Everyone has stuff that floats around in their head all day, and if you’re a writer, sooner or later it wants out. It wants to be free and run wild with the chickens. Welcome to my chicken coop. Some posts will probably be of the “big idea” variety – it’s hard to keep that stuff down – but there will probably also be insights on life and writing. Because I teach writing, I’ll be posting some of that stuff, too.
For today’s offering, I’m posting an intro to Narrative that covers some of the basics regarding Voice and Tense in storytelling. I give this to Eng 101 students.
Narration is one of the four rhetorical modes of discourse, the other three being exposition, argument, and description. However, narrative might seem broader, in that it can encompass the other three when done well. At its most basic, narration occurs whenever we get the sense that someone is telling us something of value. This might be in the form of a documentary or technical manual, but it might just as well be an action movie or a good book we can’t put down. Narrative, at its core, is storytelling, and storytelling is as old as humanity. It goes all the way back to cavemen and beyond. Although it’s difficult to know when we first started telling stories, we know there have been cave drawings and music for millennia, and these, too, are a type of storytelling. However, written storytelling only goes back a few thousand years, perhaps to the Epic of Gilgamesh or the era of King Hammurabi, approximately 4000 years ago. Probably, those other early examples, biblical stories, have been impactful to a large extent because they used a relatively new technology: written storytelling for the masses. Of course, before we had written stories, we had oral storytellers sharing ghost stories around the campfire, or expounding on their fearless encounter with a saber-toothed tiger.
Voice in Narrative
Whenever we read any sort of narrative, it quickly becomes apparent which “voice” the author is using: 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. When the writing is good, the reader will usually also get a feel for the tone the author is trying to set up: is this a dark tale of betrayal and deceit? Or is it a comedy/romance? Shakespeare was very good at setting tone within the first few lines of a play, and then sticking with it throughout the work. Get this, from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/ made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Here, the misshapen and disliked Richard is announcing to the world that, although things are looking grim generally, he is there to put order into things. But it will be his order. Thus, the tone is set for sinister unfoldings.
But this is a play, where most actors speak from 1st person voice. Let’s consider the standard novel form to understand voice more closely. It is estimated that at approximately 65,000 words in length, the writer can claim to have written a novel. Beyond that, there are few similarities between writing styles. Certainly, many authors might chose to write detective fiction or murder mysteries, but they will each have a unique way of telling their story. Some prefer the 1st person “voice-over style,” a la Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” where he might tell us what he’s thinking about the mobster, the murder victim, and the dame over in the corner of the bar who looks down on her luck. Others, however, chose to create distance from the reader by using 3rd person; we have to rely on what happens to discover what the protagonist is thinking or feeling, a la Miss Marple, who has everything figured out, but she doesn’t share everything with us, and we don’t find out whodunnit until the very end of the story.
1st Person in Narrative, or Breaking the Fourth Wall: “I”
In theater there is a phrase: breaking the fourth wall. Actors assume the stage is surrounded by four walls and pretend that the audience is not really there, that there is a wall between the actors and the audience. However, occasionally, an actor will make an “aside” to the audience and speak directly to them. This is common in pantomime theater, which encourages audience participation. A more modern context is offered by television; in the series, “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey acts the part of a Machiavellian politician who addresses the camera directly. In this way, he speaks directly to us, the audience. By breaking the imaginary fourth wall, the protagonist is able to communicate their inner-most thoughts and feelings directly to the audience.
The equivalence of this, when writing narrative, is to use 1st person for our protagonist or hero: the big “I.” The writer can speak to the reader directly and tell them what “I” am thinking or planning. This creates internal intimacy with the reader and gives the writer a platform for the character/protagonist to reveal themselves to the reader. However, the first person narrator is not always reliable. That is to say, just because the “I” character feels an emotion, it doesn’t mean it is appropriate. For example, the protagonist might feel offended that a friend ditched them at a party, believing that the friend should have stuck around. But what if the friend had simply had enough of the protagonist’s drunken ravings? Perhaps he was right to skedaddle. The reader will know that the protagonist was raving like a madman by what she/he has said; meanwhile, the protagonist may think they were being perfectly lucid. Just because we have intimacy doesn’t mean we’ve created some perfect reality where everyone understands each other. Internal processes are often messier than external interactions, and in order to simplify such processes for the reader, also consider the option of writing in 3rd Person.
