Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Who is telling this story? It’s a strange question, and one that’s based on feigned ignorance, but if you give it a chance, it could do great things for how you consider perspective in your writing.
That’s because by reconsidering a basic assumption, you’ll become aware of multiple decisions you already made. Maybe that just means you’ll see how right you were and get a confidence boost, or maybe it’ll show you a way in which you could improve your book.
It’s always satisfying when someone passes on a great piece of writing advice. If it’s true enough, you don’t feel like you’re being taught something, but that someone has perfectly phrased something you already knew. One that springs to mind for me is a writing teacher slamming his hands repeatedly onto a table while shouting, “No-one! Cares! About! The &$@!ing! Weather!”
Like a lot of good writing advice, it’s not completely true, but it directs an author’s attention to an area of concern. Yes, you can communicate the weather, but for God’s sake, don’t linger over it for an entire paragraph. Another piece of advice from the same professor was phrased in the form of a question, asked quite sincerely to a young author who had just presented a story told in the omniscient, third-person voice:
Who is telling this story?
The student was dumbfounded, having chosen the third person without really thinking about what it meant for their piece. They’d gone for the default, not even asking if it was the right choice.Writing in the third-person past tense? Great, but why?Click To Tweet
Even if you already know the answer, it’s a question that’s worth considering, especially because it asks ten more. Is anyone telling the story? If not, is that okay? If so, where and when are they, and how much do they know? Should their voice be captured in the writing style, and what does that mean for how to communicate the personalities of other characters? Wait a minute, who are they telling it to?
The questions above are a good way to investigate whether you’re writing the best form of your story, but they also offer avenues to take a good tale and make it great. Not sure where to start? Well, let’s go with tense.
Tense is about when your story is happening in relation to its telling. Did it happen a while ago, is it happening now, or will it occur in the future? Does it span multiple categories, with the story overtaking the teller, or dabble in a few, with some future-tense visions or past-tense memories assailing a present-tense character?
The past tense tends to be the default choice, but is it really the best choice for your story? Present tense offers immediacy, while the future tense is a trippy choice for adventurous authors.
If you’re choosing the past because the other options don’t appeal, remember that this is still a choice. How long ago, exactly, did these events occur? Consider these iconic words from the Star Wars movies:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
This is one of the oddest lines in pop culture – a specific reminder that the space battles and sentient robots you’re about to see are positioned firmly in the past. Moreover, no-one even asked – the reader would have assume the events were set in the future. And yet those words don’t just work; they’ve achieved incredible fame. Clearly, they struck a chord.Think about how your choice of tense can lend character to your story.Click To Tweet
Why? Well, there’s a lot to it, but part of the Star Wars franchise’s success (and a key component in many of its failures), is that at its best, its universe feels lived in. There’s rust, dirt and damage – the original movies are set long after a vital struggle has been lost, the heroes of which are all but forgotten.
It’s not that Star Wars’ sense of time is something special, but that the films have such an appreciation of their own tense. They’re set in, and largely about, the past, their plots caught up in looking back. It’s no coincidence that the poorly received prequels lack this element.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has a particularly effective grasp of its own tense – the story is told through a diary, and an epilogue re-characterizes the story as a historical document by revealing a society far in the future of the fictional world. Here, Atwood creates distance – the protagonist was always in peril, struggling on her own, and by focusing on how far in the past these events actually were, she’s finally distanced from even the reader.
So the question becomes: When is your reader being told this story in relation to the events in question?
Your answer might be that they’re not – the story is happening elsewhere, in a timeframe that doesn’t involve them. Rest assured that that’s a valid answer, but allow yourself a few minutes of doubt. Isn’t there a way to bring your reader in? Would present tense remove the barrier between them and the story? Could they be overhearing someone else being told the story?
There’s rich ground here, especially when combined with…
Point of view and audience
When considering point of view, there are three options:
I’ve written before on each type of point of view (the articles are linked above), but they’re not the absolute choices many authors think. In fact, third-person narration is the baseline for each – you can only tell the difference once the narrator gets involved in the story. Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions plays on this when the narrator ‘arrives’ near the end of the story, introducing a previously absent ‘I’.
Beyond the usual style decisions around point of view, it’s worth considering more aspects of this choice. First, and returning to the original question: Who is telling this story? Maybe no-one, but really think about your answer, not least because it asks two more questions. Why are they telling it, and who are they telling it to?
Books like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves have done a lot with this concept, constructing layered stories where the characters are telling parts of the story to each other, or even as consciously commercial works. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride adds a whole framing narrative to the story, creating an editor who is presenting the story to his son.
This doesn’t have to be explicit – H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau are both told by narrators who have survived an amazing experience and are giving their account to interested parties. It’s a low-key effect, but simply by assuming the presence of an in-world audience, Wells taps into a seam of realism that makes the stories particularly unnerving. They feel like real accounts; far more creepy thanks to a choice that many readers will barely notice.
If you have any kind of narrator, really think about why they’re telling their story, and who they’re telling it to. If not, take some time to ponder how bizarre it is to have an omniscient narrator (a potentially Godlike figure) telling a story to someone outside the world in which it happens.Ever wondered who’s narrating your third-person story?Click To Tweet
Dig deep enough and this is really about why you’re writing a story. It’s entirely possible that going down this particular rabbit hole will freak you out. After all, it doesn’t just ask your story to justify its existence, but for the very idea of a story to account for itself. That turmoil may settle down with you deciding that the story is simply something that happened, and this is where it’s recorded, or you may reconsider whether or not your narrator or supposed reader has a stake in events.
