Ariel joins Chris and Oren for a discussion about perspective and point of view. They discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives and common mistakes writers make. Ariel stands up for second person, while Chris and Oren reignite their old debate about multiple points of view.
- Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches
- Sorcery & Cecelia
- Run Lola Run
- Terry Pratchett
- Stephen King’s Under the Dome
- Examples of sloppy/distant third: Sword of Shannara and Eragon
- The Lovely Bones
- Debatecast: 22 – Are Multiple Points of View Good or Bad?
- Downbelow Station
- World War Z
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: “So, one day, Chris thought, ‘you know, it’s been quite a while since we’ve done a writing podcast; but, you know what, I think we’re going to need some help.’ Then, she had a brilliant idea. ‘I know! I’ll ask Ariel Anderson to help me with this podcast! Ariel has done many, many- copyediting many, many times for the Mythcreants blog.’ So, she asked, ‘Ariel, will you help me with my podcast?’ And Ariel said…”
Oren: Meanwhile, Oren is thinking that he’s not sure about this whole ‘having a guest on the podcast.’ This feels like there’s someone in his space, and that present tense is very strange and hard to keep up. I don’t- but he doesn’t know if that’s because it’s just something we don’t use a whole lot, or if there’s something inherently weird about it. Like, if we use present tense all the time; would it still feel weird? I don’t know.
Chris: Well, Oren, when you record the podcast, you find that, actually, present tense is very natural; and so is second-person, in fact.
Oren: No, second-person’s weird. Second-person is right out. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So- in other words, this is going to be a podcast on point-of-view and perspective. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. And again, Ariel- even if you do not recognize her name, you have read her work, because she is our primary copy editor at Mythcreants. So, we’re very happy- and she also does copy editing for fiction work, as well; so, we’re definitely happy to have her here.
Oren: She’s always asking me to change things… I don’t know how I feel about that. [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: So, we can start with like, how do we define- because people put different points-of-view and perspectives in different categories, and it’s not- there’s not a lot of consistency about what goes where and how many categories there are. So, what do you guys think?
Oren: Well, I want to know what Ariel’s favorite perspective and point-of-view is, because she’s the guest and I want her to answer questions.
Ariel: I honestly- I like playing with points-of-view, so when I start writing, I’ll just write; and I might write a scene in first-person or third-person, I love playing with second-person, but it’s hard. So, I think that each one has their strengths and weaknesses.
Oren: So, have either of you seen second-person work, outside of like, a super-short story? Cause I’ve seen a few flash pieces that use second-person, and it works pretty well, but I’ve never seen a longer work with second-person.
Chris: I mean- I will say… first of all, I really liked the example that Ariel gave with ‘imperative’. I think the trick about second-person is that it has to be used in a situation where the character is incredibly blank. Like, the character has to be an absolutely empty placeholder. But the longest works I’ve seen are choose-your-own-adventure works.
Because a choose-your-own-adventure work, it’s actually meant to be you in the story; the character is never described, is incredibly blank, and you are actually making choices for the character.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: But yeah, the issue is that second-person is- normally, when we talk about close perspective, it’s usually considered a good thing. But I think second is so close that what you get is kind of a rejection syndrome, where people are just like, ‘wait a second. That’s not me.’ And so, if you try to give the character any details, you’re going to get the audience rejecting the character.
And so, unless the character’s incredibly blank and is so personality-less that they can really just be there themselves, you’re going to end up with rejection. And I think that’s why it’s not in common use; and of course, once something isn’t in common use, people think it’s funny.
Chris: So, that, of course, contributes to…
Oren: Well, it’s the same thing with present tense, right? Like, when I read a story with present tense, I immediately start thinking ‘why did they put this story in present tense?’ But if I read something that’s in past tense, I don’t think about it. It just defaults to being in past tense.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s actually difficult for me to analyze third-person limited past tense, because that is such a default that I don’t even notice it when it’s there. It’s like, ‘oh, this is a book.’ That’s about all I have to say on it. [laughs]
Chris: So, Ariel, have you written a story in second-person before?
Ariel: I have. I’ve actually- I’ve written more rants in second-person.
