Who is telling your story? How close are you to their inner thoughts? What position does the story occupy in space time? These are all questions you need to answer when using your story’s perspective, but don’t worry, it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. This week, we’re discussing the pros and cons of choices like first vs third, unfolding vs retelling, epistolary vs whatever the opposite of epistolary is. We also reveal the secret of future tense narration, along with why some online lists think A Game of Thrones is written in omniscient. We know, it doesn’t make sense!
Generously transcribed by Arturo Serrano. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: … and…
Chris: As we all know, the Mythcreants Podcast is an epistolary work, mimicking an authentic non-fiction recording. We chose the format because it really makes you believe that there are three real people talking about writing in the real world in 2023. Very high credibility. That way it’s just really impactful when we’re all eaten by sea monsters.
Wes: No, God.
Oren: It’s actually just one very skilled parrot.
Wes: Running everything.
Oren: Yeah, it’s just, I got the whole thing. It’s a very, very competent bird, really, if I do say so myself.
Chris: So this time we’re talking about choosing your story’s perspective, including things like your narrative style, and your narrative premise, and all that goodness.
Oren: So like, second person omniscient future tense?
Chris: Yeah! We can break it down, because it’s more complicated than people make it seem.
Oren: It seems pretty complicated already, Chris. I don’t know if I can handle more of this.
Chris: I feel like it seems complicated to you because you hang out with me too much.
Oren: Maybe. There’s a possibility.
Chris: I swear, every time I open up a book that’s supposed to be on point of view or perspective, it just talks about first versus third. And then it just makes a bunch of assumptions about the narration based on whether you’re using first and third that may or may not be true. There’s a lot of equating of things going on.
Oren: I was looking for examples of omniscient narration, and I found A Game of Thrones listed on a couple of places. And I was like, that is… No! That’s not what that is, you guys! Please.
Wes: Is that just like, there’s multiple perspectives, so therefore must be omniscient?
Oren: Yeah, I guess that was the logic. I was like, am I misremembering these books? So I cracked open the first one, and like, no, this is in limited third-person perspective. It just switches between characters a lot. But it tells you when it’s doing that. Doesn’t leave you guessing whose head you’re in.
Chris: Yeah, is it distant?
Oren: I mean, it’s a little distant, but not so distant that you would confuse it for omniscient. It’s not as close as it could be. It varies a little bit. The distance can sometimes get a little sloppy, but it’s still clearly limited.
Chris: Before we start talking about this stuff, let’s just define them a little bit. I mean, I think the most… Again, the most obvious thing is whether you’re using first, and technically you can also use second. Some works do use second person, or third, right? So, “I went to the store” versus “You went to the store” versus “He/She/They went to the store.”
Chris: That kind of thing.
Oren: First and third are the two most common, right? I or he/she/they.
Chris: And people like to make up a lot of stuff about them that’s not true. Like, okay, so third is often more distant than first, but not necessarily.
Chris: First can actually be distant, and third can be very close in distance. And we can talk about what distance is. That one, we had a whole podcast, I think, about distance. But distance is basically the sense in the narration of whether you’re like somewhere near the character, like hovering over them, looking at them from the outside, or whether you’re like in their head, looking out through their eyes. The way it’s narrated: Are you narrating as the character? Or are you narrating about the character? And so if it’s more distance, it gives you the sense that you’re kind of like further away from that character. It’s kind of like the zoom in, zoom out of a camera. So you know, some people will kind of instinctively get a little bit more close when they start narrating in first person, but I’ve definitely seen distant first.
Oren: I would say that it’s not that you can’t have distant first; it’s that it’s probably a little more jarring when you do, would be my guess.
Chris: Yeah. An example of distant first would be Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Oren: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s been a while, but yeah.
Chris: And we haven’t talked about our narrative premise yet, but this is a character retelling. And so it’s a guy telling how he was as a kid, something that happened to him as a kid. And so he feels really distant from the child version of himself. And so it just doesn’t feel that immersive.
Oren: I mean, that’s the question of: Are you using unfolding or retelling premise? And definitely retelling is going to be more distant because it literally… the premise is that the character is telling events that happened to them in the past, which is adding a layer of separation between the reader and the story. Whereas unfolding is: the events are happening now and you are witnessing them, which is, you know, of course, impossible, but it’s fiction. So you know, don’t worry about it.
Wes: Can a retelling be close?
Wes: Is it just…
Chris: Right. Okay, so retelling is kind of complicated because you’ve got a future narrator. But then what happens is that the future narrator will start narrating about their past. And then what you can do is you can actually kind of zoom into the past. So you kind of temporarily forget the future narrator is there and dive more into the character’s past self narrating. And so if you do that, and you’re careful about your transitions, you know, you can actually bring it in close and then zoom out again.
