1. newjerseyrunner
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    newjerseyrunner Contributing Member

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    Grammar Where is your narrator chronologically in past tense?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by newjerseyrunner, Jan 6, 2017.

    I didn't want to hijack a different thread but it really got me thinking about where past tense narrators are in time.

    Sometimes, it's explicit: A character will tell you that the story is from their childhood, but it's clear that they are now an adult. Ala How I Met Your Mother or The Wonder Years. The voiceover is the main character 10 or 20 years in the future, still alive telling the story. Or maybe it's presented as a journal entry of an event from only a few days ago.

    Most of the time, though, it isn't. It's just located an arbitrary distance in the past (even though the setting may be explicit.) If this is the case, where do you usually assume the narrator is in time? I usually assume that the narrator is dead and it's a recounting from beyond the grave. We're reading a story of the past about someone from the past, regardless of whether or not the actual story takes place in the present or even the future.
     
  2. Seren
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    Seren Member

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    I don't usually think about it at all, as you can probably tell from my thread. Now that I am thinking about it, though, I suppose I like to picture them telling the story when they're very near the end of their life. It depends on all the finicky things, however. In Twelve Days of Christmas by Trisha Ashley, for instance, the narrator talks mostly in past tense but occasionally jumps to present and/or conditional (or whatever) when talking about events that will occur the following day or any time after that. She is clearly telling each chapter separately, at the end of the day in which they have occurred. I never noticed it until the fourth read, so it's quite possible that this is very common and I've just never picked up on it before.
     
  3. halisme
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    halisme Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends. Most of the time I assume it's the omniscient narrator recounting the tale, if it comes from one person's perspective, either by being in first person or via free indirect discourse purely from one character, then I assume that it is the character recounting it at a latter date.
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I think it is a mistake to assume any "narrator" in any time or place unless it is clear from the work that this is the author's intent. Most past tense, third person works don't have a narrator as I think of them. It isn't necessarily meant to be assumed the story is being "told" by someone recounting a past occurrence. Sometimes that's the case, but usually not.

    Even in first person, there are books written in past tense where the main character is "narrating" right up until the time of death, so it doesn't make much sense to assume that the story is being "told" by that character from some future date.

    These are just stylistic choices. If an author wants to set a book up as being a past event recounted by a narrator, it's easy to do that. If the author doesn't do that, I see no reason to make the assumption.
     
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  5. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I don't have any problem with third person—which has POV but no narrator. I just get stuck into the story.

    However, I do confess that if there is a first-person narrator, I will want to know (at some point) when and how the story is being told. If you think about it, if you are telling a friend something that happened to you, you will be standing there relating something that you have survived, etc. I do get irritated when the person narrating turns out to be dead, unless the story is being told in written diary form. It's hard for me to suspend disbelief when the narrator couldn't possibly BE narrating.
     
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  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In third person, the past tense for me is just a grammatical choice; I don't create any sort of "wrapper" to explain how the story is being told. I don't have a "usually" for first person because I very rarely write in first person, but it would probably be the same.
     
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  7. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    Something I thought about mentioning in the other thread but similarly didn't want to derail -

    This game Bastion (which I love) has a silent protag and a narrator who comments on all of his/your actions, both filling in backstory and plot as you play as well as actually directly addressing your choices as a player, even minor ones. In the first act, the protag meets the actual character who plays the role of narrator, so you realize this isn't an omniscient narrator. But he still appears to be telling you, the player/reader, the story, until very nearly the end of the game where bits of narration begin to clue in that he's actually telling it to another character and it's just laid over you playing. Then, the final bit - you realize that the narrator is telling this story as you're playing and even he doesn't know how it's going to end. It's a very interesting way to get the story across, playing up to a point where you go from having your every action narrated to being on your own, and it eventually circles back 'round to the narrator explicitly addressing you, the player/protag, but in the present tense. It makes the end of the game seem more immediate and personal, I think.

    Cool, but not sure how exactly you'd apply something like it to writing a novel - the interactivity of a game is what really makes it work.

