An important choice for any writer, particularly of fiction, is that of ‘narrative mode’, by which I mean the choice of viewpoint and tense. It is rarely make-or-break as you can usually rewrite your story in a different narrative mode, but you don’t want to have to do this after you’ve written a substantial amount, so it makes sense to get it right early on.
In most cases the telling of a story involves at least three people, namely the reader, the narrator and the protagonist (or protagonists). However they can be combined. In a first person present tense narrative, for example, the narrator is the protagonist and the reader is invited to occupy his shoes, as in “I pick up the gun and point it at the burglar. For a brief moment I wonder whether I should pull the trigger, but then he moves and my instincts take over.” In the right hands this can be effective, but it is limiting as it gives no scope for reflection.
A little more flexible is first person past tense, which at least gives the narrator scope to reflect on past actions, as in “I picked up the gun and pointed it at the burglar. I didn’t intend to kill him but my instincts took over, something I’ve had to live with ever since.” More flexible, but you are still restricted to telling the story through the eyes and thoughts of just one person.
Second person is a bit of an oddity, inviting the reader to occupy the shoes of the protagonist with the narrator describing your actions. Every book wants the reader to empathise with the protagonist, but a second person narrative is asking the reader to actually identify with him. Two authors who have used it effectively are Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist).
Most stories are told in the third person, with the narrator describing what happened or is happening to a set of characters. This is more flexible as it allows the narrator to close in on the thoughts and actions of one particular character, or zoom out to take a broader look at what’s going on. The former is usually referred to as ‘limited third person’ or ‘third-person subjective’ and is the most common, with the story told primarily from the viewpoint of the protagonist. The latter is known as ‘third-person omniscient’ and is closer to the cinema experience, with the camera free to roam where it wants. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) are masters of third-person omniscient.
The present tense becomes a little more flexible in third person than in first person, in that you can write, “Jack picks up the gun. He hesitates for a moment, but then the burglar moves and he instinctively pulls the trigger, a response that he will regret for the rest of his life.” However past tense by its nature implies that some time has passed between the occurrence of the events and their narration, time that makes reflection more natural, as in “Jack picked up the gun. He hesitated for a moment but then the burglar moved and he instinctively pulled the trigger, a response he has regretted ever since.”
The unreliable narrator
Every narrator acts as a filter, deciding what to include in the story and how it should be told, a fact that invites the reader to question the narrator’s motivation and reliability. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is an excellent first-person example of this, with the viewpoint switching between two unreliable protagonists from chapter to chapter.
A third person narrative makes it possible to question not only the reliability of the narrator but also his identity, which opens up even more possibilities. Is the narrator one of the characters in the story? Done well this can be very effective, as in The Glamour by Christopher Priest, or Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins.
Changing mode mid-story
One of the delights of writing a third-person narrative is the ability to change viewpoint, switching from one character’s point of view to that of another as the story requires, or zooming out to give an overview of the action. Such switches can occur between chapters, between scenes or even between paragraphs or sentences, but do need to be signposted with care if you are not to confuse the reader. Such signposting needs to be achieved within the writing itself, but can be facilitated with line or paragraph breaks.
Changing tense is less common as most readers don’t register tense consciously, and so feel a vague discomfort if you change it. However a switch from present to past tense could be useful in a flashback, for example.
This subject is extensively discussed in the blogosphere, but I have yet to find a post that brings together all the factors in a way that is relevant to me, which is why I wrote this.