3rd Person: “He, She”
Joe Malone strolled casually over to the counter and slid onto the red vinyl stool. He said, “Coffee,” at the oversized man behind the counter in the spotted apron, who nodded and turned for the glass coffee pot which sat cooking on a glowing element behind him. Joe could smell the coffee burning even from where he sat, but with enough sugar in it, it might still help shake the greasy ache in his belly from a night of drinking to forget.
Here we have an example of 3rd person. Joe is not talking directly to us. He doesn’t even know we exist. He’s too busy trying to get over his hangover. We are merely a “fly on the wall” watching Joe, maybe following him around to see what he does in the next few hours. Even better yet, when Joe leaves, we might decide to stick around in the diner, in which case we’ll see the big guy behind the counter pick up his phone, tap in a number, and say:
“Yeah, this is Smokey. Malone was just in here. Looked pretty sick. Guess he drank too much again, so he should be easy to pick up. Just don’t rough him up so much this time.”
What’s going on? We don’t know yet, so we’ve got to keep reading, and this is the strength of using 3rd person. Its limitations give the story momentum.
Now, it’s true that 1st person also has limitations; after all, we’re stuck inside the protagonist, and we only get to see what he or she sees. For example, here’s Joe again:
I was feeling like hell as I pushed my way into Smokey’s Diner on Fifth Street. It was mostly empty, and I took a seat at the counter. There was a big guy behind it wearing an apron Picasso must’ve used for a few years before donating to Goodwill. He glared at me, so I said, “Coffee,” even though I could smell it was burned. It’d have to do, at least til I got back to Rose’s place. I grabbed for the sugar.
Who’s Rose? We don’t know. We’ll have to stick with Joe’s internal narrative to find out – he’s speaking to us from inside himself, so there are limitations here, too. However, 3rd person probably offers more freedom to chose who we follow and which scenes we witness. For example, with 3rd person, we can have an omnipresent narrative. That is, we can be everywhere and know much more than the protagonist. We might even know before he does that he’s walking into a trap. Or that Freddie Kruger is hiding behind the door with an axe. This is how suspense is built.
3rd person omniscient is the more common choice in narrative, especially as it allows the author to tell great, sweeping sagas that might cover generations and include the lives of many people. Because the writer chooses omniscience, they can be anywhere at any given time to inform the reader of pretty much anything they like. In this voice, the two most important things the writer must keep in mind are the chronology of events and spatial connections, as in: when did it happen, and where did it happen. (This might seem obvious, but when piecing together a long, detailed story, some details can easily be forgotten). Another advantage of 3rd person omniscient is that the reader gets the sense that the narrator is at their most reliable, perhaps because they do not seem subject to the emotional upheavals of the 1st person narrator, who is so close to the events that they must experience them in real time. The 3rd person narrator gets to stand well back and tell the story as it happens to others, not to themselves.
Lest 3rd person omniscient seems too distant for the tone you’re trying to achieve, consider 3rd person subjective, sometimes called 3rd person close. The “closeness” comes from the nearness the reader feels when we learn how the protagonist is dealing with events on a personal level. The empathetic fly on the wall comes down near Joe and looks over his shoulder to see how he’s doing.
This, from the fly:
Joe slurped his coffee, letting the sweet caramel flavor burn his tongue. But the sugar couldn’t mask the bitterness he felt inside. He wanted the coffee to burn. Burn away his thoughts. Burn away the hate and pain that had dug their way into his heart after Myra left. He held out his coffee mug and, in a too-loud voice, said, “More!”
