This is important.
This is one thing that you can often forget. (I do.)
You will have a clear idea of then (the time of the action) and a clearish idea of now (the time of the storytelling), but you won’t think enough about what the events that have taken place in between then and now mean – mean for the tone of the story, the form of the sentences.
Even when very few events have taken place, there’s still the mere passage of time. We’ve already looked at including wonderful, close-up details from moments that took place decades ago, and perfectly remembered dialogue when in life it’s hard to recall more than a few exchanges.
Readers will let you get away with a lot of time-warping, if they’re enraptured by what you’re manifesting for them. They’ll let you move around very fluidly between past and present. But if your narrative voice is inconsistent, in the tone wobbles or the attitude inexplicably shifts, they will soon stop trusting you to tell the story well.
The best now to choose to tell a story from is the point from which the action of the past can be seen most clearly. This is the attitude behind the old-fashioned third person past tense omniscient tone:
I (who don’t speak as I) have seen all of what happened, outside and inside everyone’s head – I have watched the consequences of their actions play out – and now, in the most considered and entertaining form I can, I am bringing it to you. P.S. Don’t worry, I’ve left out all the boring bits.
But it’s a very different thing when you’ve got a first person past tense narrator who was involved in the action they’re describing.
Here’s one example. You are writing a comedy, a story that’s meant to be funny. Not a pained, dark comedy. An amusing tale about an amusing incident.
It’s about a father and son going to the zoo. The narrator is the son. He tells us of the mishaps of the day (the ice cream that got sneezed everywhere) in a way that is light and amusing, including the part where he falls into the lion’s enclosure and his father has to jump in to rescue him.
The boy lies, with a sprained ankle, as the biggest male lion approaches, looking likely to eat him. Father, though, stands in the way – and when the lion comes too close, he karate chops him on the nose. The lion – who was well-fed and merely curious – whimpers and retreats. The watching crowd applaud.
Wonderful. If it’s done well enough, we laugh.
And if everyone involved in the lion incident suffers no long term consequences, it can be told as simply a funny story.
However, towards the end of the story, as the now grown-up son relates, it becomes clear that, in between the then of the action and now of the telling, his father has suffered horrible post-traumatic stress at the thought of the lion and what it might have done to the two of them. As a consequence, he’s lost his job. His marriage has collapsed. His life has gone bad.
Is this still a funny story? From some points of view, perhaps. A sardonic third person narrator, despite the cost to one of the characters, could present it in such a way that we laughed. But it’s not a funny story as seen from the now of the grown-up boy who has seen his father fall apart – not unless he really hates his father.
This story needs to be fixed in one of two ways. Either the father doesn’t get post-traumatic stress, and so the incident doesn’t have long-term consequences for him. (But what about the mother? The zookeeper’s assistant?) And so the son’s tone, in narrating it, can be amused and shallow.
Or the tone of the story needs to be changed so that it’s not just an amusing tale but a hilarious, grotesque account as told – in every sentence – by a man whose family has suffered ever since. The son’s tone, in this case, can be harrowed and appalled – and it can be funny in a tragicomic way.
What the story absolutely can’t do is switch from a blithely amusing first half to a bitterly anguished second half because it has the same narrator all the way through. And their attitude to every detail of the action is inflected between what it has meant to them, in their whole life up until that point.
If a first person narrator speaks of what happened to them, in the past, they are – it is crucial to remember – speaking of the events that made them. There should be a logical connection between what these events signified for them and how they describe them.
But depending on where we come in on the timeline of someone’s life, they may narrate the exact same event completely differently. When their now is, in relation to their then, is the crucial thing.
Aadya and then Keith
Here’s part of the timeline of a life. It’s the life of Aadya, from a small conurbation a hundred miles to the north of Montréal.
1966 Aadya is born to an Indian father and a Canadian mother. They are affluent and she is an only child.
Aadya goes to school, college, university. She is popular, intelligent and qualifies as a lawyer. In her spare time, she sculpts.
Spring 1986, Aadya meets Keith, a medical student, who is working in a health food shop where she buys spices – and the two of them fall in love. She has a burst of creativity, making portrait busts in clay of all her friends. When Keith criticises one of them, saying the nose is a bit big, Aadya gets very angry. ‘My art is important to me,’ she says. They soon make up.
Winter 1986, Aadya marries Keith. She stops sculpting but still keeps a sketchbook.
Spring 1986, Aadya and Keith have a baby girl, Tanya. They live together in top-floor flat up some steep stairs in a nice area of Montréal. Aadya has no time for making art.
Let’s stop here, and let Aadya do a bit of narrating of her life story. First person past tense.
She’s going to say something like –
Even though things were a bit difficult, financially, we were happy in that cosy apartment. Tanya was delightful. Keith was present as much as he could be, but his job at the hospital was becoming quite demanding. I felt frustrated I couldn’t do all the things I wanted, but I realised the need to make sacrifices.
And let’s resume.
Summer 1987, Aadya is told directly by a friend that Keith is having an affair, but the friend won’t say with whom. When Aadya confronts him, Keith is horrified and asks what she knows. Aadya shows him the note. Keith says he will end it immediately, and that it will never happen again.
Autumn 1987, Aadya and Keith are still together, but the atmosphere in their apartment is terrible. Aadya keeps a diary.
