Questions of Narrative and Tense

One has a story in mind and wants to tell it well. It then becomes a question of how you want to tell it. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to write a novel. In fact there are many, and like all details run the risk of being overthought or overdone. Sometimes one can get so worried about them it leads to writer’s block and one cannot move forward, sort of like when choosing a book title or character name. These are among the first details to choose at the beginning. Yet at other times, they seem to manifest themselves and/or change in the process.

One of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to write in first person or third. I find it often depends on the type of story being told. When writing Mystical Greenwood, I chose to write in third person as I felt it was the right way to tell a fantasy story set in an imaginary world no reader would have personally lived in, but could still observe and imagine. But there are many subdivisions of third person, and that was not so easily defined for me.

I flirted between third person limited and subjective. Subjective is trying to convey more than one character’s thoughts and feelings at the same time, whereas limited focuses on chiefly one character. After sending Mystical Greenwood to Mockingbird Lane Press, at my editor’s request I made it third person limited throughout because there were originally some scenes with slight POV shifts that caused confusion. While some chapters and scenes are told from the perspective of characters other than Dermot, and there are scene breaks and a change to another character’s POV in others, I still tried to limit it to one character at a time.

I could’ve written in third person objective, but that would’ve left out every character’s feelings and thoughts, which I felt could detach readers from the narrative. Third person omniscient is often used for high and epic fantasy, where all character’s thoughts and feelings are presented. That can sometimes make it hard for readers to attach themselves to the story, as there would be too many characters to choose from to bond with while reading. But that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m presently trying I-narrative with the neglected pets story. I feel first person works best with realistic fiction (as it’s a setting readers and writers live in and understand), mysteries, and thrillers. I would like to try an epistolary format (telling a story in the form of diary entries and letters), perhaps for historical fiction. Some authors have alternated between third and first within the same book (using the latter for their protagonist), which I might also try. News articles could also be used in epistolary stories, and be another way to alternate. Other writers have changed narrative within a series, like the late Stephen J. Cannell did with the Shane Scully books.

With first person, one can also make it plural or use an unreliable narrator. Some novels try to replicate the thought-process, or stream of conscious; there third or first could work, but I personally find it hard to follow. Some classic books have had chapters or scenes written in the format of plays; another thing I could try.

I should also mention second person narrative: “You”. It’s rarer in literature, as is writing in future tense. Most stories are in past tense, but some have been written in present, just like plays and screenplays. But there have been some well-told stories written using one or both, most famously perhaps Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s always good to experiment and try new things with writing. Writer should use whatever they feel is best for your story.

Further Reading
  1. Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited.
  2. Aldridge, Ally. Point of View.
  3. Wolf, Kalesjha H. First Person vs. Third Person.

10 thoughts on “Questions of Narrative and Tense

  1. I’ve always fancied writing a diary entry or letter story. I never knew it had a name -Epistolary. I often write in 1st person but if a part of the story needs a 2nd MC, I’ll put them in third person so it’s clearly another voice. I have got a story with a prologue in third person, it’s a demon’s voice and I felt the odd narrative gave it an unnatural feel. Great article and very informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Andrew for this lively post. These days the only point of view I use, since I mainly write personal essays, is the first person. It is so much a part of me now that third person seems awkward to me though it is the most popular point of view and always will be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent article. I personally love Third person omniscient, I use it for almost all my novels. Though I did make the decision to use 1st person (which I used to hate) for one of my trilogies. I am still getting my head around writing like that. But I know it will work the best.

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  4. Great post! I usually write in 1st person these days, but I just finished Gail Carriger’s parasol protectorate series and she does 3rd person subjective–at least I think so based on your defs-i may be confusing things this early in the morning. I’ve never even thought of future tense. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You said something very fascinating and interesting! And it is very true how you said the “I-narrative” works best for realistic fiction…..why do you think that is?

    I find it, not odd, but interesting. I completed four manuscripts. One of them is a realistic fiction, and so I followed the I-narrative. It does sound like a memoir, like it really happened to me…as opposed to the other three!

    Liked by 1 person

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