Thanks for coming back. I hope you are well.
We’re going to continue our exploration of Point of View and Time. This is because I believe, if you’re a writer and you’re in the shit, this is likely to be the main reason.
I’d like you do start off today by doing an exercise.
I don’t want to explain too much beforehand. Just give it a go. There are two parts. You can take five minutes for each:
Write about a piece of outdated technology, one you used when you were younger, but which is no longer common. It could be a piece of software or a household object – whatever you like. (If you are very young, I’m sure you can think of something you were into five years ago that’s now completely gone.)
The thing is, I’d like you to write about it in two ways, for two very different imagined readers.
The first reader is exactly the same age as you are, and they used the technology when it was new. Do this first, then scroll down.
The second reader you are telling about the technology is ten years-old, and has no idea what the technology was. They’ve never heard of it before. You have to tell them all about it.
Take as long as you need, then scroll.
Did you feel the many differences in tone there?
With an exact contemporary as reader, you can appeal to shared knowledge, and call up shared nostalgia or frustration. There is intimacy and ease. The tone is, ‘Hey, you remember those…’
With a ten year-old as reader, there’s a lot less certainty and a whole lot more explanation. There is a need for basic detail. The tone is, ‘Listen, there used to be these things that were like…’
The big difference, to my sense, is between the words ‘those’ and ‘these’.
‘Those’ keeps the object in the past and appeals to the memories the reader already has.
‘These’ tries to bring the object into the present for a reader who has never encountered it.
And that means a completely different approach to storytelling.
This applies to all sorts of writing, but particularly to those where question of whether the imagined reader has shared cultural experiences with the writer, or with the narrator being used by the writer.
The past is a foreign country, and vice versa
What’s true about time is also true about space. If you’re imagining yourself addressing someone from a completely different part of the world, you may find yourself unwilling to say ‘Those’ for basic foods, customs or behaviours that are absolutely everyday where you are.
There is *nothing* exotic in the world; everything is local to somewhere. It has a history, a logic and very often an invisibility. Yet lots of writers feel the need to come up with an export version of where they are – even if the majority of their readers (given the reach of their writing) are likely to be quite familiar with every single one of their ‘Thoses’.
And usually the export version, like Czech pilsner lager, is a lot more watery, gassy and less tasty than the version for home consumption.
Say you live in Jamaica, and you are writing a short story about something that happens to happen on a beach near where you grew up. How do you pitch your tone? The likelihood is, it will be some way between ‘Those’ and ‘These’. (I’m not going to attempt one of the many, many Jamaican idioms.)
You know those guys who used to hang around…
There were these guys who used to hang around…
As a generalisation, the more experienced a writer, the more confident they are likely to be in pretending to address a contemporary, a local, yet still bringing along someone who isn’t familiar with either the time or place.
Writers who are nervous that they and their references may not be understood are more likely to include within the text what are, explicitly or not, the equivalent of footnotes.
Confidence of tone is what keeps a reader reading you. Your opening sentence does not have to include mystery or murder or ‘a hook’. It does not want to come across as desperate. If it speaks to the reader calmly, generously, in a way that conveys ‘I know this story and I know how to tell it’, the reader is likely to trust that – at least for half a page.
Exercise: Look back at your story start. Were you addressing a local, a contemporary, or someone far off in space and time? In either case, was this something that held you back? Did you feel you had to overexplain? (If so, why not try rewriting so as to address someone who already knows.) Or did you feel you weren’t likely to be comprehensible to anyone? (If so, why not assume that you are. Just concentrate on the basics of how things appear to the senses.)
See you here.