Chris: Oh, really?
Ariel: Yeah. The assignment was things like, ‘write a hundred-word sentence without any periods or commas and just keep going’, so, of course that ends up being a rant, because that’s the easiest way to write. [Chris laughs] And it’s all talking about ‘you do this, and you do that,’ and- I mean, it has emotion, and it has sort of character development. Is it a story? Definitely not a speculative fiction story. [Chris laughs]
Chris: But I definitely see, with- you have an example in your notes with ‘imperative’. I don’t know if you wanted to say what that example is…
Ariel: My example was a story that starts out with ‘run. Don’t stop running; they’re right behind you.’ And like, that puts the reader right into the action, it sets up- there’s a conflict, and it can go a lot of places from there.
Chris: I feel like that feels very natural, because it is like you’re giving directions to the reader. It allows the reader to be there directing themselves in the story. You’re not trying to make the reader merge with a character that’s very different from them, you’re just working with the reader. Obviously, that’s- I feel like, if you try to do that for a whole novel, it’s not going to work.
But if you have a piece of flash fic or something very short, that feels like a very natural way to go about things, and that would actually work pretty well.
Oren: Right. Yeah, I’ve actually seen a number of very short stories that are basically what Ariel was just saying, which is, you have the second-person narrator who is talking to you, but the narrator is also a character, and they will sometimes refer to themselves. And they’re- the idea is that they’re having a one-sided conversation with you, and you don’t say anything, because you are the reader, and it would be weird if you said something, because you didn’t say that.
But I can’t imagine that working for a longer story. Like, after a thousand words, it starts to get awkward.
Oren: Especially since it’s hard to imagine how describing a lot of things would work in that point-of-view. Like, if you have an action sequence, describing the fight would be very awkward and difficult, cause it would just feel like the narrator was expositing at you, and it would be super awkward if they tried to describe like, the way that you describe a sword fight to make it seem interesting.
Chris: Yeah, that does seem very difficult.
Oren: Which is actually- since we’re on the subject, I was going to save this for the end, but now I’m not going to anymore; have you guys- neither of you have read Maplecroft, have you?
Oren: Okay. So, Maplecroft is- it’s kind of an example of what you guys have informed me is called “episteolary.” [botches pronunciation] Epistilary? Epis-tilary? [further botches pronunciation]
Ariel: Epi-stol-ary. [not quite right either]
(Note: the correct pronunciation is ep-pis-to-lary.)
Oren: There you go. Okay. It’s kind of that. I looked it up, and that specifically refers to a story written in letters.
Ariel: [in background] That would be the Southern pronunciation of that. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Chris: You know what? It’s all good. Yeah, I think it started- it was traditionally with letters, now it’s expanded to be things that are similar, like diary entries, for instance.
Oren: That’s what I was- Maplecroft is a story told in diary entries, and I very much enjoyed it. I think it’s a very good book, and it works particularly well because there are- there’s the main action plot, which is the story of this Lovecraftian monster that’s infiltrating the town and taking everything over.
And then, there’s the emotional plot, which is the conflict between the two main characters, who are sisters, and one of them is very ill and is in very poor health. And so, there’s this love, but there’s this resentment that they both have for each other, cause the one sister resents always needing the other sister’s help, and the other sister resents always having to help, and it just wouldn’t really make sense in the context of the story for them to have that out with each other.
But since it’s written in diary entries, you can get that emotional undercurrent, and it makes the whole thing feel a lot more real. But it does run into problems towards the end, when they’re trying to describe this fight that they have with the lead cultist, and it’s like, I just don’t imagine that someone would write down in their diary this very detailed description of how the axe was swinging.
That just seems unlikely- [Chris laughs] -that they would remember that. But they have to describe it that way in order for the fight to be interesting.
Chris: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting, because you could almost say the same thing about first-person, but in first-person, we’ve kind of taken away the idea that there’s actually somebody telling you about their life. You could do first-person as like, ‘hey. There’s a person sitting at the fireside in front of me, and that person’s going to tell me the story about something that happened to them,’ and that’s your first-person narration.