So, even though we’re not in 1st person, it doesn’t mean we need to avoid intimacy. We see right inside poor old Joe; however, in 3rd person, we don’t have to follow his sorry butt around all day if we don’t want to, and it seems unlikely he’ll cheer up any time soon.
Some writers will mix and match 3rd person omniscient with 3rd person close within a narrative, depending on the scene and how they create dynamics in their storytelling (dynamics being the rise and fall of the action or events that occur). Sometimes, this mixing and matching will be driven simply by instincts that the writer relies on to feel their way through the story. Instincts sometimes have to be relied upon because there are a million decisions to be made when telling a story. Not all at once, thankfully, but they pop up again and again as the writer navigates their way from the unknown to the known. (After all, even the writer doesn’t always know how things will turn out. That’s what keeps us writing!)
2nd Person: “You”
2nd person voice is a rarity in narrative. This is probably because it includes the reader in every action, and the “you” can become overbearing. Here’s our old friend Joe again:
You were hung over, so you went into Smokey’s Diner on Fifth to slurp down some of that rotgut coffee which he always keeps too hot. But you like it that way. You like the way it burns its way into your thoughts, the way it scalds your tongue so you forget about her, the way she always yelled at you when you walked in the door. The way she could make it up to you when she wanted something. You add too much sugar. It’s the only way you’ll keep it down.
Get the picture? You’ve become Joe. Being told what “you” are doing and feeling might get a little too personal for the reader after a while. Somehow, it becomes intrusive, especially if the reader just wants to pick up a good book as a way to escape their own life for a while; we don’t always want to be reminded of our connection to ourselves when we read. In fact, sometimes a book is judged purely for the extent to which it can make us forget our troubles for a while.
Tense in Narrative
Cultures around the world vary in the tense they use as the default when storytelling. For example, some Asian language storytellers start out in past tense but quickly switch to present tense for the bulk of the story. Western writers, conversely, start out in past tense as our default and often only use present tense in dialogue. It’s not that there is any rule against writing an entire novel in present tense, but I’ll let Joe explain:
Joe Malone strolls casually over to the counter and slides onto the red vinyl stool. He says, “Coffee,” at the oversized man behind the counter, who nods and turns for the glass coffee pot which sits cooking on a glowing element behind him. Joe smells the coffee burning even from where he sits, but with enough sugar in it, it might help shake the greasy ache in his belly from a night of drinking to forget.
Now, I’m not sure this tense works at all with this genre, hardboiled as it is, so the comparison seems unfair. For a better example of present tense usage, here’s a short excerpt from Anton Chekhov’s, “A Day in the Country:”
Terenty comes out of the kitchen-garden and, lifting high his long legs, begins striding down the village street. He walks quickly without stopping or looking from side to side, as though he were shoved from behind or afraid of pursuit. Fyokla can hardly keep up with him. They come out of the village and turn along the dusty road towards the count’s copse that lies dark blue in the distance. It is about a mile and a half away. The clouds have by now covered the sun, and soon afterwards there is not a speck of blue left in the sky. It grows dark.
This example seems quite successful in its use of present tense because the rapid tone of the language and the rapid pace of the action seem tailored to the immediacy of present tense. Perhaps when the author planned to use present tense, he knew it would set a particular tone and that the tone would match the genre, or at least the mood, of the story he’s telling. Chekhov’s short story of a day in the country may also work precisely because it is a short story and not an elongated tale, where present tense may become tiring after an extended period of reading.
To recap, Western writers seem most often to use 3rd person and past tense as their default settings. Sometimes 1st person is preferred, especially in certain genres like detective fiction and stylized noir. Present tense and the use of 2nd person are rare. Try writing a short story in these rare styles and check the results against a typical default style; you’ll quickly get that rare feeling. It may be that we have become so used to our Western default that it has created powerful expectations every time we examine literature, and we dare not buck those expectations. Or it may be that the logistics of story telling become very tricky in these unusual styles. Either way, chose voice and tense carefully because they will shape everything that’s to come.