the one narrator to rule them all

One thing I’ve really wanted to do for a while is a weekly post about writing. So, without further ado, here’s the first installment in Writing Advice With Alex (affectionately abbreviated as Wawa Wednesdays, because I live too far away from the sandwich empire not to miss it).

A good question one of my freelance clients had for me a while back was about tense and POV, that is, who’s doing the narration and how in a story. There are three main choices you have here:

  1. Tense: Past or Present?
  2. POV: First or Third? (Okay, yes, you could also go with second, but as that’s a tricky kettle of fish I have not attempted yet I feel less qualified to speak on that.)
  3. Scope: Omniscient or Limited? aka the bounds of perception: how much information do(es) your narrator(s) have access to? all of it or selected bits?

Tense, for me, is most useful for immediacy of action. I really love present tense for action scenes, especially for stories where I have some really slick lines planned (I guess I usually think in present tense? I have all these post-its with phrases or one-liners that I know belong in a certain story, and usually they’re in present tense). When I was writing fanfic hard-core in high school, I would always write all the battle scenes in present tense (even if I was writing the rest of the fic in past, this was a really annoying habit to break) just because it felt that much snappier and dramatic to me to have the battle happening in real-time. There’s a desperation that comes from writing in the now.

On the flip, past is really helpful for descriptions and setting up stages. NB: just like you can still do action scenes without a problem in past tense, you can still describe things perfectly well in present. Sometimes past tense will make a story sound grander and lend the 20/20 of hindsight, and sometimes the uncertain present can keep the pacing tight. It just depends on your goals for a project.

For example, if I know I have to build a lot of world in a project, say like a fantasy, I might look at past tense and see if that would make my life easier than trying to do it all in present. If I’m working in the real world– like, contemporary YA or modern day fantasy– I might go with present, because my reader’s already going to know a lot about the world and while I’ll obviously still describe junk I also don’t have to tell you about Houses and foreign dynasties.

Likewise, POV or point of view tells me who’s narrating: is this a third person perspective or a first? Some people advocate for writing YA in first person because of the close psychic distance (you as the reader are right there with the character as they experience their greatest triumphs and deepest humiliations, art imitating teenage life), but this isn’t the only way to write it, by any means. There’s a big difference in how SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA handles first person YA and how Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE or Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF does. It’s definitely not like third person YA doesn’t sell, though: tell that to SIX OF CROWS and THRONE OF GLASS. There really isn’t a category or even a genre standard here– it’s just whatever’s right for the story you’re telling.

Another example if YA fantasy’s not your jam: you usually see regency-era historical (or alt-historical) in third person, since part of that genre is this idea of polite distance– dry humor also requires some room for its sleight of hand. Right now I’m reading Zen Cho’s SORCERER TO THE CROWN and loving how much gets communicated in these quiet turns of phrase as well as how easy it is to miss something scandalous because someone’s maneuvered the conversation to avoid it extremely politely. It’s not like you couldn’t write this in first (see the hilarious KAT, INCORRIGIBLE middle-grade books by Stephanie Burgis), but you might have to come up with another way to channel that style (Kat, for example, is a wit but certain things do sail over her head as she’s younger), since it’s something that we look forward to in this type of story. Also, the word reticule is fantastic.

Scope is all about perception and what boundaries you impose on it, if any: in short, how much does your narrator know? If they’re a regular person, probably it’s limited. Limited means the narrator don’t know everything that’s going on, i.e. they’re limited to being in a single place at a single time, only seeing events from a single perspective (their own). You can have multiple limited third person narrators (e.g. SIX OF CROWS) or a single one. You could also have omniscient narrators who can see all the players’ hands.

You can pull some truly epic shenanigans that subvert your readers’ expectations by playing around with narration.

Like, first omniscient. We are lucky enough to be living in a time where Ann Leckie is one of our contemporaries and her masterful Imperial Radch books exist. If you convince the reader that the narrator has certain skills and limitations (in this case, Breq’s perspective, as she is/was/is still occasionally a ship) we’ll follow you through these wild set-ups and believe you when you say that our narrator friend knows what’s going on effectively everywhere.

So much of writing is just getting the reader to be willing to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes you do this through detail and sometimes you do this through crafty world-building.

So, Aesop-style, what’s the moral of the story?

There is no tense that is “right” for all stories in a particular genre. I’ll be blunt: anyone who says you have to write YA in first past or whatever’s in vogue these days to sell or get agented is silly. The type of narration you should use for your work is the one you think you can write your project best in. The more comfortable you are with different tenses, POVs, and scopes, the more tools you have in your writer toolbox to do some damage with. If you only really prefer writing in one narrative style, that’s fine too! You’re probably really good at it!

The other moral (this is our inaugural post in the series and therefore is a two-for-one moral occasion) is that you can do any damn thing you want, as long as you can pull it off. At the end of the day, your reader has to be able to follow you and be on board with your fanciness. I’m not talking about every single reader ever, since that’s impossible, but you should have some type of ideal audience in mind and write to them. More on that later.

And now, because I always loved these:


  • Write a short story or a scene in a narration style you’re less familiar with. Maybe that’s second person limited in present, maybe it’s third omniscient past, etc. See what’s easier and more difficult for you. For added zest, take a scene from your WIP and write it in a different POV and tense. To get the best effect on this, open a separate Word doc or Scrivener dude or what-have-you and type that sucker up afresh. What changes for you when you’re writing, besides the obvious flipping verbs and pronouns?

Feel free to ask questions or comment with your exercises! Shocking as I know it will be to you all, I love talking about craft and analyzing stuff and am totally down for chatting in the comments. Obligatory self-promo outro: if you’d like to hire me to read over your manuscript or query, I also offer freelance editing services here.




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