But usually when we do first-person these days, it’s a lot more like third-person, where we have a first-person narrator, but there’s no concept of a person that’s necessarily telling you things, it’s just in that first-person narration. But when you’re using an actual medium, like a diary or letters or something like that, there’s a lot more expectation that it will stick to what somebody would actually put in that medium.
Chris: I feel like it might be really good for- if you wanted to leave things mysterious, because you can make it less immediate if you want to do less showing. Like, normally, showing is better, but if you wanted to do less showing just to keep something that was horrific in sort of the mystery zone, you could probably do it pretty well with that.
Oren: Well, that’s especially important for a story like Maplecroft, because Maplecroft is a Lovecraftian horror, and the whole idea is that you don’t know what this thing is, and you can’t possibly imagine what it is. And if the author ever had to tell you what it was, it would be like, ‘oh. That’s what that was?’ There’s no way it could live up to the hype.
Chris: A book that’s in a… epistolary? [pronounces it correctly]
Ariel: I’ve heard it two ways: Ep-pis-tol-ary and epi-stol-ary.
Chris: I kind of like ‘epi-stol-ary’. The one that I keep hearing about is a book called Sorcery & Cecilia, which I’ve never read myself, but I’ve heard from several people. And it’s a story where two women are writing each other. So, they are writing back-and-forth; and it’s written by two authors: Patricia Wrede and Caroline… Stevermer? I’m not sure how to pronounce her last name.
But they- so, each one did the writing from one female character, so like, if they have different voices, it totally makes sense, cause there’s two different women talking to each other. And they actually didn’t plan it out ahead, they did it discovery-style, just writing back-and-forth.
And then I think they probably went back and edited. But it was a very unusual style, an unusual way to collaborate between authors that seems to have worked out really well, and that I’ve heard really good things about.
Oren: Another strength I was going to give of this style is that it allows for a very natural kind of Rashomon-style viewing of the same scene from two different points of view. And you can do that with multiple third-person points-of-view if you want; I don’t want to- I know how much Chris loves multiple points-of-view. [Chris laughs]
But it would be kind of awkward if in Game of Thrones, you had a scene take place from Arya’s perspective, and then immediately did the same scene from Sansa’s perspective. They may do that in Game of Thrones at some point-
Ariel: They do that once or twice.
Chris: You know what it’s like? It’s like if you have- I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Run Lola Run, or the other movie where they repeat the same sequence of events? It’s like that. What you have to do to pull that off is, you have to make sure to actually cut out most of the things that you already said, to say them incredibly- brevity. Just tell them. And then move to the things- concentrate closely on the things that are actually different.
Chris: But yeah, it’s kind of tricky.
Oren: And with the diary framing device, it gives greater latitude for describing the scene differently, because it’s just easier to imagine that these characters, after the fact, are writing down what they remember of the scene, and there’s kind of an implicit ‘neither of these is probably 100% correct.’
Whereas I think that’s a little harder to do in third-person limited, because there’s a bit more of an expectation that the narrator is telling you what’s actually happening.
Ariel: In an unbiased sort of way.
Oren: Just a little bit. All those. Speaking of biased narrators; one issue that I’ve always had with first-person- I don’t know if either of you- I want to hear your thoughts on this; is that, if a first-person narrator is flawed in some way, it’s hard for me to tell if he’s supposed to be flawed or if the writer just thinks that’s what a normal person is like.
Like, The Dresden Files- which I very much enjoyed, for the most part; Harry Dresden is kind of sexist, and I can’t tell if Harry Dresden is supposed to be sexist, or if that’s just the way Jim Butcher views women. It’s hard for me to be sure because it’s only from Harry Dresden’s perspective, and it is literally inside his head with him telling me these things.
Chris: One thing I’ve heard is that- one of the challenges of first-person is that authors do tend to be closer to the character, and it’s a little harder for them to separate themselves from the character. They kind of- they start to- by writing with the eye, they start thinking of the character as themselves, and for that reason, it can be a little more challenging.
