Choosing tense and viewpoint

This is the post excerpt.


I have been writing The Scottish Exiles for almost 4 years. Much of this time has been spent fiddling with tense and viewpoint, Cmd F and Replace being my tools of choice. It is not simply a technical decision of ‘Who is speaking?’ and ‘When did it happen?’ It is a question of:

What impression do I want to give my readers?

Rosa is alone on the moor. We are accompanying her in the action, in her loneliness and fear. She has no one to talk to, and she is thinking thoughts and feeling emotions about what has happened to her, debating with herself her current predicament and how she is going to resolve it.

At first glance, it would seem sensible to write this as follows:

  • In the first person, because we need to be inside her head. How else are we going to know how she is feeling or what is she planning?
  • In the present tense, for the immediacy that this brings, the closeness to the action.

But this has raised a secondary issue:

When is she telling us her story?

Will the present tense give the impression that she is gabbling out loud to herself or the wildlife?  Even if we suspend the absolute literal implication of a present tense account, the question still remains: how do we know about the story? Is Rosa recounting it later? In which case, wouldn’t she be speaking in the past tense?

Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale uses the present tense for the ‘now’ of the story and the past tense for recounting the past. It is a story set in a dystopian future where reference must be made to a previous time, as is The Scottish Exiles. Atwood’s use of the present tense does not suggest Offred is talking aloud to herself. It rather gives the impression that this is current, that ‘this is what we do’ as opposed to ‘this is what we did’. It is a new regime, and being a handmaid has lot of rules and conventions.

I am tempted to follow suit. However, in Atwood’s classic we find that the stories were taped. Does this make any difference? No, not really – because she isn’t talking into a dictaphone while she is doing it. She recounts it later – after she escapes, the academics think.

So is it all about atmosphere?

There is an approach that I am calling ‘onomatopoeic narrative’. Not in the strict sense of one word sounding like its meaning, like ‘tinkle’, but in the general way the prose is written giving the atmosphere of what is being written about. An example might be Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, where the character has a breakdown – reflected in the novel, which falls apart as she has the breakdown, words falling off the page.

Is it always a good plan to give this layer of meaning to the narrative? I would identify one good example of not doing this: where the character is boring. I am not sure it is a good plan for the character to drone on for pages just to make a point to the reader.

Author: Cathy

Suburban permaculturist, vegetarian, WWOOF host, Freecycler, Amazon seller, lapsed lawyer, Albaphile, writer, blogger, Radio 4 listener and industrious idler.

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