Chris: Right? But if you don’t do it carefully enough, it can get jarring, that kind of thing. Most of the time when I’ve seen people do a character retelling where we have our future narrator who’s talking about their past, they usually stay fairly distant. They don’t usually get really close, but they can.
Wes: Interesting. Yeah, that feels almost like a… more of like a frame than anything else.
Oren: It’s similar. But when we talk about a framing device, we usually mean, like, the story will start with someone in their, you know, in their attic and being… and then it’ll be like, “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” And then like they’ll open a book and be like, “And this is that story.”
Chris: Well, I do think that’s actually how character retellings got started. So if we go back to like our earliest stories we have, and we’re looking at something like ancient Egyptian folktales, right? A lot of times they do have a framing device to explain why we have a first-person narrator. But at this point, we don’t need that anymore. So we just dispense with the framing device. And get right into the first-person narration. Because we have a future narrator, we can kind of hint things that are in the future that the character –the past character– doesn’t know about yet. And the other thing is that, when you have the future narrator there, the narration happens out of time, right? And the character and the, you know, narrator knows that they have an audience. So it feels in some ways more like the omniscient narrator, because they can just start telling the audience things for the purpose of the audience knowing things.
Chris: They could just deliberately, like, “Hey, and this is what I looked like.” We don’t have to gracefully work it in; you can just tell your audience.
Oren: Right. And that’s like the main advantage of a retelling is you can get a bit more creative with the narration before it starts to feel contrived or jarring. And, you know, this is useful for jokes, or if you want to build a little bit of dramatic irony by letting the audience in on something the character doesn’t know. If you’re doing subversions, this can be handy because you can kind of clue the audience in ahead of time that you’re not just playing this trope straight, which can drive a lot of people off before you get to the subversion. The retelling has those advantages. It trades immersion for those, though. Like unfolding is a much more immersive perspective. So, you know, you just have to decide which one is right for the story you’re telling.
Chris: And it’s similar to omniscient. Omniscient is always third person, though. And the idea with omniscient is that your narrator actually comes from –is a real person– comes from the real world and they’re telling you a fictional story. At some level, it’s: “the author made this up.” That’s kind of what omniscient is, right? And that’s kind of how the narrator can be all-knowing. And that’s why it’s really weird when, like, an omniscient narrator, like the storyteller, tries to be like, “Oh, and did you know that the omniscient narrator was this character in the story this whole time?” It’s like, how does that… how does that work?
Oren: Right. You have to do something real weird, like be like, “And the omniscient narrator was God,” or death or something. That’s why like first person omniscient is not something I would recommend. I’ve read a first person omniscient story and it was like the narrator turned out to be some guy that the protagonists knew. And I was like, “How did he know the details of their marital dispute?”
Wes: Because there’s the section, Oren, where the narrator makes it very clear that the main character fully confided everything in them. I read this horrible book called The Club Dumas years ago. No one should read it. And that happened. There were the narrator’s like, “How do I know all of this? Well, the main character told me, of course.” I was like, “What? No.”
Oren: Seems suspicious. That’s pretty sus. And of course, the opposite of omniscient is limited, in which the narrator is limited to the things that usually a single character knows. And retelling is technically a form of limited. It’s just a more… it’s like almost halfway between limited and omniscient. You will start to get weird questions if your retelling narrator starts to know things that doesn’t seem like they should know. People sometimes joke about this with the Titanic movie, where technically the framing device is that Rose is telling the story, but lots of stuff that Rose couldn’t possibly have known about happens. And it’s like, in a novel, that would be way more obvious.
Oren: If Rose would be like, “And while we were having our fun down below, upstairs, there was two people in the crow’s nest talking about how they could smell ice.” And it’s like, “Rose, how do you know that?” It’s like, “Don’t worry about it.”
Chris: Yeah, an omniscient narrator can tell you multiple people’s thoughts. It would be a little strange if a first person, you know, doing a retelling of their life, did the same thing. Unless reading thoughts is a power that they have.
Chris: So when we talk about unfolding events, we’re talking about there’s no real explanation for how the story is being told, which is kind of what the narrative premise is. It’s the premise of how the narration is happening. We assume that we narrate like you’re just there, you know, embodying a character and things are just happening before your eyes. The one we haven’t talked about, but was mentioned earlier, is epistolary narration, where you’re mimicking some kind of real document or file. And that one is real tricky most of the time, because you need to make it pay off. You really need to make it authentic.
