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?


Inside Out: Knowing a character so well, they become your voice

This past weekend I got to spend a delightful 9 hours in a car listening to Inside Out by Maria Snyder.  Melissa waxed oh so poetically about Maria Snyder’s writing ability in her post on  Poison Study.  And I would have to agree.  Snyder has a wonderful style and her character has a charming wit and sarcasm that lends well to a first person narrative.  You don’t feel trapped in the person’s mind; you actually like hearing the thought processes and struggling with the character.  Inside Out is no different.  The first person narrative is witty and intriguing.  And I would recommend the book without hesitation.

With that said, I could not help noticing a similarity in the main character in Poison Study, Yelena, and main character in Inside Out, Trella.  Yelena and Trella are both strong willed, inquisitive, smart, independent, solitary young woman who through extraordinary events are the catalysts for spectacular change in their worlds.  Since the stories are told from first person their thoughts become the thoughts and views of the reader.  They are the focal point of the events but they don’t see themselves in that light. They are just trying to survive.  Their semi-disinterest in the workings of the politics and greater schemings of their environment keep them from becoming egotistical and narcissistic.

I like the characters, but I think that this is because they are the same character just put in a different story.

And this is my quandary: Is using the same voice for one story in a different story sloppy writing or just stylistic?

Like I said, individually both Poison Study and Inside Out are excellent stories.  They are fun, witty, and well written.  Had I not read both of the different stories I would have not noticed the similarities.  Part of me wants to say that Snyder has found a narrative voice that she is comfortable with.  It lends itself well to the type of story that she likes to tell, which is generally a dystopian world.  Most authors have a particular style or narrative voice that becomes their hallmark.  Tolkien, Orson Card, Diana Wynne Jones, Edgar Allen Poe and Georgette Heyer all have a voice that is distinctly their own.  The readers come to expect it and are taken aback when the voice is different.

So what is so wrong with Snyder finding that voice?

The answer is in the fact that she writes in first person.  All of the authors that I mentioned write in third person.  Their narrative voice is not associated with a particular character. It is a disembodied storyteller.  But Snyder’s narrative voice because it is first person must be attached to a character.  Snyder’s narrative voice is a character.  Though this character is lovable, snarky, cleaver, inquisitive, and independent, the character transcends into Snyder’s other stories.  Yelena becomes Trella in Inside Out.  Therefore, without even realizing Snyder begins to tell the same story just in a different place.  It is the same story because the character dictated by the narrative style reacts the same way.  She thinks the same way and responds to people the same way.

I am still struggling to figure out if this is necessarily a bad thing.  Clearly Snyder’s editors do not think that it is detrimental, since she has published so many books. However, just because someone is published does not mean that they have the best styles or methods for writing.  Should an author using first person make an effort to make their characters different  in different stories?  Or am I just being picky? Is there a better way to write first person or is this the problem with writing using the first person?

I have used first person to write a couple of stories.  And I’d like to think that I have sufficiently made each of those main characters different enough that their voice and way of telling the story is not the same; however, I am concerned now that I may have made the same mistake.  But than again is it really a mistake or just the fact that when using first person you become the character and their voice becomes your narrative voice.