The simplest approach to writing a story is to say that the now of the narrator is the now the writer is in – the today they inhabit.
And, of course, being to do with time, this immediately becomes extremely complicated.
Novelists feel most powerfully, and sometimes damagingly, the effects of making now the day they’re doing the writing.
A great many novelists, right now, are feeling the thing they were writing has been overtaken by events, or that it’s no longer relevant, or that within the kind of time they’re experiencing now they simply can’t get back to the kind of headspace they were in when they began.
Because novels take a long time to write, it’s almost inevitable that – during that time – now will change. Normal will become a new normal.
If you started a novel set in a Care Home in Derbyshire, back in December 2019, you were – without knowing it – writing a COVID-19 novel. Even if you set your novel in December 2015, you’re still writing a COVID-19 novel – because those characters you’re showing have a likely future that the reader knows but they don’t know.
There is vast, terrible dramatic irony.
Literary aside: A good example of this is Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. In this, the reader knows what the Nazis will do – within the year – to the Jewish population of a small town.
And so ‘When is now?’ isn’t just a question for writers of historical or science fiction novels. Even the present is a time that can be approached in many different ways.
Literary aside: The English writer J.G.Ballard said he always wrote about five minutes into the future. You can see this in a novel such as High-Rise, which isn’t set in 1974, the year it was written, but isn’t set in a definitely imagined 1975 either. It’s set in a now that’s what if? What if there’s been a complete breakdown in society?
It’s worth asking yourself how you feel about the now you exist in. What kind of state is now in? Is it a broken time? A decadent time? Is it a panicked time or a leisured time? Should that come through in your narrative voice?
If we take the example of a leisured time – most people would agree that our now (2020) is both a panicked and a leisured time. There are some people more panicked than they were in 2019, and some with a lot more leisure. This is a very distinctive now.
But let’s say you write about your characters in a very leisured way. You describe in beautiful detail their safe domestic environment. You have them interact with the outside world in a way that feels as if nothing could be more certain. External events aren’t going to trouble them, they are sure, it’s only their emotional life that will slowly develop. And they turn out to be right in their assumptions.
You may be doing all of this because you think it’s the way for you to do your best writing. But I’d argue that you’re putting yourself and your narrator into a very different now to most of your likely readers.
Your leisured now may be one they very much wish to enter. Cosy fiction has boomed during the lockdown. In writing, you should be aware of that. It should effect how your sentences are shaped. It should given you a clear sense how to move from one scene to the next.
Is now for the narrator the same as now for the writer and is that the same as the now of the reader?
There will always be a time gap between writing and reading, even if the reader stands behind the writer, reading over their shoulder, or has their desktop cloned for home viewing.
Like all gaps in fiction, this gap between the now of the writer, the now of the narrator and the now of the reader can be one of the things that makes the story.
Let’s look at a few of those gaps.
No gap, apparently
I am typing this sentence and you are reading it at roughly the same pace as I am typing it, because I am a fast typist.
It is possible to write just about the writing and the reading of the text, and try to close the gap between narrator and reader as much as possible, but this is a very small world. There’s hardly anywhere to go.
The opening to Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller is famous for riding alongside the reader. At the time of publication, for an Italian audience, a probably male one who lived in an apartment, this would have been quite uncanny. But if you live in Dubai and downloaded the novel onto your kindle and are taking a break from your work in a hotel kitchen, it’s not going to work at all.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Present tense gap
The now of a first person present tense narrator is very different – has very different qualities – to that of a third person past tense narrator.
I run down the corridor.
begs more questions than –
She ran down the corridor.
For a first person present tense narrator, the idea of ‘now… now… now…’ is in every sentence whether that word is included in them or not. In fact, one of the downsides of this voice is that the constant nowness can easily become wearing.
[Now] I run round to the left. And [now] my feet almost slip out from under me.
When the ‘I run’ narrator actually needs the word now, it will likely appear in urgent statements.
‘Do it now,’ I say.
Otherwise it can remain buried, implicit everywhere.
Aside: A paradox of I run narration, often unseen by writers who use it, is that there is no time of writing. The impression given isn’t that of someone sprinting with a pen and notebook, and writing I run in jagged letters as they run. This kind of narrator is doing one of two things, either they’re being reported on in an exciting, in-the-present-moment by another invisible narrator or they are reporting on themselves, later. In either case now, in I run narratives, isn’t really now (because you can’t run and narrate at the same time). What’s going on in your head is less ‘I run round to the left’ and more ‘Shit, better go left’ or just ‘Down there’. The true sentence behind ‘I run down the corridor’ is something like ‘I run down a corridor a while ago but in order to bring you the nowness of me being me and running that I experienced in that moment, I’m going to write it as I run…’
Stories and novels often have invisible second narrators, either because the supposed real narrator isn’t capable of constructing those sentences or organising those paragraphs and chapters, or because – even if they are capable of writing the exact words we read – they have not been given enough time to do so.
In order to do this kind of writing well, you need to be able to clearly imagine those different narrators, and their different nows.
Historical fiction gap
We’ve already looked a bit at this. Most fiction is set in the past – a past that is becoming more past with every second.
However, a lot of historical fiction depends upon being in a very different now to the now the characters are in.
We often have different values to people in the past. For example, we tend to value personal happiness over dedication to duty – particularly if that duty is to an institution we find questionable. For example, patriarchy.
The women who now read a novel set in 1550 are likely (but not certain) to have a bit more agency than the women they are reading about.
When we read about Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, we are meant to believe that she has an artistic instinct comparable to that of her master, Vermeer. We are meant to feel powerful anger at how Griet is only able to express herself artistically through being the subject of the painting.
Historical fiction tends, therefore, to flick back and forth between, ‘Things were completely different then’ to ‘Things then were very similar to how they are now.’
There’s lots more to say about this, but I have to move on.
Science fiction gap
A narrator of a story can address us from a made-up time. This time can be the future.
To know the events of 2050, a narrator needs to have been present in that time. They can then narrate those events to readers in 2050, 2051, etc. However, most science fiction narrators speak backwards in time to us, in our now. If they didn’t do this, we couldn’t understand them.
In terms of beers, this is the export version of the future. My favourite example is the opening sentence of Neuromancer by William Gibson.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
We get to see the sky. Yet Gibson’s future world of jacking in to the network is one where there aren’t ‘televisions’. And very soon after the publication of the novel, it became impossible to tune a television in. Children of the 1980s know what a dead channel looks like. Children of now would have to search that up on YouTube.
Personally, I think this is a bit silly.
I prefer futuristic novels that at least make the attempt to address me as if I were a futuristic person.
Third person past tense narrator now
As I’ve said before, things are generally more flexible and forgiving for third person narrators. They have all the time they need to write and rewrite their metaphors. They can go and look up an obscure reference in the dictionary, and either have someone explain it to their main person in dialogue, or do it themselves via leisurely exposition.
The now of the third person past tense narrator is much vaguer than that of a first person past tense narrator, and therefore far harder to get wrong.
And now it is time to turn to then…