Chris: And it can be really hard to pull off all the things that we expect out of stories, right? Like detailed action scenes and while also staying authentic.
Oren: It’s like, did whoever write… whoever’s writing this journal really take time to note down the way the moonlight glinted off of the axe as it fell? That doesn’t seem like the sort of thing they would have written down.
Wes: That’s why I’m always suspicious that anything that’s like epistolary is definitely like more historical fiction in the sense that it’s like 19th, 18th, 17th century stuff. Because it’s like, oh yeah, people journaled a lot more then. They might, you know, they’re so bored that they might actually take the time to describe that to their friend who’s also so bored because they don’t have TV.
Chris: I think it’s a fun one for short stories. You know, anything that’s a little bit more experimental, right? Some choices are definitely more experimental than other, like second person, for instance. I think those are still often very fun to use for short stories. You know, you just want to think a little bit harder before you use them for a whole novel or really big project where you have to commit to using something that’s a little bit experimental or otherwise just could get in the way of the story itself, right? Like do you want to focus on the story or do you want to focus on how the story is being told?
Oren: And the one category I don’t think we’ve touched on directly yet is tense. What tense is the story in? Usually it’s going to be past tense or present tense.
Chris: Future! It’s always future!
Oren: It can be future, you know, that’s one of those ones that probably works best for a short story. Writing a novel in future tense sounds exhausting.
Oren: But not as exhausting as reading it.
Chris: Yeah. I’ve seen, again, brief instances of future tense as kind of jokes, but it’s bad, mostly not just because it’s impractical, but because the wording is so awkward. To constantly use “will” everywhere. It’s just in English. It’s not great.
Oren: So many “will”s. You got to throw in all of them.
Wes: Yeah. Well, we don’t have a future tense. We use modal verbs to indicate probability with our normal verbs. And “will” is just the most certain modal verb we have. And you can just write, like, standard verbs and use time indicator words to set the future. Like, we don’t have a grammar future. Sorry.
Chris: Ooh, getting technical!
Wes: No, it’s not like, you know, like a Latin language or something else where they do have different verb… forms of the verb. We just affix a modal to our standard verbs and we call that future tense. But the way we can talk about future in English, I can use, you know, an -ing form. I can use a “will.” I can use the standard form. And as long as the context is clear from the rest of the words in the sentence, I’m talking about the future. So I just think that’s an important thing there. Editor/grammarian signing off.
Chris: Kind of sounds like future tense might be more practical in another language.
Wes: Yes. Well, it would be… it’d probably be way less annoying.
Oren: But then you wouldn’t have all the cool modals, which is a word I just learned.
Wes: All the modals.
Oren: Modal. That sounds neat. I like the way that that word sounds. I like the way it feels. It’s got good mouthfeel, you could say. I have a question, Chris: The great debate between present or past tense. Past is a little more conventional, but we’ve talked about how present tense has some advantages where it, specifically, it feels a little bit more immediate. And you don’t have to put “had” as a word whenever you’re indicating that something happened in the past, because you can just use past tense. So question A, are there other advantages that present tense has that I’m missing? And B, does past tense have any advantages other than convention?
Chris: Well, past tense allows you to do a character retelling.
Wes: Big advantage.
Chris: So it opens up additional options. And also, for instance, if you were doing epistolary narration, you need to mimic the actual style of documents. So a lot of times you would end up using past for that reason. Or even with letter writing. If you’re doing letters as your story, you will probably use multiple tenses, depending on the time that the character is supposed to be writing the letter. What’s past for them, what’s present for them, what’s future for them. So there are just some options that past tense has that future tense, that, well, definitely future tense, but present tense doesn’t. But I do suspect that as time passes, there will be more and more works in present tense, because it is advantageous for those little reasons.
Wes: I will say that as a reader, as gripping as present tense stories are, they demand more of me. And I don’t feel like I’m alone in this. There’s definitely… if we talk about feel of your narrative style and the choices that you make, a present tense is asking more, because it’s inherently just more action. Past tense is casually telling stories; that isn’t quite as gripping, because it adds a little bit of distance and offers a different type of feel with that story.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I was just gonna say, you could say the same thing about distance, right? If you wanted.
Wes: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Chris: Yeah, but I mean, in most cases, all else being equal, higher immersion is considered better. And there is a question of when a story becomes too intense for the reader, right? Because that can happen with tension, too.
