The Voice of Stories Past

I interrupt my writing this evening for an important question for you..

It seems no matter how much I write, or how many stories I’ve had published, there are always questions that pop up from time to time.The art of writing, in itself, is always a constant work in progress as we tread from the familiar into the unfamiliar. Each writer has different experiences, learns different things. Hopefully, we share what we’ve learned. Since I don’t have a writing group to ask these things of, I’ll see what you all have to say.

Here’s the problem, or should I say my question.

When a story is set in the past, let’s say 1930 for argument’s sake, and the main character is telling the story in first person, do we assume that the past this character is speaking from is the recent past or could they be telling a story that happened in the distant past? Am I making sense?

It seems to me that the voice used in the story would definitely be different if it was a story told in the distant past. Say if I was telling a story that happened to me when I was twelve wouldn’t the story sound different than if I had told that story a few weeks after it happened? I have to say yes. That said, I’m thinking it should be made clear to the reader that the story happened in the distant past or else, as the reader, we generally assume that the narration if coming from the recent past.

For me, this could become an issue when I write Young Adult if my character was to sound wiser than their years or experience might dictate.

So, here is my questions put clearly: Is it generally assumed that a story told in past tense has just recently happened and if it happened many years ago should it be clearly stated at the onset?

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  1. Bruce (Spikor)

     /  September 3, 2011

    When I’m reading something, first person or not, I try to assume nothing. It’s a lesson that Scout taught me a long time ago. Regardless, though, you end up forming impressions and/or expectations as a reader. One of the best advantages of using any character’s POV in my opinion, is being able to play with those impressions a little. It’s probably the thing I’m enjoying the most in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.

    And whether or not your character’s voice in the past was different from their voice as a narrator would depend on whether or not you’d want the reader to be able to notice that difference in maturity from then and now, IMO.

  2. Thanks Bruce!

    This makes me wonder though, if I was telling a story about something that happened to me in the past, wouldn’t I be bringing into that story the maturity and experiences, thoughts and impressions that I had gained along the way, making that story sound much different than it would have had I narrated it at twelve? For example, I might use an expression that wasn’t common for the time of the story, but one I might have picked up along the way.

    So true that we form impressions and expectations as we read through a story and these impressions would be different for each one of us. While I might think a character sounds too wise for their age, someone else might not. It’s a proven fact that we can’t satisfy every reader. One thing I never want to do is dumb a story down, and make a character sound the way I might think he/she should sound simply because of their age. Some people do sound mature for their age while others never will.

  3. I wrote a 3/4 page story about when the teacher brought a TV to school and we watched Alan Shepard go up. I was 9 years old. I switch from the child as participant and adult as narrator several times in relating the event and naturally end as the adult narrator summarizing the recollection. One problem may be that the reader would perhaps understand the switch but would question my writing skills as the child speaks in run on sentences, subject verb agreement is off
    and imprecise terms would appear in a child’s speech. For example the child calls Shepard a spaceman not an astronaut as would the adult. So in contrast to your style, I do dumb it down when the child speaks and adjust to adult mode when the switch occurs. The child would say “I was careful” not “used an abundance of caution” as would the adult. So I don’t see anyway out of it except dumbing it down. Re your issue I think it should be clearly stated once or twice the difference in the flow of the story between the present, the immediate past and if you will, the long distant past in a way that does not insult the reader’s intelligence. It could be explained in the forward not the story thus accomplishing that. After the reader gets used to these swings it should not be confusing as the rest of the novel unfolds. “She recalled, she reflected, she lamented, she reminisced, she recollected” are indicators that the past is being presented. Those operative verb choices should eliminate confusion if the reader does not see it as the pattern at first. Of course this is not a problem if the story is written as it happened last month or if it took place in 1952. Since 90% of what I do now is cartoons, unlike you novelists I just have to get one or two sentences in a caption presented correctly. Lucky me.

