Tag Archives: consistency in writing

The Reason Stories are Written in Past Tense

One of the first things any decent creative writing class will teach an aspiring author is the importance of maintaining consistency throughout the text, and it’s something I’ve definitely mentioned before on this blog.  Although this often refers to the importance of maintaining plot consistencies, grammatical consistencies (and functional consistencies), are equally crucial parts in creating a legible narrative.

Anyone who reads fiction novels regularly will have noticed that the overwhelming majority of these stories are written in past tense; e.g. “It was the best of times…”, “She figured it was all over…”, “He loved her like no other, but also saw no way to show it…” etc.  But why is this?  What makes a past tense narrative more grammatically correct, then a past or future tense syntax structure?  To answer that question, one needs to first dispel the phrasing of it.  There is nothing inherently more grammatically correct about using past tense, as opposed to any other tense, as long as the narrative voice remains consistent in its use throughout the story (or there is a damn good reason why it doesn’t need to do so).  Hence, the reason past tense is seen as the default has less do to with grammar, and more to do with functionality.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that writers by definition are also readers, meaning that they carry with them decades’ worth of literary conditioning, just like the audience they are trying to reach.  Most of the books a writer has read will have been written in past tense narrative, and like every other reader, it is understandable if this structure naturally seeps into one’s own writings.  Thus, one also shouldn’t underestimate the sheer amount of concentration it will take to catch the potential for inconsistent writings when attempting to do experimental works that run counter to the norm, and how the potential of creating an inconsistent prose goes up substantially when trying do to something out of the ordinary.  Therefore, defaulting to the more common past tense narrative is an easy way to ensure consistency throughout one’s plot, since it will feel the most natural; for writers and readers, alike.

Alternatively, rarely do you see whole plot narratives written as future tense; e.g.  “I will go see her tomorrow, after which we’ll talk…”, “They are going to take care of it later…” etc.  This sort of writing is reserved more for character dialogues, as they are more in line with casual conversations (not to mention people’s internal dialogues) wherein the discourse centers on planned actions (i.e. things yet to be done, spoken about by character’s whose overall knowledge of events is limited).  In contrast, narrator voices—whether they are written in first person, or third person; whether they are limited, or omniscient—are instinctively read by the audience in a bird’s eye view perspective, detailing the happenings to them as an observer of events.  It wouldn’t be impossible to write a whole narrative in the future tense, but the risk you run is to possibly frustrate your readers because, in many ways, such choice of phrasing stands so deeply in contrast with how most of us are attuned to differentiating between plot narrative and character dialogue that it may have the unfortunate affect of making the story too confusing and tiresome for most to bother following along with to the end.  And while challenging readers through provocative prose can be laudable, given them a headache through cumbersome verb usage is anything but useful.

Lastly, there is present tense; e.g.  “She creates the world as she sees it…”, “He says what he thinks, and he thinks what he knows…”  It’s a very impactful form of narrative, which immediately frames the plot into an action mode—things are happening, and they are happening right freaking now!  It’s unique, and in the hands of a skilled writer, has the potential to serve as a creative alternative to its more common past tense counterpart.  On the other hand, in unseasoned hands, it has the potentially to also wear out the reader; think sensory overload brought about by too much intensity.  There is a reason most stories follow the general set up of: introduction -> rising action -> climax -> falling action -> conclusion/resolution. If the whole story is written in a narrative that denotes action all throughout these distinct steps in the narrative, then the writer will have to work doubly hard to make the impact of the climax (and the rising action that leads up to it) standout to the reader’s attention.  I’m not saying that it’s an impossible task to accomplish, but it is harder, and takes considering talent to get it right.

I outlined why looking at the prevalence of past tense narratives in fiction isn’t really an issue of grammar, but an issue of ease of writing and what reader’s are simply accustomed to.  In an obvious way, the situation is very much a Catch-22:  Readers are used to reading narratives because most authors write in past tense narratives; authors write in past tense narratives because most readers are used to reading in past tense narratives. And a prevailing orthodoxy is therefore sustained.  Now, I will never say not to attempt a heterodox approach that deviates from the norm, on the grounds that one never knows for certain what works until it’s tried (every new situation carries with it the prospect for new discovery, and all that).  I simply want to make the point that no reader expects you to re-invent the written word to be seen as a great storyteller, and it’s perfectly fine to stick with what has been tried-and-tested to work, and what will make it easier for you to write your story, rather than fret over the structural details when you really don’t have to.

