Writing Advice

Point of View, Tense and Narrative Voice

I’m not going to write an article going into heavy detail about the benefits and pitfalls of each point of view, maybe that article will come another day. Instead I want to focus on the different types of narrative that you can actually use. You may already be familiar with point of view and tense, but there might be other forms of narrative, or combinations that you haven’t seen before. (From this point on, I’ll refer to point of view as POV.)

Point of View

Let’s start simple. There are three types of POV. This is the perspective that your novel is told from.

1 st person: particularly common in YA fiction, this is when the narrator is the protagonist. It’s a very good way of understanding the character’s feelings and motivation, but can limit the readers’ knowledge of events outside the narrators awareness.

“I hated waiting for him, but what did I expect? He had a penchant for being late.”

2nd person: a very rarely used POV and for good reason. In this instance, the reader is a character/the protagonist. Most often used in game adventure books, it brings the reader into the story however can often be difficult to read (particularly in large doses) and it can be difficult for the reader to relate to their character.

“You picked up the book and frowned, the words speaking to you in a mixture of signs and symbols yet they failed to produce any form of coherence.”

3rd person: probably the most commonly used POV, 3rd person looks at the characters from the outside. Giving you a good view point of as many characters as you wish, but can reduce emotional connection with some of the characters.

“He knew he was running a little late, accepting the certainty he decided that delaying himself for another few minutes wouldn’t make much of a difference at this point.”

But like I said. Simple. There are more types of narration within these.

Rare POV Narrative

Usually from the perspective of the protagonist, there are other forms of 1st person narrative that are rarely used.

1 person secondary: Instead of being told from the POV of the protagonist, it is told from the perspective of a secondary character. Someone who is outside of the key events. Eg. the best friend of the Chosen One. [Example: Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story is told from the perspective of Dr. John Watson as he accompanies Sherlock Holmes on his investigations.]

1st person omniscient: Similarly this is told outside of the perspective of the protagonist, but by a narrator who knows all the events that are to happen and the thoughts and feelings of the characters. At times this can feel like a 3rd person narrative. [Example: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The story is told from the perspective of Death as he watches over a young girl called Liesl in Nazi Germany. Most of the story reads as 3rd person narrative but with the personality of Death and his occasional remarks.]

There are also two main forms of 3rd person narrative.

3rd person limited: This is told from the perspective of one character and only follows their thoughts and feelings (be wary of headjumping). [Example: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.]

3rd person omniscient: Third person omniscient allows you to tell the story from the perspective of all characters and describe their thoughts and feelings equally. [Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke]

However, lately many stories have used 3rd person limited narratives, told from the perspective of multiple characters. This is done in much the same way as multiple 1st person POVs, in that each character is followed solely through their own section. After a page break or chapter end the story may switch its focus to another character but still maintain a singular focus on their thoughts and feelings. [Example: A Song of Fire and Ice (the series Game of Thrones was based off) by George R. R. Martin. Each character has individual chapters that only discuss the information the narrative character knows.]

Tense

Past: Past tense is the most commonly used and tends to work well for all types of stories. This is depicting events that have already happened so can (especially in first person) be approached with hindsight and knowledge of forthcoming events.

“She ran so fast is was hard to see, disappearing like a ghost the shadows swallowed her whole and she slunk into the alley.”

Present: Present tense happens in the moment, it speeds up the reading and best suits novels with action sequences. 1st person present is used very often in YA dystopian novels like the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Divergent by Veronica Roth.

“There are two of them on my tail. I close my eyes and spin around, pistol ready in my hand. I shoot before I even look up.”

Crazy shoutout to future tense: A tense that is never used. Mostly because the English language doesn’t have a future tense (though it has ways of expressing the future). There have been a few examples like Aura by Carlos Fuentes, but the English translation eliminates the future tense.

Narrative Voice

Stream-of-Consciousness: More typically used in 1st person POV, this is when the text is displayed as a continous stream of thought. The character may have interior monologues with themselves and trains of thought can be left unfinished. [Example: The Handmaid’s Tail by Margaret Atwood]

Character Voice: This is one of the most important parts of a story; especially if using multiple 1st person or 3rd person limited POVs. You need to ensure that every character has their own voice and that any sections written from their perspective are true to their dialogue. eg. you won’t have an uneducated peasant from the 1800’s writing with flowery description.

The Unreliable Narrator: This is one of my favourite narrative devices but it’s rarely used well. This is when the narrator of the story (usually first person) omits certain details, misinterprets events or straight-out lies to the reader. There’s so many interesting ways of using it. [Example: the False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen] A Song of Fire and Ice also uses an unreliable narrator *SPOILER WARNING* (for book 4, A Feast for Crows) there’s a scene in which Sansa remembers her last encounter with the Hound, incorrectly remembering that he kissed her. This is a good example of unreliable narrative used in a different way, in which instead of the narrator intentionally misleading the reader, Sansa has actually mis-remembered the event. *END SPOILER*

So there you are! Some useful insights into narrative style, including some lesser known POV or voices you might not have previously seen. There are good ways and bad ways to use each of these and as you’re writing you’ll find out which best suit your story. Do you have any favourite narrative styles?

– Nadia

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