    Anyway. I tend to write in third person, albeit a close one, so I guess I mostly think of myself as the 'narrator' - I'm the one telling the story and I'm completely removed from it chronologically. When I'm doing 1p, it varies. I don't really default to a deathbed storytime or anything like that, I just assume it's a certain space of time away from the events being relayed - if the narrator's no longer very affected by them, probably quite a while; if they are, maybe it was only a few days ago. I did do a series of shorts written as transcripts of a character recounting things himself, so the 'wrapper' so to speak was of him several years in the future (to be specified within each 'session') sitting down to talk about these things. It was a little flavor but where/when he was at the time of telling had no real bearing on the stories.
     
  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Why should it be any different from third person? We all know it's just the stylistic choice of the author for present the story, same as any number of other such choices (unless you're reading a story that really is a telling of something that happened in the past). There's no more reason, objectively, that there should be a real narrator who is somehow explained than in third person.
     
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  9. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    for me, it's just a stylistic choice and personal preference what I write in. I don't think I've ever considered where the narrator is in time unless that was made clear in the book itself, and it doesn't really matter to me. Although, I gotta say, it is kinda interesting to wonder... :)
     
  10. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't consider it, unless the author presents it. If you're reading fiction, and the author doesn't present it, then it seems to me as a reader you're 1) adding something to the work that the author didn't actually put in it is; and 2) that you know isn't true.
     
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  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I know this. But I can't help thinking ...how is this guy telling me a story if he's dead? :) Unless he wrote it down first? In third person the author is telling a story about somebody else.

    Just a wee illogical reading quirk of mine. I do LOVE reading first person stories where the chronology is clear, though. Like an old person telling a story of when they were younger, etc.

    I keep hearkening back to a song I really dislike, even though the writing is good and the subject is worth while, and lots of people love it. The Last Leviathan. Written in first person by a dying/dead whale. Excuse me? Everybody else in the room is sniffling into their kerchiefs, and I'm trying not to laugh. I've got a brain blip with this sort of thing.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have a near-opposite issue: When the story does have a "wrapper", I'm more bothered by the question of, "How can anyone possibly remember what happened in all this detail?" When there's zero wrapper, I'm much more comfortable, because I don't worry at all about how the story got written down.
     
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  13. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I hear you. I view all fiction as the author telling a story about someone else, and unless the author is actually trying to set it up as an imaginary narrator recounting past events I never think of it that way. But you're not alone in your view by any means :)
     
  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, maybe that's got something to do with it as well. The narrator is invisible in a third-person story, while in a first-person story, they are right in your face. They have a personality. And if the personality strains believability in some way, it bothers me. Like a dead whale writing a song....
     
  15. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Exactly this.

    I write in third-person limited, past tense, and the "narrator" isn't an entity. It isn't my character in the future, telling her story. It has no omniscient knowledge, it doesn't have the benefit of hindsight, or any of that.

    This as well. I'm not a fan of stories framed in that way.
     
  16. Seren
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    Seren Member

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    I've written a narrator death scene in first person, past tense before, so it's good to hear this.
     
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  17. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This reminds me of the time when we were watching Disney's Tarzan as teenagers, and the scene comes where the mother gorilla is rocking baby Tarzan singing him to sleep, and it was right after Tarzan got rejected by the pack leader. I was all touched by the scene and the lovely music when my friend beside me laughed saying how ridiculous it was that a gorilla is saying and we're all meant to sympathise with an animated non-person.
     
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  18. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I've seen it in a handful of published novels.
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, me too. I know it makes narrative sense, as a way the author has chosen to tell the story, but it always bothers me a bit. I always assume that the "I" in a first person story will live beyond the end of the story itself.
     
  20. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I consider third person limited to be a sort of literary lens.
     
  21. Rosacrvx
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    Rosacrvx Active Member

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    It's not just you! I hate it when the last words in a first person story are: "... and then I was dead. THE END.", or some such to the same effect.
    But I don't see it how in a diary form it's any different?... It's not like the dead person can come back and make a last entry about their death. o_O
    Unless you mean that the diary already stated that the writer is mortal danger and that one could be their last entry... and the diary ends there. Now, that, I like! It's like a punch to the stomach, the absence and the void that follows. You really feel that's like death.
     
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  22. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I meant a book written from the point of view of somebody who has read the diary. So there will be bookends to the story, in another (possibly first person) POV that tells what happened to the person who wrote the diary.
     
  23. Rosacrvx
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    Rosacrvx Active Member

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    Ha, ok.
     

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