So, that- [laughs] -yeah, that’s a good point and a good question, but I think that’s probably one of the challenges of writing first-person, is distinguishing the… I think with any close perspective, distinguishing the viewpoint character’s beliefs from the reality- cause your reality is supposed to be colored by what your viewpoint character thinks; so then, how do you show when your viewpoint character is wrong?
I think for me, mainly, it’s having another character present to correct them. Like, if you let your viewpoint character say things that are not appropriate, and at no point in time in the story do they actually learn they are wrong, and then at no point in time during the story is there another character to be like, ‘hey, that was kind of sexist.’ Or, you know, obviously, often in a more subtle way.
That would be like- you might as well, at that point, consider it a sexist book, because the author is putting in those messages without putting any sort of thing to counter them in. Regardless of whether or not the main character is sexist, or the author is sexist, it’s effectively the same. You’ve got a negative message that’s not being countered in any way.
Oren: Yeah, if you have to go and ask the writer what they meant, then that’s a failure, right? [Chris laughs] Like, at that point, it doesn’t matter what the author meant if you can’t get it from reading the book. The author might not be dead, but their opinion doesn’t matter. [laughs]
Chris: One thing I wanted to talk about, in terms of perspective, is just distance. Because I feel like, when we’re talking about first versus third, especially- a lot of the ways that people compare and contrast them, what they’re actually talking about is not really the pronoun used, so much as the varied difference in distance that they have, which kind of extends beyond just the difference in first versus third.
So, the concept of distance is that, if you are very close, you are seeing- this is what we were just talking about with Harry Dresden; you are experiencing the story from inside a character, you feel like you are them during the story, to some extent. The story’s narration is colored by their perspective. You’re in their head. So, you see only the details that they can see.
Like, if something hits them in the back, you don’t see it, you feel it. You describe the feeling of it, not the sight of it, because you’re in their head, so you can’t actually see behind them. So, that’s very close perspective.
Whereas, if you’re in distant perspective, you start like- it’s usually described as a camera getting farther and farther away from the character, where you’re now starting to watch the character from the outside. And you might still know what their thoughts are, but it’s like, you’re watching them think it; you’re not really experiencing them think it.
And that’s where a lot of the words like, ‘he heard a cry,’ is a very- is distant, because you’re watching him hear it, as opposed to hearing it yourself. If you were hearing it yourself, it would just say ‘a cry emanated,’ or something like that, because you’re hearing the cry directly; you’re not watching somebody hear it. So, that’s the difference in language; but then, the other factor is, can you see or experience things that the character does not know about?
Generally, the definition of limited means that you can’t; so, if the character cannot see it, you cannot see it. And that is- for all limited perspectives, that is probably the biggest challenge that writers deal with. But like, when you get all the way out to what you call omniscient- which honestly, I think when, anytime you’re experiencing something that no character sees, it’s not from a character viewpoint, you’re already technically omniscient.
You’re just not necessarily far out enough- you’re just not necessarily taking advantage of omniscient.
Oren: You’re not committed. [Chris laughs]
Chris: You’re not committed, but like, some people would just call it ‘distant third,’ or sometimes ‘sloppy third.’ [laughs]
Chris: I personally think that, by the time- as soon as you’re looking down on a character and seeing things they can’t see, you’re basically in omniscient. But you know, that’s what I said- people categorize things in different ways. And then, when you start having- you can start narrating about lots of things that are not present in the story, like, Terry Pratchett does this to explain his world a lot.
He’ll just be like, ‘oh, and the dwarfs were like this,’ and he’ll just go off about the dwarfs. That’s omniscient; there’s no character that’s thinking about that, that’s not from a character’s perspective, that’s a narrator that is outside the characters telling you details. And the advantage of distance is that it’s incredibly flexible. Like, you can do that; you can just talk about whatever you want to.
And the advantage of close is that it’s much- it’s more engaging, generally, because you’re very closely associated with the character.
Oren: Well, little known fact: Terry Pratchett was himself actually omniscient- [Chris laughs] -which is why his books are written that way.
So, here’s a question, you guys: for- we’ve been talking about third-person, and we’ve been talking about omniscient. Is this a spectrum, or is it a toggle? Like, is there any reason to be somewhere in the middle, or do you want to always be 100% limited, only seeing what your character sees, anything that you describe your character couldn’t see is a mistake?
