A Writer's First Aid Kit: Tense and Voice
Another great blog with tips written by ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂
I’ve decided to write about something that might seem a bit obscure but is actually totally relevant. I’m doing it because (back when I had my review store) tenses were one thing that always caught people out.
The thing about tense and voice is that they might seem like really basic components, so basic that you might not even think about them before you start writing – instead you just sink into whatever is most natural. In this blog, I will run through the different tenses and voices, explaining each one and giving examples from my writing, and I will also try to clear up a few key areas of confusion.
First Person Voice
First person narrative voice is when the story is told by a character who participates or observes (often this is the protagonist but this doesn’t have to be – see The Great Gatsby for details) and it is their point of view and perspective of the events. It uses ‘I’ and ‘me’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ and this often gives the account a more personal tone as it presents the reader with direct access to the thoughts and opinions of the character in question.
Until about a year ago, everything I wrote was first person, mostly because I hadn’t had the bravery to branch out. In many ways, first person feels the easiest and most natural to use when you begin writing. If you think about it, this is because it is the voice that you are most comfortable with as it is what you use all the time in your day-to-day life. When talking to your friends about what you did at the weekend you are essentially telling a story in the first person.
The first person can be very powerful as a means of conveying emotion but can be limited and simplistic in its coverage of the story.
I used it in my movella ‘Iris’ – as the whole story is something of a confession from the narrator, this style of voice works well: “One day, perhaps it will be many years from now, I will tell you about Iris.
Iris; the girl who was beautiful, untouchable and untameable. The girl so flexible, so beguiling yet deceitful, that she seemed to be tied nowhere and to nobody. She was untethered and you could sense it in the way she drew breaths, like she drew them deeper than anyone else just to point out the glory of being limitless.”
Third Person Voice
Third person narrative voice is when the story is told by an (often omniscient) outside voice. It is generally considered to be the voice of the author, conducting their story, and uses ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. Sometimes this narrative voice is focalised through the protagonist of the story meaning that it will trace their path and their thoughts and emotions. In other stories, the third person voice is free to roam from character to character offering an account of all events (the way a history textbook might).
This is probably the most commonly used type of narration and, as I have veered away from first person, I have found that writing in third person has become much more comfortable and fluid than I used to imagine. It is a better choice than first person if you have multiple characters and story strands to follow. Because of this, it perhaps lends itself more to fantasy/sci-fi/mystery/thriller stories while the more personal first person suits realism.
My winning entry to the Seven Days Competition last year made use of a more detached, factual third person voice as the story was less character-focused, instead following the domino effect of one action through a string of different characters over the course of a week.
“Eric is late. He is not yet comfortably accustomed to lateness; an odd fact considering that most of his life has consisted of hopping from train to train, platform to platform. His is a world of cracked tannoy announcements and apologies. Eric is late and so he misses his connecting train.”
Although sometimes this narrative voice can seem un-personal, it can be just as involved in the characters’ emotions as first-person. In my movella Triangular Lives, the third person voice is focalised through each of the three protagonists in turn. The focus of this story is much more around the personal development of each character than about a complex plot and so it is more involved in their emotions:
“It was a house for small people, she decided upon arrival, which was just as well because they made a small family. Only Emma and Dad. They were small in happiness, small in hospitality and neither of them broke far clear of five foot. They stumbled around the place that evening, not yet accustomed to their smallness even though they’d suffered three months of it.”
Second Person Voice
This is very rarely used in literature as it is such an unnatural way to tell a story. Traditionally story-telling would either come from personal account or from legend, passed down through generations, meaning that first and third person are natural means of telling stories. The second person use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ is therefore unconventional and to a certain extent awkward as a narrative voice.
As I’ve tried to explore as much as possible with my writing style, I have used this unusual voice in my movella ‘Glass Girl’. Writing in this way was a really interesting and fun activity and I have really enjoyed trying to make something so unusual flow like a more conventional piece of writing. As a writer in this voice, you put the reader in the place of your protagonist and dictate to them what they do and how they react which has been fascinating to create!
‘Glass Girl’ opens like this:
“At 3:53 today you learn that it is not socially acceptable to laugh at the jokes an ex-friend is telling someone else. You will never learn exactly when you began to fall apart. You are just a frayed end, an eternally unstitching seam. She chooses the boy at the bus stop and you chose the solitary life you need saving from.”
Tenses are really important as they are what make your story flow. One of the most distracting things as a reader is when the writing shifts tense (not for a flash-back but by mistake) and yet slipping between tenses can be a very easy mistake to make.
Simple Past Tense
This is the most common tense in literature as it works well for retelling a past event.
I used this tense when I wrote my movella Triangular Lives (as you saw when you read the section on narrative voice) and it was quite simple to keep my writing fluid without slipping out of tense.
This is an alternative to the simple past in which there is just one part to the verb. In this tense there is also a past participle, this tense is generally mixed with the simple past when you write in the past tense.
I have struggled to define this tense in the past as I have used it without thinking. It is the way in which we have always constructed sentences about things that have happened and so we have not been aware that we have differentiated between the simple past and this form of the past tense.
Past Past Tense
This tense is definitely not called the past past tense but I call it this because I don’t rightly know what it should be referred to as. This seems to be the tense that catches people out as it is the tense that you use when you are writing in the past but then refer back to an earlier even that has already happened. Therefore it is the past of the past – hence why I call it the past past. For those of you who speak French, this is the English equivalent of the 'plus-que-parfait.'
I had had difficulty understanding this tense until I realised that it was like the ‘plus-que-parfait’.
In the sentence above, ‘had had’ is the past past and the ‘realised’ and ‘was’ is the simple past.
This tense gives the reader a sense of being in the moment as all the action appears to happen as they read it. This tense does seem a little unusual sometimes as it is not natural to storytelling to commentate on a story as it unfolds but because of this I think it is fun to play around with.
This is as unusual in literature as the second person narrative voice.
Most people won’t ever use this tense as it will feel unnatural. But I will share a piece of future tense (and second person) writing with you to demonstrate how it is possible for you to use it without sounding as contrived as the little intro you have just read:
“You will wake up early. Not early like cotton-throated and scratchy-eyed mornings. It will be early like the colour of sycamore and silver birch creeping round the curtains. It will be early like flimsy shadows and dust on the windows and birds chewing away the night with raucous wings. You will kneel up in bed and then hang your legs out of the window to breathe.”
I realise that this may not have been the most helpful blog as I find it difficult to explain the different tenses but I will now try to elaborate on the idea of referring to the past in your stories which is what seems to confuse people and cause them to slip between tenses.
If you are writing in the present tense but refer back to a past incident you can use the past and the simple past:
e.g. “I love my bedroom, my mum renovated it for me last summer.” – ‘I love’ is present, ‘renovated’ is simple past.
If you are writing in the past tense then any references to previous incidents have to use the past past:
e.g. “They walked down the road into town together, it was the first warm day of the year and the sunlight was strong on the pavement. They had been to town together in December but the driving sleet had forced them to retreat into a coffee shop.” – ‘walked’ and ‘was’ are in the simple past, ‘had been’ and ‘had forced’ are in the past past.
Hope this helps a little bit, please leave any requests for blogs in the comments below.
Thank you ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂ for writing this blog post and creating the banner!