It’s been a while since we visited the Coming To Terms series here. My most recent entry into the WotF contest, written in first person, present tense, has brought forward a few thoughts on terms we don’t think about heavily, but which are powerful elements of our stories.
The nature of our narrative is found on every page. It fills every sentence. It bears weight on how the reader actually reads our story. Something so massive deserves more than just a single flash of insight. As such, I have decided to break this into a three part posting. For the next three weeks, we are visiting the narrative mode.
Today, I’ll be taking a look at the perspective from which your story is written. It seems so simple, but isn’t always as obvious as it seems. Most of us were taught there are only three versions of perspective: First, Second and Third. Of those, we are generally taught only to use first or third. There is actually a fourth perspective that goes ignored by many. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each.
First Person Perspective
This is where the narrator of the story is actually a character within the story. They are telling the story from their own perspective, so use ‘I’ statements. I went left, he looked at me, etc. If it is a plural situation, terms like we and our are used. They may or may not be the protagonist of the story. The narrator may be experiencing things right now, or they might be retelling events that have already happened to them. This can at times be very limiting, as readers are only able to see from the single perspective at any given moment.
I don’t follow the trends in literary fiction closely, but I have read that this has become a common perspective used in literary fiction novels. The largest drawback to this is being able to show what other characters are doing and thinking without your main character being a psychic or asserting things that are just a little too conveniently understood by them.
Second Person Perspective
Here, the narrator is describing events as they happen to the reader. Words like ‘you’ and ‘your’ are central to what is described. In writing, it is most often seen in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of books. If combined with first person, the narrator is in first person, but still speaking to you the reader directly. A good literary example, often cited, for second person is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.
The biggest problem that comes up in this perspective is that while it does try to draw the reader in more directly, it can also be jarring when the ‘you’ described is starkly contrasted to their sense of self. If I write ‘You stand in the sewer, drawing in the sweet scent of feces and thinking of how hungry it makes you.’ I had better darn well have established the strange journey that led to that point or it immediately breaks you away from the narrative. Also, ewww.
Third Person Perspective
The staple of genre fiction, third person is highly flexible and offers a lot of value. ‘He’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘they’, and the like show up here. Terms like ‘we’ or ‘I’ are nowhere to be found unless it happens to be in dialogue. This perspective sits outside of the characters and looks in with more clarity than the characters themselves could muster. Readers are able to see thoughts and perceive more than a single character can.
The biggest weakness of third person is that it can sometimes lead to head-hopping. We jump from the thoughts of one person to the next, then actions, then more thoughts. Without clarity on who is doing, thinking or saying what, it can become a tangled mess quickly. It can also be jarring for some readers to be following the thoughts of the protagonist, only to suddenly be seeing the thoughts of the antagonist in the next paragraph. Suspense is trickier to hold without hiding knowledge that should be easily understood by the protagonist and other characters.
Alternating Person Perspective
This perspective is technically an amalgam of others. Often it shifts numerous aspects of the narrative, not just the perspective specifically. Some quite famous authors have written novels where they shift perspectives regularly. Steven Brust has done at least one where the first person perspective shifted back and forth between two people telling the same story. George R. R. Martin is known to change viewpoints between one chapter and the next, instead of staying with one character through the narrative. Robert Jordan would change perspectives several times in his prologs as well as between chapters. C. S. Lewis manages to flit between first and third person through The Screwtape Letters. As mentioned above, there is even a precedent for combining first and second person perspectives.
With alternating person perspective, you run a risk of odd tense appearing. You also risk losing the understanding of your readers as to what is going on. If they are reading in the first person and suddenly it shifts over to third without any clarity as to why, they may feel distanced from the book.
Having a firm grip on the perspectives of a story and knowing when to use each for maximum effect will go a long way to making your story more vibrant and interesting. Understanding the weaknesses of each will help you find the right balance and to soften the edges of these weak points.
Next week, let’s explore the idea of the narrator’s voice. It is intimately tied to the perspective, so be keeping these in mind when you return next Wednesday. Again, I will be expanding a little more than the most common three versions they teach in schoolrooms. Hopefully this and the rest of the series will help a few of you in sharpening your writing skills.