Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topics were point of view and tense.
We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?
What Did We Read?
Kids had Spring Break, and Freya was able to read through most of the sixth Harry Potter book. My wife continues to read Wildwood with her at bedtime.
I’ve been reading Dune with my oldest, along with the usual blogs. I also finally got around to finishing Chuck Wendig’s “Damn Fine Story.”
What Did We Write?
I played through A Visit to San Sibilia. Freya didn’t write anything this week.
Points of View
There are three points of view that you can write from. They are most easily identified by the pronouns used by the narrator to address the point of view character(s).
In this perspective, the story is told by a character within it. The narrator is the same person as the point of view character, and the reader experiences the story as though they are that character.
“Poison for Breakfast” is an example that we’ve read recently, where the story is told by Lemony Snicket, who is also the protagonist.
In the second-person perspective, the narrator tells the reader what they did. This puts the reader in the head of a character within the story, but the story itself is actually told by a different narrator.
The most prominent example for people my age are the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which make the reader the protagonist, but also give the reader choices that change the story. A book on my reading list, N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” is also written in this style.
This is the least commonly used of the three points of view.
(He, She, They)
In third-person perspective, the narrator talks about what the characters did while being external to all of them. The Lord of the Rings and Dune are two examples of third-person perspectives in stories we’ve read recently.
Third-person perspective also exists along a spectrum of “distance,” which describes how closely it follows different characters. At one end is the omniscient third-person perspective, which isn’t particularly close to any specific characters.
In Dune, Herbert uses a style that’s less fashionable in modern stories, where his omniscient narrator jumps between different characters’ thoughts as it pleases, effectively taking the reader from one character’s head to another.
At the more distant end of the spectrum, the narrator may have no insight into the character’s thoughts. The third-person narrator may also follow a single character (for the whole book, or sections of the book) and only describe thoughts and feelings of that one character. This style keeps the narrator external to the character, but provides some of the closeness of a first-person perspective.
As with the different perspectives, there are three broad categories of tense to work with. These can be described by when the story is told, in relation to when the events happen.
“They went there. They did that.”
The story is told after it happened. This is probably the most common tense used in genre fiction.
“They go here. They do that.”
The story is told as it is happening. This is probably the most common tense used in literary fiction.
“They will go. They will do that.”
This is more of an experimental tense that is rarely used for an entire story.
There’s Always a Narrator
Along with tense and point of view, it’s worth considering who the narrator is in each story. This is obvious in first-person perspective, but often easy to overlook in the second- or third-person. In many of these stories, the narrator isn’t a character within the story. They are an unknown figure, or simply the author. But it’s still worth spending some time thinking about how you want the narrator to tell the story. Disassociating “the narrator” from yourself as the author can make it easier to think about the stylistic choices you want “them” to make in telling the story.
Mixing and Matching
As usual, when we talk about the tools in the author’s arsenal, we tend to talk about them as pure, distinct things in order to make each one clear. In real usage, however, a story can use multiple tenses and points of view.
Freya and I looked a childrens’ book we have: The Good Egg. This book encapsulates all three tenses in a few short pages. The first-person narrator, the good egg, spends the first half of the book telling us about himself and what happened to him (past tense). Then he says he’s made some important decisions (present tense). Then he describes how he’s going to change his viewpoint and his behavior (future tense). This was a simple encapsulation of how to use different tenses to good effect, and the story blends them together seamlessly.
As I’ve talked about before, The Martian is a great example of the usage of different points of view to achieve different effects throughout a single story.
These are tools in the writer’s toolbox. And even though we are likely to use some much more frequently than others, it pays to be familiar with all of them, and make purposeful decisions around when to use each one.