Chris: You can have too much tension. Some readers are more tension-sensitive than others. But generally, immersion is considered a positive factor. But I can see why in some cases you might want to reduce immersion if that helps you relax, right? Or helps you deal with tension, right? Maybe the story is a high-tension story that’s kind of on the edge of your tolerance. And if immersion is lower, you’re able to tolerate it. Any case, I thought it’d be worth talking about, again, how you make these decisions. Because there are a lot of options; they’re kind of technical. In most stories, there’s no necessarily right choice. There are some types of stories that might lend themselves better to one choice or the other. But definitely part of choosing is artistic, right? And what you want for your story, and what kind of experience you want the audience to have. So, you know, I think the best way to choose is to start with the story and how you want it to come across. So, for instance, is making your story feel tense, exciting, immersive the most important thing to you? Especially if you’re writing like a horror story, for instance, or a thriller. In those cases, often the storyteller will prioritize bringing across tension and immersion. In which case, you know, you might choose first person present tense. Since present tense increases immediacy, it’s going to make it feel tenser and more exciting. And first person, again, some people feel like it’s a little closer. And also I think right now, just the state of where present tense is, you can pair present tense with third person. But I think people are a little bit more used to it when you pair it with first.
Oren: First also has one interesting, not huge, but important to keep in mind, advantage and disadvantage, which is with first, you have an extra pronoun, which can be very helpful if you have multiple characters that would otherwise be using the same pronouns. And you can end up with pronoun confusion. But you can stick “I” in there, which makes it easier to tell the difference between the protagonist doing something versus another character who uses the same pronouns as that protagonist. The downside to that is that you can’t mix up the protagonist’s name with their pronouns. So because if it was in third person, you could say “she” and then “Beverly” to keep your word variety up. Whereas in first person, it’s going to be “I” both times. So you need to be aware of that. Otherwise your page can just be covered in “I”s. And, you know, that can get annoying to read.
Chris: I do wonder how much of that is something that bothers the writer more than it bothers the reader. Sometimes, when you’re writing, you just become hyper-aware of the words that are the same. I don’t know. Have you read a story where the usage of “I” just bothered you because it was too much?
Oren: Client stories? Yes. Published stories? Not usually. I think this is something that tends to get fixed. Copy editors can probably help. Just being more accomplished at wordcraft. I think you can fix it. I don’t think it’s an insurmountable issue. But yeah, I have a… I’ve had a couple of client works that were just… the term “I” is popping up a lot. If you repeat any word enough, it starts to lose meaning. But I don’t think it’s like a reason to not use first person. It’s just something to think about.
Chris: I mean, probably a lot of those cases, lengthening the sentences a little bit, which normally would be something I would be cautious to recommend because people easily go overboard with their sentences, but that would probably be one way of reducing the amount of “I”s a little bit. Okay, so we just talked about tense and immersive. Generally, present tense is a nice choice. Now, granted, you could have other kinds of, like, tense stories, like if you’re doing cosmic horror, you might want to go for epistolary feel, right? With that credibility. It also lends itself to a little bit of mysteriousness, which, again, people can definitely go too far with mysteriousness and just like hide all the important things about their story. That’s not… that’s not good mystery anymore. But sometimes that kind of gives you the right atmosphere that you want. And so there’s been, you know, because of Lovecraft, a tradition of doing cosmic horror with an epistolary narration style, and it does make it easy for you to leave information out.
Oren: I also think it is worth noting that sometimes it can be worth it to pick the option that you’re most comfortable with, even if there might technically be better options available. I agree that often first person and present tense is the best way to go. But I’m honestly just much more comfortable with third person past tense. And that doesn’t mean I always will be. And hopefully I can grow and change and branch out. But for now, I sometimes just stick with third person past just because that’s what I know how to use. And it just feels easiest.
Chris: Certainly people tend to get used to one particular narration style and have trouble changing it. And if you’re not used to it, and you change for the first time, your, you know, draft can be just like littered with the other narration style that you’re used to using. So that’s something to watch out for. And again, some people are just going to have their go-to narration style that they like to use. And that’s fine. I like to sample different ones personally. So when I do a project, I think about, “Okay, what would I like to do this in?” But of course, it’s partly a matter of comfort. And that’s just fine.
Oren: All right. So what about limited versus omniscient? Which one is right for you?
Chris: So I do think that when you’re talking about, you know, limited or character retellings, do you want your narration to be conversational or personable? Because that’s kind of like the opposite side of the tense and immersive. It’s that if you use a character retelling, it’s really easy to take up a conversational tone and to fit in extra little anecdotes because you don’t have to keep your narration in time, right? Because it doesn’t… no time passes for the story when your character is just giving anecdotes. Because your narration is out of time in that case. So it allows you to kind of fit more in and explain better. So, if you have a really complicated setting, for instance, it might make it easier to explain. With any of that, of course, with great power comes great responsibility. So, you know, you do hear complaints about character retellings. It’s just being, “Oh gosh, this narrator won’t let me get to the story! Just won’t stop talking!”, you know?”