Or fully omniscient, where you are an author and you have a voice, and the story that the characters- that is separate from the characters? Do you want to be one or the other, or is there somewhere in between that you can tell a good story?
Ariel: Well, you never have to tell everything.
Ariel: You can hide things from your readers whenever you want.
Oren: Sure. That wasn’t exactly what I meant; I just meant that, is there somewhere in between an omniscient third-person and third-person limited that works, or is that just, you’re making a mistake at that point?
Chris: Okay, so- I mean, I would say in general, I think of it as a spectrum, just because I think second-person is actually closer than first, even though everybody talks about first being close, and so, I like to think about it like a gradient.
But that particular span, where we’re not in third person limited anymore, but- I think there are some very niche cases where, if you want to stick mostly to the story, and you want a very objective voice instead of- because good omniscient narration has some personality to it. But sometimes, you have a character that is ill, like, mentally ill in some way, or is evil, or is, for some reason- like, for some reason, you don’t actually want your audience to understand this character, for various reasons.
If the audience was too far in their head, nothing would make sense, but at the same time, you don’t actually want the style of omniscient for some reason? So, I feel like there might be some very niche cases where you want to use distancing language to distance from your main character.
My general thought is that, if you’re already going to do that, you might as well take advantage of the power of omniscient to talk about whatever you want to, because you’ve lost the advantage of close at this point, so you might as well take the advantage of omniscient. So, that would be my general- is that, generally, I would say that it’s a bad idea, but like, I can understand in some niche situations why somebody might do that.
I would also say, the more distanced you are, the more you can… head-hop, basically. I think Ariel had a few comments on head-hopping a little bit…
Ariel: Some people think that head-hopping is a mistake, like, the writer couldn’t make up his mind who he wanted to talk about-
Chris: Do you want to define head-hopping real quick for us? Sorry; I would have done it, but… [laughs]
Ariel: Head-hopping is, you have a point-of-view character that you’re describing, and you’re in their head, but still third-person, and then you hop and put the focus on a different character.
Oren: And here I thought it was what Mario does when he jumps on a mushroom. [Chris laughs] Anyway, continue.
Ariel: And a lot of people think that it’s sort of unplanned, it’s a mistake. But there are good ways to do it; in my research, I came across an article about Stephen King’s use of head-hopping in Under the Dome, where the whole- it’s a scene where somebody has a gun, and is just on a killing spree, and the point-of-view character is this killer who’s angry, and you’re hearing thoughts in his head, what he’s thinking before he kills a person, and… the whole novel is just very violent and horrible. And you get used to how horrible it is.
And then he- Stephen King hops to one of the victims. So, you actually have to feel that horribleness all new and fresh again. And then it goes back to the killing. [Chris laughs]
Oren: That sounds extremely pleasant. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Chris: Yeah, it sounds like the great escapist literature, right there.
Oren: That’s Stephen King; that’s what he’s known for, right? And books that are super light and fluffy to read. [Chris and Oren laugh]
Ariel: So, I guess he was just using it to add some shock back into the book when we start to feel numb.
Chris: There are a lot of rules; almost every rule can be broken by a master in the right niche situation at some time. Like, writing is flexible, it’s just knowing the rules and why they’re there that’s good.
Oren: Well, since the rules aren’t absolute, I recommend we do away with them entirely, and everyone should just write everything they want whenever. And we shouldn’t even have editors anymore. That’s my stance on this.
Chris: [pained] Ohhh!
Oren: I don’t want to be edited, is what I’m saying.
Chris: I think you’re outnumbered by editors on this podcast. [laughs]
Oren: Editing is hard. I would like to not do it anymore, please. [Chris and Oren laugh] Here’s a neat trick that I’ve seen a few people do- and I don’t know if there’s an official term for this, but I call it the ‘POV handoff,’ where there will be a close third-person limited, or- I’ve never seen it done in first-person, but theoretically you could do it; where something occurs between two characters, and that is when it switches.