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Understanding Perspective in Writing

Writers easily get bogged down in what one could call the nuts and bolts of narrating a story–plot, setting, character development, etc.–that it often gets easy to overlook that narrating itself is the very underpinning that defines the perspective by which a story is revealed to the reader.

Generally, most narratives are written as either from a first-person or third-person perspective.  Second-person exists, too, but is not often used as an exclusive character perspective on account that it’s hard to construct a long-form narrative with it (not impossible, but definitely hard).  As an example, on many blog posts [including this one] I’ll often utilize the rhetorical second-person “you” in reference to the hypothetical reader scrolling through the text, but when doing so will usually not take long to resort to the first-person “I” in order to make the prose coherent.  By and large, if you are writing some kind of narrative, especially in the realm of fiction, you’ll probably be doing it in first-person, or third-person.

Regular readers of KR know that I hate all forms of jargon.  Philosophical, political, literary–all of them; if you’re someone who always feels the need to express yourself using pretentious ten dollar words and terms in lieu of more straightforward ones available, I will always assume that you are probably someone who doesn’t know what s/he is talking about.  With that in mind, if you are not 100% sure about all these terms, let’s simplify it by saying that if your story’s narrator speaks using “I,” “me,” and “we,” your story is written in first-person.  The strength  of writing in first-person comes from the ease by which the reader gets to empathize with the narrator, and in turn, the narrative of the story being told.

Tom went to the store, bought gum, and then shot himself with his revolver,” can be emotionally gripping, but not as emotionally gripping as, “I went to the store, bought gum, and then shot myself with my revolver,” because now you are not just being asked to read as a casual observer, but as the main character him/herself.  This is why first-person narratives are easier to immerse oneself into, as the prose has less of a descriptive barrier between narrator and reader, making it easier to become invested in the plot’s dilemmas and character arcs.

However, writing in first-person also has its drawbacks.  The perspective is by definition restricted to only one point-of-view.  Unless your character is some sort of clairvoyant deity, the narrative will be limited to whatever s/he sees and describes (even if your character is an all-knowing god, written in first-person the story is still only told through the perspective of one viewpoint, hence it’s still restricted).  Most stories have more than one character present; hence it’s not hard to realize the issues that arise when you can only ever truly understand how one character is feeling, and have to rely on this one perspective to give a complete deduction on the thoughts and intentions of all the other characters.

As an example, let’s say that the narrator character is in a conflict with side characters A and B.  What are character A and B’s thoughts on this conflict?  You don’t know.  You know what the narrator character thinks their thoughts might be, and that’s all.  This isn’t a problem, in and of itself.  It can be used to create a wonderful sense of tension and suspense.  But it also means that a writer has to keep in mind perspective consistency within the plot, so that it doesn’t violate the logic of the first-person perspective that’s been setup so far.  This means that if side characters A and B had a conversation somewhere far away from the narrator character, the narrative has to be worked around in which the narrator character somehow gets wind of it if it’s going to be mentioned in the plot.  The narrator character can’t just mention it in mid-conversation, because we–as the readers who have had direct purview to the narrator’s perspective–know that that’s not knowledge that could have been available to her/him.  It breaks internal logic, and it’s rhetorically lazy.

Another glaring handicap with first-person narratives is that everything in the setting is dependent on the description given by the narrator character.  Which means that if this narrator is presented as someone not keen on being too observant and articulate, it will seem weird to have her/him suddenly break into elaborately detailed descriptions of everything happening around her/him just so the reader can see what’s being looked at.  It can also be distracting, and work to undercut the immersion benefits mentioned earlier regarding the first-person narrative to begin with.

