Voice and tense in narrative writing
Home learning focus
To experiment with voice and tense in narrative writing.
This article includes:
- two videos about tenses and shaping stories
- two activities to practise what you have learnt
Watch this short clip for a recap about the way that we use the three main tenses - past, present and future, in writing. Then explore how the past and present tense are used in fiction writing.
Most novels are written in the past tense. Readers are more familiar with this tense because they are used to being told a story that has already taken place.
For most verbs you add an '-ed' at the end of the word to change it to the past tense - for example, she talks becomes she talked.
However, when writing it's important to watch out for irregular verbs where the whole word changes in the past tense. For example:
|Irregular verb||Past tense|
|I choose||I chose|
|They build||They built|
|She swims||She swam|
The present tense is used when writing about something that is happening at that moment. Sometimes a fiction writer may use the present tense to make their writing more immediate, as in this example from The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger:
It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
What is narrative voice?
Narrative voice is the perspective the story is told from. It can have an important effect on the story and the reader’s response. Take a look at the table below to see different examples of narrative voice and how they can be used in fiction.
|Person||Types of narrative voice||Example|
|First person||A character within the story is telling the story. Some of the main personal pronouns used are I, my, me, we.||I watched as the boat sank. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. I turned to take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawled like ants into my mind.|
|Second person||Not commonly used by writers. The personal pronouns you and your are used throughout.||You watch as the boat slowly sinks. You feel relief mixed with guilt. You turn and take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawl like ants into your mind.|
|Third person||The story is being told by the voice of someone who is not a character in the story. The main personal pronouns used are she, he and they.||George watched as the boat sank. He felt relief mixed with guilt. He turned to take the rudder, pushing away the thoughts that crawled like ants into his mind.|
|Third person omniscient||The story is being told by a voice who shows they know more than the characters in the story – the narrator is all knowing. The main personal pronouns used are she, he and they.|| George watched as the boat sank. He felt a relief mixed with guilt. Six miles away a group of fishermen watched the horizon, looking for signs of the storm they could feel in the air.|
As well as making choices about narrative voice, writers structure their stories by choosing the sequence in which narrative elements will be revealed to the reader.
A linear or chronological structure is where the story is told in the order it happens. With a chronological or linear structure, the reader finds out what happens in the ‘correct’ order - this can lead the reader through events clearly. It may not be the most interesting way to tell a story, though.
Writers may choose to use a non-linear structure where flashbacks show the reader a past event, gradually revealing details that have an impact on the plot. A non-linear story could begin at any point - somewhere in the middle, at the climax, or even at the end.
Both linear and non-linear structures are influenced by the narrator’s point of view. Watch the following clip to see how sequence and narrative perspective shape a story for the reader.
Check your understanding. Find out how much you know about tenses in this short quiz:
Use this image as a prompt for imaginative writing. Write first in the past tense, then in the present - from the point of view of the character. Then try rewriting your scene in the third person. Which do you prefer? Why?
When writing in the first person, you could experiment with addressing your reader directly, as in the example below.
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is an example of a first-person narrative. All the other characters are seen through the main character Jane's eyes, and this may affect our views of them. In the final chapter of the novel, Jane addresses the reader directly.
Reader, I married him. A quiet wedding we had: he and I, the parson and clerk, were alone present. When we got back from church, I went into the kitchen of the manor-house, where Mary was cooking the dinner and John cleaning the knives, and I said —
“Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning.”
Dig deeper into the effects of mixing tenses in writing and complete this activity sheet from Teachit.
You can print out the activity sheet or write your answers on a piece of paper.