effective narration 101: narrative orientation in time

If you’re new to the series on effective narration, I would recommend starting at the beginning:

  1. First-Person Narration
  2. Second-Person Narration
  3. Third-Person Narration, Part One
  4. Third-Person Narration, Part Two
  5. Narrative Characterization 

This week, we’re going to take a look at an author’s options when it comes to time and narration. Ultimately, here’s the question: when is the narrator telling the story?

Choosing a Narrative Orientation

Essentially, this inquiry can be answered in one of four ways. The narrator is telling a story that occurs in the future, in the present, in the immediate past, or in the absolute past (after some time has transpired). You can choose whichever option your heart desires, but I would like to make this part very clear: You only get one choice.

Unless you have a distinctive flashback or a separate premonition, your narrator has to tell the story from the same perspective for the duration of the story. Tense switching, much like perspective switching, is incredibly problematic. One of the best ways to eliminate this rather basic flaw in your writing is to identify your narrator’s orientation in time before you begin to write.

If you’ve set up your narrator correctly (and concretely) in your head, it is much more likely that your natural “ear” for language will help you “hear” the correct tense as you write and edit.  Tense is very interesting when it comes to writing because it’s something that native speakers perform flawlessly in verbal speech without ever thinking about it at all. When it comes to writing and identifying written tense, however, those same people may struggle mightily trying to determine whether this verb is present progressive (she is farting) or present perfect progressive (she has been farting). Eek.

One way you can give yourself a step up here is to rely on your trained ear for language by reading your book out loud to yourself. If you know when the narrator is telling the story, those narrative transgressions will jump out as soon as you start reading the story out loud. And then you can track them down. And destroy them.

Examining The Choices

One of the nice things about narrative orientation in time is that you don’t really end up having a lot of choices when it comes to when.

If your narrator is telling a story that occurs in the future, all of your prose will sound predictive or oracle-like in nature. Your narrator is basically narrating events that have not occurred as they will occur in the future. If you decide to go with future tense, be aware that you’re going to be limited to a reliable narrator. Because the story happens in the future, there’s no reality check for the unreliable narrator, as there is in the other time orientations. If you have an unreliable narrator dictating a story that hasn’t occurred, your readers are basically forced to endure a book-length lie. In that case, why bother?

Here’s an example of future narration: After a long and arduous journey, the spaceship Bo Peep will land on the planet Xpihis in the year 4013. The passengers will tentatively disembark, glad to breathe air that has not been endlessly recycled. Blinking, Fernando will notice a slight movement in the bushes, and, upon approach, he will realize that the bushes are not actually bushes at all. They’re the aliens! Fernando will scream like a girl-child and will tear back to the spaceship, panting. Sounds kind of strange, right?

If your narrator is telling a story that occurs in the present, your narrator will be literally relating the events as they happen–like a sports announcer calling a football game. While this is certainly a more viable option than telling a story that happens in the future, this narrative perspective is limited because it doesn’t give the narrator any license to be aware of events that have already occurred. You don’t have a lot of freedom for omniscience here because the events that the narrator would be omniscient about literally have not yet occurred–and because you can only pick one narrative orientation, you can’t bop into future for a few lines to give the reader some additional information.

Here’s an example of present narration: Pattie lets herself into the apartment, fumbling with her keys. She steps into the doorway and flips on the light. She squints into the next room–could it be that something moved? Shaking her head, she places her purse on the floor and bends down to slip off her heels. Stepping into the living room, she hits the light switch and Sallie jumps out from behind the couch. “Surprise!”

If your narrator is telling a story that happens in the immediate past, your narrator will be joined by nearly all of the narrators ever. This narrative orientation is by far the most commonly used and the most flexible. When telling the story from this perspective, you have very few limitations when deciding what to do with the other narrative considerations (perspective, reliability, etc.).

The one exception here is with a first-person narrator telling the story in the immediate past. In this particular situation, it can be really easy (and really ineffective) to allow the first person narrator to slip into narrating the future. The same rule–you can only pick one narrative tense–applies here, but I see this transgression more frequently than many of the other temporal narrative breaks. While the first person narrator can certainly share things that have happened long ago in the course of narration, they cannot narrate events that have not yet happened.

Although you can probably get a decent immediate past narrative example from any fiction book you own, here’s a bit for your reading pleasure: Jubee stared down the man with the gun. The light from the window glinted off the barrel. His own weapon lay on the table between them. All of his training came down to this one moment. He lunged for the weapon, spinning to the side to avoid the gunfire that roared a split second later. Likely, this will just read as “fiction” to you, but do notice that most of the verbs are in the past tense. (Also, don’t worry. Jubee totally lives.)

If your narrator is telling a story that occurs in the absolute past, you’ll be imparting an almost legendary quality to your prose. After all, only things that are particularly noteworthy are worth talking about after a significant time has passed–no one really cares about that one time your character did dishes five years ago. You have a similar lack of narrative limitations when it comes to absolute past–you have a lot of flexibility with perspective and omniscience, etc. here.

The thing to be aware of in this circumstance is that it is harder for readers to engage with a story that has happened a long time in the past–you have to be careful to write very engaging, very pertinent prose in order to keep your readers invested. It’s certainly not a deal breaker, but choosing this temporal orientation does raise the stakes a bit.

A final, very serious, example to illustrate absolute past narration: Lord Porkington lay claim to the Bacon Throne during an age of strife. The kingdom was in shambles from wars with the Poultry Isles and an ongoing rebellion in Potbelly Province. Within a month of his ascension, the situation only deteriorated when the Greate Glaze Drageone flew in from the north and sauteed a village. Lord Porkington lead his army against the dragon himself and, after a bittersweet struggle, he drove the beast into the mountains, much to the relief of his subjects. Long live Lord Porkington!

Conclusion

Although you do have a variety of choice when it comes to your narrator’s orientation in time, the limitations of future and present orientation are significant enough where I would recommend sticking with immediate past and absolute past. That being said, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: don’t switch your narrative orientation. (Please!)

Until next week, then, when we will take a look at narrative omniscience. Stay tuned!

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