Who tells your story important. We understand that you–the author–wrote it, but who have you chosen to tell it?
This might be repetitive to some writers because we deal with narration all the time. But maybe we overlook our narrator, or maybe we don’t realize it can be a deciding factor for a reader.
Consider this a refresher course on narration techniques. This includes narrators as well as tenses! Sounds like fun, right?
When searching sources to include in this post, I found many other blogs touching on the subject of narrators and tenses… and they’re written much better than mine.
There are initially 3 types of narrators: 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person. From here, we can break down the 3rd person narration even further to: limited and omniscient.
This post is written in 1st person. I use the word “I” when referring to the narrator because… well, I am the narrator! The narrator tells the story from their point of view, as if they were sitting right in front of you and telling you how they felt, what they thought, and what they did throughout this story.
And not only do they tell you what they felt or thought or did… they can tell you what they are currently feeling or doing or thinking in real time. Right away, we can get into tenses.
Fiction is often written in either past or present tense (I’ve yet to come across anything written in future tense). As for 1st person narration, it can typically use both past or present.
An example of 1st person present tense:
“Remember,” I say, “cash only. No credit cards; no watches.”
He rolls his eyes. “Are you seriously telling me someone thinks you have a credit card machine up here?”
“No,” I say. “They want you to take their card and buy something that costs what they owe. Don’t do it; it looks like you stole their card, and believe me, that’s what they’ll tell their parents.”
Sam hesitates. “Yeah,” he says finally.
—White Cat: The Curse Workers Book 1
by Holly Black
This is present tense because the narrator, Cassel, is narrating in real-time. We’re along for the ride through his eyes as he talks to his roommate, Sam, about taking bets from fellow students.
Present tense often comes with a sense of immediacy because the actions are happening right as you are reading it, like you’re standing in the scene with the narrator and they’re telling you exactly what they are doing and feeling.
An example of 1st person past tense:
I knocked hard. No answer.
Lace sighed. “I told you he wouldn’t be home.”
“Glad to hear it.” I pulled out another of the items requisitioned that morning and knelt by the door: The lock was a standard piece-of-crap deadbolt, five tumblers. Into its keyhole I sprayed some graphite, which is the same stuff that gets on your fingers if you fiddle with the end of a pencil, and does the same thing to locks that Bahamalama-Dingdongs do to repressed memories—lubricates them.
—Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Our protagonist of this second example, Cal, is picking a lock to an apartment in Lace’s building. Notice the use of -ed in the words like “knocked,” “sighed,” and “pulled“–Past Tense. Cal is narrating this as if it’s already happened to him, and he’s telling us how it went and what he was thinking at that time. It’s not happening right this second.
“Past tense is often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense, and it usually makes sense: after all, when we tell a story, we’re relating something that happened in the past, not something that’s ongoing.”
1st person is often the best point of view to use present tense, if that’s the one you want to use. Most 1st person narrated books only follow one character throughout the whole story. But if you want to tell the story from multiple points of view, 3rd person is best recommended.
This narration is not as close as 1st, but can be if in the limited 3rd person:
“What’s the message?”
“Tell them…” Poison began, and then suddenly realized that she had no idea what she wanted to say, no words that could make them understand. They had never understood her up until now; she was as alien to them as to the rest of the village. What message could she really give them that would ease their burden? It was only at that moment that she comprehended how vast the chasm yawned between her and her parents.
“Why don’t I just tell them you’re sorry?” the girl said levelly.
Poison was surprised. She opened her mouth to ask how she knew, and then shut it again.
“It’s written all over you,” the stranger said.
—Poison by Chris Wooding
While Poison is sharing this scene with another person, we’re only privy to Poison’s thoughts and feelings, and no one else’s.
Here is an example of an omniscient 3rd person narration, typically used when switching between characters and even locations:
The princess frowned to herself, pausing her pacing at the cell door. “If it is what you say, that someone put him up to it, then what were they trying to do?”
The goblin sighed. “That puts us back at square one.”
The page, the witch, the wizard, and the knight had already, in a sense, grown tired of each other’s company. They led their horses to walk a certain distance apart out of sheer annoyance.
—The Page: The Middle Realm Trilogy Book 1
by Marlin Morales
Short excerpt, I know, but you can still see the scene change as well as the character change. We were with the princess and goblin in the cells where they’re locked up, and now we’re ‘cutting away’ to Thaniel (the page), Mandolin (witch), the wizard, and the knight in a completely different location.
side note → Regarding short stories, most publications ask that you use a * or # when it comes to paragraph breaks, such as a passage of time or narration change.
I would go into 2nd person narration, but it is so seldom used. Stories in 2nd person are generally written to someone, oftentimes an intended reader (not necessarily you, the reader of the book):
You appeared confident, making the decisions like the answers came naturally to you. Through the noise, you spoke loud and clear, and yet completely smooth… your stance not so domineering, but like a thoughtful kind of lean. You knew exactly what you wanted.
“Can I get the number 4? Medium-sized everything,” you said, reaching into your pocket for the money. This was your regular order the few chances you went out to eat. You were a talented cook, actually.
–I just made this up
2nd person isn’t always the greatest choice because it would be like forcing your reader to be whoever the narrator is addressing. It could also appear that the novel or short story is one long, incredibly detailed letter to someone, and it might not feel worth it to guess who that someone is.
Ali Luke seems to always put it best:
“Very little fiction is written with “you” as the main character. It’s sometimes used for experimental short stories, as well as for “choose your own adventure” books (remember those?), but it’s unlikely to be a good choice for anything else…. If you do want to give second person a go, use it for a short story, and don’t just do it for the sake of it – have a narrative reason for making the reader the protagonist “
Some of us might not even think twice about narration once we’re writing. We just… start writing. We all have our own idea of storytelling.
Personally, I’ve always preferred 1st person, past tense narratives. I always liked stepping into a character’s shoes. My novel, however, is written in 3rd person, past tense because I knew I wanted to show multiple characters and locations.
It’s ultimately your choice to decide what you want to use. I was going to cite an article about the pros and cons of writing in present tense, but I decided against it because it’s a personal choice (at least, I think so).
Thank you for your time.
While this post came out later than I wanted to, it’s only because I spent 2 hours on it trying to figure out how I wanted to word things.