How does Aadya narrate Spring 1986 now?
There I was, struggling to bring up Tanya as well as I could, coping with the colic and all the other illnesses babies get, in that tiny apartment, and there that bastard was – off with some other woman. He blamed the stress of his work, but I didn’t believe him.
Spring 1988, Aadya and Keith decide to re-commit to one another. They share a sense of humour, and a love of good food and interior decoration. They move to a bigger apartment.
Summer 1991, another baby is born to Aadya and Keith – a son they call Devon. Tanya goes to a nursery most days.
Autumn 1993, Aadya goes back to work at a big law firm and is quickly promoted. But she is frustrated by corporate culture.
And how does Aadya narrate Spring 1986 now?
Yes, it was a bad time. Probably the worst we’ve had. But we came through – and stronger for it. There’s nothing like an affair, and the arguments afterwards, for discovering who someone really is. I think I learned a lot about myself, too – about what I really want from life.
Already, I hope, you can see that the events that take place between then and now completely change what Aadya says. She’s gone from exhaustion through anger to a kind of false wisdom.
False because –
Winter 1993, Aadya’s mother dies and, on the evening of the same day, Keith sits Aadya down in their kitchen and confesses to her that the affair he had in Summer 1987 was with a man. He’s tried to convince himself he’s bi, but really he’s gay. He doesn’t know what to do. He is appalled by the thought of losing contact with his children.
Spring 1993, Keith moves out to an apartment round the corner from Aadya, Tanya and Devon. Within a year, Andrew has moved in with Keith. Aadya wants her children to see their father, but finds Keith emotionally distant.
Summer 1995, Aadya’s father dies, and she inherits enough money to live whatever kind of life she chooses
Exercise: Write five or six sentences, in the first person past tense as Aadya narrating Spring 1986 from this now. What’s her attitude? What’s her tone?
Fall 1996, Aadya moves to Chicago because, at a gallery opening, she has met Anastasia. They started out sharing a love of art, but Anastasia was very open about her sexuality, and about how attracted to Aadya she was. Aadya still works in law, but is increasingly interested in making tall vases. She’s bought a potter’s wheel.
Spring 1997, Aadya and Anastasia go out together, but Aadya is reluctant to commit – she wants her children to know that her first priority is them. They hardly see their father. Tanya is eleven and likes engineering. Devon is six and lies dinosaurs. Aadya sells her first pots, and sees there’s a demand for more.
Aadya writes of Spring 1986:
What a strange, deluded time it was. Neither of us really knew who we were. Keith was obviously struggling with his sexuality, even though I didn’t know what it was – I just thought he was a poor father. And in order to be a good mother, I was suppressing many of the things that make me who I am.
Summer 1998, Aadya quits her job at the law firm to go full time as an artist. Anastasia moves in and together they bring up Tanya and Devon – who like Anastasia a lot. Keith makes a sudden appearance, to apologise to Aadya for how he’s been as a father. He says he’s decided to move to Chicago. He wants to be a bigger part of his children’s lives.
Fall 1998, on the drive down from Montréal to Chicago, a tire blows out on Keith’s space-cruiser, he swerves into an oncoming truck and dies on the way to hospital.
Exercise: Write five or six sentences, in the first person past tense as Aadya narrating Spring 1986 from this new now. What’s her attitude? What’s her tone?
Now let’s jump forward to what’s really now. Whatever the day and time is where you are. And let’s hear from Aadya one last time, all those years since she met Keith.
All I can think of is how young we were. And how little we knew of life, or one another. We were like characters in an Alice Munro story. Minor characters. That tiny apartment with just a phone. No cable, not even a thought of the internet. Those first silly little portraits I made – so clumsy. With such big noses. Keith was doing his best, all the way through, but he always struggled with commitment – and, I’ve since learned, he had some issues with prescription medication. Things have changed so much in the gay community. He could have been married, just like me and Anastasia. He was a good person, underneath it all.
There we are.
What has happened to a person in the past, the things they have suffered or ignored, make them – make the grain of their voice.
They make the person they are in the present.
They may quite likely be the cause of them feeling the need to tell their own story.
If there’s no way to draw a line from a person’s formative past experiences to their present day attitudes, the point of view becomes unconvincing.
My message, here, to writers in the shit – because their tone is slightly wobbling or is careering around all over the place – is to stop writing.
Stop writing. Do some dwelling instead.
Dwell with your narrator in their now. Just hang out with them for a while, lightly and attentively, and discover how they are in relation to their past. Nostalgic? Still furious? Able to see the funny side?
Then go back to what you’ve written and do a very quick draft. Printed out. On recycled paper. If you come across something that doesn’t come from the mouth or mind of that person you’ve just been with, in that now you’ve just dwelt in, cross it out.
Cross it out, because you can still read crossings out. They’re not lost and gone forever, like stuff deleted from Word (and not backed up).
Be swift, be ruthless. If in doubt, cross out.
Then see what you have left.
If you find you’ve crossed out more than you’ve left in, perhaps those crossings out make another story.
If the whole thing is collapsing, then maybe their story would be better if you met up with them at a completely different point in their timeline?
You have that ability. You can know their future but go back to have them speak from an earlier, more involved-in-things point.
You can jump forwards, imagining their middle years, and have them look at their whole life with more horror or more forgiveness.