Oren: Just one more anecdote!
Chris: Right. But certainly the character retelling lends itself well to that. And omniscient can go both ways, but I really do think omniscient is at its best when you have a narrator that has some personality and is light and is fun. Because it just… again, the Lord of the Rings is omniscient and it’s a little on the darker side. And Tolkien was good at wordcraft. You know, he did omniscient pretty well. The same time, I don’t necessarily think that those choices are very complementary. As opposed to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Discworld, which are omniscient and very playful and those things. It works really well because the narrator has lots of fun personality and the omniscient gives it the freedom to make whatever jokes, you know, the narrator wants to, basically, without worrying about the story.
Oren: That’s basically my conclusion. Because when I look at stories that feel like they really benefit from their omniscient narration, they’re almost all, if not outright comedies, at least humorous in some capacity. And then I look at Earthsea is written in omniscient, which I sometimes forget because I just sort of assume it’s limited because the whole thing follows Ged. It’s like, “Why is it not limited?” And it’s just, you know, occasionally we do weird little omniscient asides. And I feel like that probably would have been better in limited narration.
Chris: Yeah. So there are works, you know, I think particularly fantasy works, that are in omniscient that are not funny, but I don’t necessarily think they’re benefiting from it. I think there’s a lot of people who just do really distant limited or omniscient kind of by default, and they’re not really taking full advantage of it. They’re using it because it’s convenient, because then they don’t have to… they can tell the audience whatever they want. They don’t have to limit knowledge to what the viewpoint character thinks, but they’re also just not using the power it has to raise engagement in the story.
Oren: Right. Or you can end up with situations where most of the book is fairly straightforward narration, and then every once in a while there’s like this weird little authorial aside that, because it doesn’t feel like it’s part of consistent voice, it’s like, “What? Whoa, hang on. What’s happening? Why are you suddenly addressing me, the reader, directly?” That’s a thing that happens a lot with people who pick omniscient without really knowing what it requires.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I think the best omniscient narration is bold, and there’s no question it’s omniscient. Right? It’s not there to just kind of fade into the background. Otherwise you get narration that kind of feels bland. Whereas if you get really close, then the idea is that your viewpoint character is narrating, and so they are flavoring the narration. But you can stay like really tense and immersive.
Oren: Right. And to a certain extent, limited is, I think, a little easier for new writers just because you have the protagonist as a guide for what your narration should be like. Whereas if you’re trying to create an authorial voice from scratch, it’s like, “What should my authorial voice be like?” It’s like, “I don’t know. Should it be like my voice?” Big, big question.
Chris: I also think whether you want it to sound traditional or modern is another big one for what you choose. Obviously third-person past is going to sound a lot more traditional. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to choose that for certain types of stories. Like for instance, let’s say you’re writing an adaptation of a fairy tale. You might choose third/past because you want it to sound fairy tale-ish, like traditional fairy tale narration, but not summary. A lot of fairy tales are written in summary. Or you might decide that you actually really want to subvert that and make it snarky and modern. Right? So maybe you don’t want to use third/past. Maybe you want to use first person, either like a retelling or present tense or something, and get all snarky. Right? So that’s kind of where your, you know, what experience do you want to give and your artistic choices come into play.
Oren: Yeah. No one told me I had to make choices. What is this nonsense? All right. Well, then I think we, on that note, we’re about out of time. There is one more thing I want to mention, though, is which Chris and I have started referring to as TV narration, which is a narration where you act as if like a character’s head is an opaque barrier and you can’t go inside it.
Chris: Or like film POV.
Oren: Right. Where it’s like you can only look at characters from the outside and like, I just like, look, if you’re doing that, you are missing out on like 50% of the benefit of writing a book instead of filming a show. So I would just avoid that. Whatever that is, don’t do it.
Chris: Yeah. That’s like when you have cold, dispassionate narration and you’re not in any character’s head, but you’re also oftentimes limiting yourself to what the character knows. But like you never see their thoughts or like anything, you know? It just feels like a camera is rolling. And that’s not great because you don’t actually get to see pretty pictures. That’s why you would want a camera to roll.
Oren: Just remember to use the strength of your medium.
Chris: OK, if you found that podcast useful, consider supporting us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com slash mythcreants.
Wes: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have the popular writing software Plottr. You can learn about them at plottr.com. Next there’s Callie McLeod. Then we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next there’s Ayman Jaber. He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. Talk to you next week.[outro music]
This has been the MythCreant Podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Colton.
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