    • Thanks for your thought, Carl. I’m seeing a difference in flow in this story. It is actually quite consistent IMHO. I’m thinking that much of what I’m wondering about in the particular story I’m referring to is something that would be subject to opinion. The character does not tell the story in a formal fashion, but relates the happenings in much the same way as she speaks. If anything, it is her view of events and he way of expressing things which some might think would be expressive of someone older. Still, I’m not even sure what most opinions would be. That is one downfall with writing, we can never be sure, as Bruce mentioned, what impressions the reader is forming.

      One or two sentences is sounding pretty darn goo at this point, Carl. However, I know enough about writing tightly to know those few sentences really have to hit the mark. There’s no going back. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Author

     /  September 4, 2011

    This is definitely a hard one. When you use a first person POV, especially in a historical novel, how do you sound faithful to the character without sounding like the author? It’s especially hard with vocabulary. I ask myself: would they say that sentence THAT way? Would they swear? Know big words? Talk like a poet?

    Maybe it would be easier to just use third person, but there’s just something special and intimate about a first person narrative.

    • Don’t know why, but I never seem to find third person easier. Maybe it’s because I prefer writing first person. Knowing our characters is the best way to decide what words they would use. This is a difficult question to answer, because as readers we all form opinions. I might, for instance say, I can’t imagine a ten year old being that articulate. Still, I’m sure there are some who are. I’m thinking what it comes down to as an author is writing the story the way we know it needs to be written and not feel shaken or discouraged when someone makes a remark that is based upon their own person experience and opinions.

      We need to be true to ourselves. Thanks for dropping in Julie! I’m hoping we’ll bump into each other in our travels some day. :)

  5. I haven’t read the other replies, so I’m just going to jump in. It’s assumed that the past is recently unless you specify. In “Little Big Man” we know he’s now an old man and yet he’s a young man in his story. It’s not generally important how much time has lapsed. If it is important then I think it should be specified. The narrator should say. In Stephen King’s “Lean on Me” we know he’s now a father, but in the story he’s around 12. He actually tells us in the end what happened to all the characters, which in turn brings closure to the plot.

    I think you can do anything you want, Laura. It all depends on what your purpose is.

    • I meant to say that I did write a scene from a child’s POV in past tense. I used a child’s voice to bring immediacy to the scene. It was dramatic and using the child’s voice enabled me to go deeper.

    • I thought perhaps that was the case. I know in my own mind when I’m reading something in past tense I assume it recently happened. Thanks!

      It does sound as though there are various ways of tackling this. Thanks Joylene for your input!

  6. Tense is tricky, but I think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish within the story. If it takes place in the past but you want the reader to be with the character as the story unfolds, then present tense/first person is the way to go. However, if you want to tell the story as if its a memory or something that has happened in the past, recent or otherwise, past tense/first person will get the job done. If anything, try writing it both ways and see which creates a more powerful connection to the character and story.

    • Tense is indeed tricky. I’ve jumped back and forth with tense many times when writing stories. Eventually, we find the place that seems right for that particular story. Each one is different and needs to be approached in a slightly different way.

  7. Madison Woods

     /  September 4, 2011

    I think it would depend on whether the narrator is ‘telling a story’ or the characters are living a story and you as author are just writing it in 3rd person past. I don’t particularly like present tense stories in general.

    If the setting of your story is 1930, and the character is living out the scenes at that time and setting, then i’d use the language of that time. If he’s telling a story about something that took place in the 1800’s as told to him by his grandfather then I’d still use the language the mc would use in the 30’s. If it’s a story being told by a character today about the 30’s time period then that would be a dilemma and it would depend on whether you want the character to be narrating a story or have him live the story…

    I think I made it sound even more confusing! But that’s just my very non-professional opinion :)

    • I’ve found a few present tense stories that I’ve enjoyed and have written a few, but it doesn’t seem that common, at least in the books I’ve read.

      You had me going in circles there for a bit, Madison. lol. When it comes to tense there is just so many variables to be considered, so many different angles to get at that story. Most of all, I think a writer needs to come to the story with an open mind and decide in the telling just which tense works the best for that particular story. I’m sure I;ll figure this out. :)

  8. I can’t wait to read more tomorrow. You have opened a can of “voices”. Hmmm. Is “opened” a past tense to describe this present moment? See what you’ve started !


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