And I’ve seen it used as like, someone has literally handed off an important plot item to another character, and then it switches POV. I’ve seen it happen where, one person- the POV character will be shot, and then it switches over to the POV person who shot them- or, you know, in some other way committed an act of violence on them.
Ariel: Is this sort of like a scene on television where, you’re following somebody along, and you can hear the voice in their head, and then someone else is coming down the hall, and as they pass each other-
Oren: Yes. It’s exactly like that.
Oren: Although, in the examples I’ve seen, there has often been some kind of actual interaction between the two characters that sort of signals ‘and now we’re following the second one.’ And I’ve seen that work a few times. I’ve never attempted it myself, but I’ve seen other writers do it, and it’s kind of a neat trick.
Chris: I think the issue with head-hopping is simply that it is jarring, and so, the reader has to be prepared for a change in the head in some way. And I think, the more distant you are from the character, the more changing from one thought to another becomes okay, because you already feel outside the character, so it’s not as jarring.
And so, that’s why omniscient can generally- if you’re definitely in omniscient, you can get away with sampling thoughts from multiple characters, because the audience is sort of prepared for that change. Otherwise, that’s another reason why you might want to use a more distant third, is because, the further out you are, the more you can change to another thought.
I feel like, in other- like, it sounds like it’s a really good tactic for just preparing the audience- preparing the reader for that shift; but that, if you also- I think shifting slow enough. I think that the worst head-hopping happens when you’re deep in one person’s thoughts, and then you’re deep in another person’s thoughts, and it’s in quick succession without much time passing, or anything like that between it, and there’s just nothing to prepare the reader for the change.
Ariel: Yeah, it can’t be like, dialogue back-and-forth.
Oren: That would get really confusing really fast. So, here’s another question: in- the only books I can think of, the only modern books that use third-person omniscient tend to be comedy books, or at least, books that are very humorous. Discworld, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… Do you think- are there- can any of you think of more modern books that are not supposed to be funny that use them? And is there a space for it if you’re not trying to be funny?
Chris: I think so. So, I guess I haven’t really thought about how many modern books use omniscient. Cause when I think about omniscient, I think about central works of spec-fic like Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld and Tolkien, which is not funny.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: Tolkien is in omniscient. Um… there was another one that I can’t remember right now. [laughs] But in any case, there are a lot of foundational works in the spec-fic genre that have omniscient. And I think the reason- I think it’s more common in spec-fic than in other genres, in general, and the reason is because we have all that worldbuilding stuff.
And again, we rely a little bit more on exposition because we have to get people familiar; and if you’re going to have lots of exposition, and you really want to exposition, I feel like omniscient is the way to go, because you can make your exposition so much more interesting if you’re in omniscient than if you’re limited to a character viewpoint. It’s harder to fit exposition in limited because it’s almost like you have to find a reason for your character to think about it.
But when you’re in omniscient, you have the freedom to pick and choose whatever world details you want to talk about. So, you can talk about the most interesting things; and I feel like Pratchett is really the person who takes advantage of this. He doesn’t just do omniscient to be funny, he does omniscient because he can now- there’s interesting and entertaining things in his world, and he can use omniscient to bring them right to you without worrying about finding an excuse of the character thinking about them.
So- and again, I think that’s what Douglas Adams does in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Yes, it’s funny, but he uses omniscient to be like, ‘hey. Here’s what the Hitchhiker’s Guide has to say about these Vogons.’ He’s actually using it to describe the world; and if you’re using omniscient, I think you just have a lot more flexibility. And yes, it’s distanced, you’re less engaged with the main character, but I feel like you could potentially be more engaged with the world in omniscient.
And so, I think that it is actually still very valuable, and I’d like to see more people use it, but use it well. Cause I feel like, when people use it badly- and many of these people are just, they weren’t thinking about what perspective they were using, but they end up in that space you’re talking about, where you’re like, you’re not in the character’s head, but you’re not taking advantage of the power that omniscient has to narrate about whatever, and so, it just feels like third-person head-hopping, poorly thought-about head-hopping, and it’s not very good.
