11 May 2009

Story Elements #6: Narrators and Tense

Stories are told, right? Seems like a pretty basic claim. However, in writing, it's a claim that's often fraught with difficulties:

Who's telling the story? Why? And how?

From various sources, collated on Dictionary.com, we get the following definitions:


One who narrates; one who relates a series of events or transactions.
A person who tells a story; in literature, the voice that an author takes on to tell a story.

To narrate is:
  1. To tell (a story, for example) in speech or writing or by means of images.
  2. To give an account of (events, for example).
And tense (noun) is:

1. a category of verbal inflection that serves chiefly to specify the time of the action or state expressed by the verb.
2. a set of such categories or constructions in a particular language.
3. the time, as past, present, or future, expressed by such a category.
4. such categories or constructions, or their meanings collectively.

These are all things you need to consider when you're deciding who's going to tell your story. Will the narrator be seen or unseen? Reliable or unreliable? Are you telling it in first person or third, present tense or past?

The decision to tell a story is fraught with mines: step on one and you find that people have Really Definite opinions about stories should and shouldn't be told - and what's 'allowed', and what's not. Tell a story in present tense and you'll find a whole host of people ready and more-than-willing to expound to you about how present tense is 'unnatural' and 'difficult'. Tell a story in first person and then have the narrator die - and oh, shock! Oh, horror! People will be climbing over themselves to tell you how illogical your story is, how the narrator can't be narrating the story if they're dead, how they can't narrate events as they happen...

But here's the thing: All stories are equally illogical.

Because really, when you get down to it, unless you are absolutely 100% specific with your intent and audience, ANY story is implausible to tell. Unless you're going to frame your past tense narrative in terms of, for example, a journal, or a record for a specific purpose, then it's just as implausible, just as 'randomly floating out there'.

How does:

John sat at the piano, contemplating the neat rows of black and white, wishing his life was so ordered.

make any more logical sense in terms of 'being told' than:

John sits at the piano, contemplating the neat rows of black and white, wishing his life was so ordered.


Neither of them directs your attention to a specific audience, neither of them gives a 'reason' for the story being told, and neither of them, since they aren't in first person, has any trouble with the logicality of having the narrator narrate the events - the narrator can narrate them after the fact, or, since the narrator isn't actually the character and therefore isn't involved in the action, the narrator is perfectly capable of narrating the action as it happens.

Neither is better or worse, more logical or illogical, natural or unnatural. They are merely different tools, used for different purposes. And either can work well, if done well.

So next time you read a story, ask yourself - does the story actually address the question of who's telling the story and why? Most, I think you'll find don't. And really - does it even matter?

PS - The next poll is up in the sidebar. Please vote for your favourite sentence! (And yes, sorry, it's still black-on-black :S Just highlight the area in order to read the text. Think Top Secret Polls, remember? O:)) Results will be collated and announced after three polls.


Eric said...

This is a good post. I never really thought about my narrator much until I started listening to what others had to say on the subject. Thats not necessarily a bad thing, since improving my "voice" is always good. Thanks for discussing this though. Good food for thought.

ElanaJ said...

This is so interesting. I just read a book about life and death and survival. It was written in first person, so I already knew from the first page that the narrator wasn't going to die. It sort of lost some of it's punch, I think.

Davin Malasarn said...

I get caught up on tense a lot, I think because of what you said. It doesn't matter what tense you choose, but some people prefer certain ones. My novel has gone from present to past and back to present again.

Merc said...

*adores* Thank you for this, Inky One! :D I agree absolutely. (I have had the present tense and dead first person narrator and a host of other POV/tense/storytelling technique arguments with people and UGH. Some people just DO NOT GET "fiction" is not real. :P I shall have to direct them to your post in the future.)

*links back to this*


Lady Glamis said...

Awesome post! Thanks. :D

Litgirl01 said...

Excellent post, and very well written. :-)

Liana Brooks said...

You know... I have an entire book in first person narrated by someone who is dead. Well, killed at least. That's not the same thing as not moving.

People are do down on the dead!

P.S. Side bar colors.

If you send me the html for the poll I can fix the colors for you I think.

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