Voices: The Invisible, The Awkward, and the Downright Distracting (Part II)

Ok, so I said I’d be holding off on the series, but this thing needed a little extra time. In any case, this will be the last part, so we’ll get back to some more specifically science fiction stuff next week.

Anywho, last week I covered some of the basics about why voice is important in your story and gave a short explanation about writing in different persons (First, Second, and Third, if you remember), but the second part of the equation is the tense of the writing.

The Tactics of Tense

passive voice cartoon funny

And you thought you were finished with this in school... Ha!

Here’s where we hit a bit of a snag. While certain persons lend more obviously to narrative writing, there are a lot more tenses, and you could conceivably write in almost all of them. I’m sure you are at least familiar with the basic ones, like Present Tense (“He walks”) and Past Tense (“He walked”), but there’s also Future Tense (“He will walk”), Present Perfect (“He has walked”), Past Perfect (“He had walked”), Future Perfect (“He will have walked”), and several more that I won’t mention here (mostly because when it comes down to it, I’m no grammarian).

So, while I’m sure you’re just itching to go tackle a story written in Future Perfect Tense, there are again some standards to consider.

Just as people will generally expect to see either First Person or Third Person used in a novel, they will likewise be more comfortable reading a story written in Past Tense. It’s uncomplicated, and it relays events that occurred in the past, usually through the eyes of an observer, relayed to the reader in Third Person. It can also easily be done with First Person, giving an account of things that happened to the narrator directly.

The two approaches have their pros and cons:

First Person Past Tense:

  • Pros: Allows the reader to get into the character’s head while still feeling like a story is being told. Usually, the reader is given not only accounts of events, but all of the feelings and reactions of the narrator to filter through as well, giving the author the ability to easily control what the audience knows.
  • Cons: If you’re inside the head of one character, you can’t just pop over to someone elses’ . Unless you make a point of switching to a new narrator, you do not have the freedom to tell the story from anyone else’s perspective (except by having them tell a story within a story). This can be frustrating, since you can’t relate events that are outside the narrator’s experience if he is an actual character in the story.

Third Person Past Tense:

  • Pros: It feels much more natural to have an omnipotent narrator using this type of voice, and that means you can relate the feelings of other characters, events that happen outside the protagonists’ knowledge, or even do things like follow the villain for a while. In this way, the narrator knows what’s going on, but simply doesn’t tell the reader.
  • Cons: While you gain more flexibility in the ways you can tell the story, it may be difficult to actually take advantage of that freedom. If you’ve taken the time to really know your characters, then it shouldn’t be too hard to get into their head and offer a first hand perspective on everything- however, if you’re stuck in Third Person, there is a danger of your story becoming more like a dry history lecture than a novel anyone would actually want to read.

Both approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses, but either will be readily accepted by most audiences without a thought. It all boils down to what you’re most comfortable with writing. Choosing either of the above voices will mean that the style of your narration will be essentially invisible to your reader, being taken for granted and requiring no getting used to.

Really, unless you have a particularly good reason to do otherwise, invisibility is probably what you should shoot for, because unless you do it exactly right, using a strange voice for your narration can feel awkward and require a breaking-in period that might drive some readers away, or it might become so distracting that it makes your story practically unreadable for some of your audience.

Suzanne Collins’ Gamble

The Hunger Games Movie Poster

So apparently they're making a movie. Here's hoping they don't Twilight-ify it.

We’ve covered the basics, and I’ve given you some reasons why First and Second person written in Pas

t tense are probably the way to go for your own story, but as I’ve mentioned before, a non-standard approach is certainly workable, and in some cases might work better than the standard two. The particular example I’m referring to is Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and while I’m sure its not the only story written in this way, it is the most recent example that I myself have read.

Collins’ story revolves around the actions of a resourceful teenage girl in a dangerous world, in which she is regularly forced to think on her feet and flee or fight threats to her life and others’. As such, Collins chose a First Person narrator, from her heroine Katnis Everdine’s perspective, giving her readers a view colored by her personality and naivety . This doesn’t stray too far from the mark, offering the advantages I described above, which she takes full advantage of by giving us an Unreliable Narrator (a narrator who’s perspective cannot truly be trusted to deliver the true meaning of events), but instead of using a Past Tense to tell her tale, Collins opts for Present Tense instead.

Using Present Tense with First Person, in Collins’ story, feels right. The action comes in spikes, giving us both an action-by-action telling of her quick-witted decisions and instincts, while also keeping us sufficiently bottled up in Katnis’ brain as she muddles through her feelings and reactions to the perils she’s just survived. The feeling is of simultaneously being the narrator and watching her, as if from a tv show camera, which fits right into the theme of Collins’ dystopian world where televised gladiatorial events are the main form of entertainment.

The danger with Collins’ choice method is that it is so different from how we speak in conversation. It is jarring from the beginning, forcing you to get used to seeing the story as a constant event, more akin to reality tv than to a written account. In her case, the combination is extraordinarily effective in augmenting the feeling of her world, but it might prove too much of a distraction to be justifiable in another story. The pace of the story has to be balanced so that the reader is drawn into events to the point where it feels truly present, and not just an odd way of relating events normally told by one of the more standard voices.

So, should you go Collins’ route? Probably not, but if you’re looking for a unique way to tell your story from a First Person perspective, give Present Tense a try and see if you can strike that balance. Make sure to get an outside reader’s opinion (as you should with everything you write) to see if you’ve pulled it off well enough to justify writing your whole story that way.

Well, I think that’s enough for this week. Next week I’ll have another Science Fiction Problems for you, so stay tuned! Until then, does anyone know of another story that uses Present Tense?


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on August 24, 2011, in Authors, Books, Erik Marsh, Grammar, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Orson Scott Card, Style and Structure, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. BTW, the phrase is “omniscient narrator.” Though “omnipotent narrator” is intriguing. I would try it except that it sounds like something I could only fail at!

    Seriously, there is a reason for the difference. The omniscient narrator knows everything that is relevant to the story, which you can do, because you are making it all up. An omnipotent narrator would be able to do anything in the story. You might think that, since you are making it all up, you can do anything you want. But if you do, people will stop believing in your world pretty quickly.

  2. Whoops! I did mean “omniscient” (“all-knowing”), not “omnipotent” (“all-powerful”). I suppose writing an omnipotent narrator would be a little like an omniscient First Person narrator- it would be more likely to break your story irreparably than to work. I think Dostoevsky sort of had an omniscient first person narrator in Demons (he was supposed to be a character in the story, yet he knew a lot of things he really shouldn’t have, even given that the events supposedly occurred some time before), but other than him, I can’t think of anyone else who’s tried it.

    I guess as a general note, it’s probably better not to experiment drastically with such conventions unless you have a really good reason for it. Even then, prepare to fail horribly if you go too far with it.

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