Either way, this extra consideration will shine through in your writing. You’d be surprised how much more engagingly you can write just from accepting that your story is being told simply because it happened. There’s a quiet assurance there that encourages the reader to invest.
Are you sure your protagonist is the best person to tell your story, or to act as the focus for your narrator? This is an idea to which many authors pay lip service, but most would sooner abandon a project than truly consider rewriting from another character’s perspective. This is a mistake, as following a different character is often the final piece of the puzzle.
Returning to the original Star Wars trilogy, consider the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO. At least to begin with, they’re actually the focus of the story, with the viewer following them from one scene to the next. This is a longstanding artistic tradition – introducing some roving strangers in order to provide a useful perspective. They can be new to the situation, whether that be the world, the situation, or the relationships in front of them.
Many authors employ a similar device, transforming their protagonists into reader cyphers who are often less definite characters than their friends and enemies. Characters like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker enter the world fresh, more or less knowing as little as the reader in order to give them a way into the story.
In The Quadrant Method Is The Key To Amazing Storytelling, I suggested two versions of the same story, in which a wife discovers she has been hypnotized by her husband and turns the tables. Told from the wife’s perspective, it was a serviceable story, but it really came to life when considered from the husband’s point of view. Sometimes, it’s worth reconsidering your character perspective not to make things easier, but to offer a new structure to your story.
Richard Stark’s Parker novels tend to be from the protagonist’s point of view for the first two quarters, before spending the third quarter cycling between different characters. This is often the point at which a heist has gone wrong, and the resultant chaos is represented in the reader’s experience.
Not only is this exciting, but it allows Stark to hide what his protagonist is up to. Even straightforward actions can be made exhilarating when they’re hidden. The best of Stark’s stories even include some overlap, with a new perspective shedding fresh light on an event that’s already happened. There’s something really special about watching the hero prepare to ambush a gangster and then switching to that gangster’s perspective as they fall into the trap.
Emily Brontë uses multiple narrators to similar effect in Wuthering Heights. Here, the character Lockwood attempts to piece together a reliable account of events. He’s beset on all sides by unreliable narrators – people who only saw part of the story, or were only concerned with their role in it. In fact, Lockwood himself is less than likable, and by switching characters, Brontë manages to leave him behind, divorcing the story from any single narrator and making the reader feel as if they have a special insight that no character has managed to achieve.
Changing your perspective
The aspects of perspective that I’ve described can be used in various configurations, even within a story. You can switch tense, perspective, and even point of view, but remember to do so with finesse.
Tense is the one that causes the biggest problems. Remember that tense isn’t just about when a story took place, but when a story took place in relation to when it’s being told. Slipping into past tense for a flashback makes sense, but slipping into present tense for an action scene or vision is more problematic.
Of course, it can work, but treating tense as fluid unmoors it from any sense of the reader’s timeframe. If your character suddenly darts into the present, that underlines the fact that there was never really a ‘past’ in the first place. It might be worth the risk, but it definitely deserves careful consideration.Changing perspective within a story is difficult, but it can be effective.Click To Tweet
Changes in point of view are more common, with many third-person authors throwing in the odd first-person thought to give the reader some brief insight into a character’s inner workings, e.g. ‘I don’t like this, thought Dougal’. This is a terrible habit for any number of reasons (see How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises), but mainly because it once again undermines the internal consistency and logic of your choices.
The reader needs to believe that you chose the point of view of your story for a good reason. If they can see into a character’s mind once, why can’t they do it elsewhere? There’s no good answer that doesn’t rip them out of the story, so it’s better not to raise the question.
Shifting character perspective within a story offers similar pitfalls. There needs to be a good reason for the perspective to shift, it needs to feel ‘right’, or the reader will start thinking about why it really happened. Brontë uses a central narrator to have the reader accept different viewpoints – there are a lot of them, but they all come through Lockwood. Stark, on the other hand, uses the structure of the novel to make shifting characters feel natural. Portions of the book are blocked off, presented as separate areas and making it more understandable that one might behave differently from the others.
If you shift perspective frequently, you’ll need less explanation, as the reader will accept this is simply how the story works (though it might make sense to do this early, so they catch on as soon as possible).
Again, though, getting your reader to accept this kind of decision will come naturally from thinking about it yourself. Throw a different character in on a whim (or because the story demands it), and it’ll feel unnatural. Think about it beforehand, and know why you’re doing it, and you’ll make a series of subtle choices that prep the reader.
Stark, for instance, frequently includes events that can only be explained from another character’s perspective. When this eventually occurs, it closes a circuit the reader barely realized they’d begun and feels natural.
Deciding on perspective
There are no objectively right or wrong choices when discussing perspective, but whatever you do, it should be a choice. Confront yourself with an imaginary professor and ask yourself some of these odd questions. Can you give your answers with confidence? Great, then carry on. Do they unearth a little unease, or reveal that you’ve chosen something just because it was the default option? Explore your options to be sure you’ve chosen the right one.
Have you made any odd perspective choices in your writing, or are you thinking of another author who has? Let me know in the comments. Or, if you’d rather read more about how to decide on and write perspective, check out How To Stop Your Opinion Taking Center-stage In Your Writing and How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises. Or, for a reason to reconsider perspective decisions, try How And Why You Need To Recycle Writing Ideas.