can use the limited knowledge of the narrator to really get the reader into the story. They don’t know any more than the narrator knows, they’re left guessing at answers just like the main character. This can be very effective at engaging the reader. But there are traps that I think it can be easier to fall into.

You can always have more than one narrator, of course. That leaves you able to get more information in, distributing knowledge among the characters. It also helps with the ‘will the characters die’ thing. Logically, they still shouldn’t be able to if they’re telling even part of the story, but it’s a bit less jarring if the character doesn’t actually say ‘and then I died’, or something to that effect. One thing I’ve thought of – which someone has probably done at some point – is that you could split the story in two, and the first part could be being told from midway through, recounting the events that led up to this point. Then you could go to the next part, which would be being told from after the story was done with, and you could have a new narrator, and they would be like ‘so, the last one died a bit after finishing their bit’. Or, you know, words to that effect. Or just have them tell the rest of the story, including the death, that’s probably the logical way of doing it. Although now I quite like the new idea of a new narrator just appearing halfway through and opening with ‘They’re dead now’. It would be a shock for the reader if nothing else. But that’s a way you could kill off your (original) narrator, anyway, and have it seem actually possible.

I’m not a fan of having lots of narrators. I know some books do that, have it so that basically any character can tell part of the story. I’d have three, at a stretch. I wouldn’t feel comfortable jumping into another character’s head just because they were in the position to describe one particular event. I’d rather have the regular narrator be told about it later. I like each narrator to have a decent amount of page time, either split equally between them all, or with one main narrator and the other(s) still getting a reasonable chunk. I wouldn’t want to have someone narrating just for a chapter or two. ‘Narrator’ is a special role to give to a character, they’re telling the reader the story, and the reader should be able to form some kind of connection with them. And while it’s possible to achieve that in a very limited time, if you’ve got a whole book then I do feel a bit of time should be devoted to any narrating characters. Plus, as I say, it’s a special role, I don’t think it should just be assigned to whoever’s most convenient. The narrator doesn’t necessarily have to be the main character, but still, I just don’t like the role being thrown about, sometimes to really random characters. This is all just my opinion, of course, I may be completely wrong, but this is how I feel. I have to clarify that I understand that, because I feel I’m being a little more assertive than usual.

And, since I brought it up earlier, there’s how informal your narration is, if the narrator ever addresses the reader. As I said, I don’t do this in third person, but, as I also said, I do in first person past tense. My narrators tend to be very chatty towards the audience, that’s how I feel comfortable writing them. It’s probably because they are characters, so I feel inclined to have them relate the story as… well, as they would. If they’re a bit of a joker they would throw some jokes in, if they’re kind of sarcastic that shows. That’s how I like to write them. Having a chatty third person narrator is a more deliberate decision, because you’re basically creating another character.

Anyway, onto a combination which seems to have gained a lot of popularity lately. First person present tense. You get some older books written in this way, but in recent years it has become fairly common, and I’d say it now stands alongside first and third person past tense as one of the standard ways of writing, at least in some genres.

It does get rid of some of the most obvious drawback of first person past tense; the issue of whether you can kill the narrator. They’re telling the story as it happens, so yes, they can die. I mean, people would generally expect them to live until the end, so they can finish telling the story, but, as said above, you can switch partway through, and you don’t have to justify it in this one. You don’t have to justify it in past tense, but somebody will point it out, and I’m sure some people are like me and would want to with their own writing. But it’s not an issue at all with present tense.

This is different to first person past tense in that you’re actually in the character’s head as events happen. I tend to go back to not addressing the audience directly when using this combination, because the character isn’t so much telling the story as the reader is experiencing it with them. I can’t do the thing where the narrator actually is supposed to be writing it all down with this one. The stories I use this combination tend to, once again, be smaller scale, but a bit more serious than the ones I use first person past tense for.

The most stated benefit I’ve seen this combination is the immediacy thing. Things in the story are happening now, this isn’t something that’s all safely done with. As I said, the reader is seeing things as the narrator sees them, you know just as much as they do. With first and third person past tense, the narrator reveals information to the reader, and even if no hints as to the future are given, there is still the possibility to give them. A first person present tense narrator can’t do that, and I feel this can help create a stronger personal connection for the reader.

That can also be a drawback, of course. If you’re doing first person past tense you can have the narrator reveal information when it’s needed, even if they didn’t find it out until later. In third person you can just take the reader to where the other stuff is happening, or tell them something outright. With first person present tense you are completely limited to what the narrator knows at the time of any given event. But limitations are not an automatically bad thing.

So those are the three main combinations, the ones you’re most likely to see, which I think most people would feel most comfortable using. They’re certainly the three I use. But I feel I should at least mention other possible combinations.

So, third person present tense. I have very occasionally seen this, and I really don’t like it. Perhaps it’s just because it’s so rare, so I’m just not used to it. Or maybe it is just a bad choice. I don’t know, all I know is that to me, it feels unnatural. I’m trying to think of why someone might choose it. I suppose there’s the immediacy thing. And if it’s supposedly happening right now, that could theoretically up the tension; obviously, the plot of a book written in present tense is as set as one written in past tense, but when written well (the ones I read were not written badly, but if a piece of writing were to win me over to this combination, it would have to be better than those) I accept that it could add something to the readers’ experience. But as it is, I don’t really think this is ever a good choice. But, that’s just me, if someone wants to write that way I wouldn’t tell them it can’t work.

And second person. Past and present, I can’t think of much use for this. Those choose your own adventure books you get as a kid, those are in second person present tense, and that makes sense, because if the reader’s deciding how the story goes, it makes sense for them to be the main character, and for it to be written as if it’s happening now. But that’s really it. I don’t see any reason why just a regular story would be in second person, and especially not past tense. That would just be weird, reading a story telling you what you did. Once again, I may be wrong, but I can’t see this working. Choose your own adventure, that’s it, I think.

And I should write a bit about mixing different combinations. That’s something to do. I like mixing third person past tense with first person present tense. That lets me dive right into the main character’s thoughts, while still leaving opportunity to wander off elsewhere to see what other characters are up to. And I do like to switch the tenses as well as the person, I don’t think I’ve ever switched between first and third person while staying in past tense. I don’t believe for a moment there’s anything bad about that, but, personally, I think it’s just that I like to create as much contrast as possible. I like to have the third person narrator recounting the events after they’ve happened, and then jump down into the main character’s head at the time it all happened. I like the effect that creates.

And I’m out of stuff to ramble about. This post turned out way longer than I expected, and therefore took longer to finish writing. So I’d best get on with the next one.

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