The ready alternative is to write in the third-person, and many writer’s workshops will tell you to do just that.  Third-person allows you to separate the narrator’s voice from the characters in your story.  This means that things like character actions and appearance, and setting descriptions, are not dependent on any one character’s observations.  They are instead voiced by an impartial, non-participatory “third-person” giving all the details of the narrative’s happenings.  The obvious benefit of writing in the third-person is that it allows the writer to craft a multi-perspective plot that includes the inner thoughts of any character in the story, not just one narrator character.  Although a third-person narrative can have the affect of creating a buffer between the reader and a story’s protagonist in contrast to how a first-person perspective can work to merge reader and character into one unified voice, it also gives the writer a greater sense of control of setting the details of the narrative, as well as a greater sense of freedom when it comes to how these details are to be dispensed to the reader.

The major setbacks to writing in a third-person perspective is the misstep of not understanding that the narrative comes in two very distinct forms, which for the sake of consistency should not be confused throughout the plot.

The first form is what is called third-person-limited. The non-participatory narrator uses pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they” (as opposed to the first-person, “I,” “me,” and “we”), and will give descriptions from the aforementioned impartial point-of-view.  But, as the name implies, a third-person-limited perspective has its literary  constraints.  Limited implies that while the narrative will give descriptive details to the reader independent of any one character’s subject thoughts, it’s narrative scope is limited to the details of usually one main character, and the details shared will not step outside the purview of the details available to this main character.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a lot like a first-person perspective just with different pronoun usage, you are both right and wrong.  Similarities between the two are clearly present, but unlike a first-person perspective , third-person-limited does allow for the narrative to explore the inner thoughts and motivations of the secondary characters because they are not being described through the main character’s subjective perspective.  The limitation is that the secondary characters have to be in some sort of interaction or connection with the main character.  Of course, it is also possible to avoid being tied down to one and only one character, by re-centering to a different main character throughout the different scenes that make up the plot.  One just has to be careful not to get confused about what character is currently occupying this role (i.e. if character A is the main character in Scene 1, and Scene 2 switches to character B as the focal point, the third-person-limited narrative in Scene 2 can’t suddenly start reference details revealed in Scene 1 because its point of focus, character B, will as of this point be ignorant of said details–even simply stating in the narrative, “Character B is ignorant of this fact revealed to Character A” is a violation of the internal logic of a third-person-limited perspective).

On the opposite side of all of this, stands the third-person-omniscient perspective.  For a writer, this perspective allows for the greatest amount of narrative freedom, in that you are not chained to the thoughts or whereabouts of any one character.  Think of the third-person-omniscient perspective as the god’s eye view to the third-person-limited bird’s eye view of storytelling.   Want to explore multiple character thoughts and feelings, without needing to relate it back to any given main character’s role within the scene?  No problem.  Want to jump around between character perspectives, and reference back to the reader things that only they (as the audience) are aware of within the greater plot?  Your only limitation is your creativity here.  However (oh, come now, you knew it was coming) it is important to keep in mind that too much freedom within a prose can also very easily tire out a reader.  When you present multiple viewpoints, it might make it harder for readers to bond with any characters (let alone the intended main protagonists of the story), or get invested in the dilemmas and outcomes that befall any of them.  In other words, too much information can create perspective fatigue, which is why even a narrative written from a third-person-omniscient perspective will often self-limit when to utilize its omniscience.

I spend some time here going over some of the strengths and drawbacks of the different narrative perspectives available to writers, not in order to argue for using one form over the other, but to simply give an overview why someone might wish to choose one over the other (depending on what sort of story is being written).  By far, the only real thing I am arguing for in this post is the importance of consistency in writing.  Meaning that whatever perspective you choose for your story’s narrative, you have to stick with it, otherwise you are setting yourself up for a grueling writing experience, and increasing the likelihood of the final draft being a frustrating mess to read (as much as it will be one to write).

It is perfectly fine to start out with one perspective, and then decide that the story is better served if written from a different perspective, but when faced with such a case the correct action is to take the time to go back to the beginning and rewrite everything to match the now better fitting narrative for the story.

Consistency. Consistency. Consistency.  That is the only true lesson here.