Oren: And with Terry Pratchett especially, even though there are some very interesting and very good characters in Discworld, I think that, like, what you were saying, being invested in the Discworld itself is a huge aspect of Terry Pratchett’s writing. And there are some examples, now that I think about it, that are not funny; like, when he uses omniscient to describe the oppression faced by certain dwarfs who want to portray as female.
That’s not funny, but it’s a very good use of omniscient. So, there is that; it’s just, the more I think- it feels like omniscient, maybe, is used more in works that are interested in some kind of commentary. Not always, like- what’s it called… Ancillary Justice is a book that’s full of commentary, and is pretty third-person limited, as I recall. I don’t think there’s any omniscient in that book. But it seems to be a very valuable tool, if you’re making world commentary.
Chris: Yeah. I don’t- some people I read were defining omniscient as this like, 19th century technique, where like, the narrator’s actually using ‘I’ to refer to themselves as a narrator, and ‘you’ to refer to the reader.
Ariel: First-person omniscient.
Chris: First-person- oh, is that what you would define as first-person? Okay.
Ariel: Where the narrator is a character, and you’re seeing it through the narrator’s eyes.
Chris: Oh, that’s interesting, cause I was thinking first-person omniscient would be like- cause usually first-person is the main character talking, right? It’s your point-of-view character talking. And so, I was thinking it would be like, ‘well, I guess, if your viewpoint character later sort of became a god…’ [laughs]
But if you’re in first-person, your main character doesn’t have actually have to be the person who’s talking in first-person, so… that makes sense. It makes more sense than what I was imagining for first-person omniscient.
Oren: Although, I have read some stories that are what you’re describing, Chris, where the main character is describing the story about themselves, and they are much later in life and have the means to know what was happening outside of their immediate point-of-view. Sometimes that framing device is better explained than other times, but I have seen that a few times. It’s interesting.
I used to really not like first-person, cause I used to be one of those people that was like, ‘I don’t like first-person stories cause I know the narrator doesn’t die, cause they’re telling the story.’ But I’ve kind of gotten over that recently.
Chris: Well, I’ve heard that there’s some- there have been a few books where- just defy that, where the first-person has died, and like, ‘ha-ha, it’s been a ghost talking the whole time!’ To me, that feels a little like, ‘really?’
Ariel: Or like, The Lovely Bones was a first-person, and the girl was dead. [Chris laughs] Like, you know she’s dead; she’s talking about this from heaven.
Chris: Right, that’s true. I feel like, if you start out at the beginning- I’m sure it’s fine in the right book to kill the first-person and have them speaking as a ghost, but it just sounds like something that a lot of books, you wouldn’t expect that, and it would sort of feel hokey cause it wouldn’t fit. But like, if you started it from the beginning, you’re setting the right expectations.
Oren: Well, spoilers for a later Dresden Files book, so, actual spoiler warning, because you might not have read it. So, skip ahead a little bit.
But in one of the Dresden books, which are first-person, Harry does die. Like, he is killed at the end. And he comes back as a ghost in the next book. But it’s not like- he is not a ghost in that book, it just gets to the end and he dies. He gets shot, and like, the last sentence is something like ‘and then I died,’ or something sort of like that. And it worked pretty well, I thought. It was a good way to end the book.
Chris: A lot of modern first-person is almost a little bit more like third-person, where we’re abstracting it more and more from the idea that the main character’s actually telling you the story. Like, a first-person narrator, it could be just the person, the main character as they’re going through the story, that’s actually narrating it, or it could be themselves in the future who is looking back on their life and narrating it.
So, you can actually have a lot of subtle varieties of differences between the narrator and the main character. They can be really independent from each other, or they could be very similar, or some sort of gradiation in between.
Oren: One thing I have noticed with- and this is either first- or third-person; if it’s in present tense especially, if I don’t love the main character, making it in present tense makes it worse for some reason.
Like, I get- there are stories that I can look at that are, one of them is in third-person, one of them is in first- or excuse me, one of them is in present-tense, one of them is in past-tense, and even if neither of them has a great main character, I am much more ready to forgive the past-tense one for some reason. If it’s in present-tense, a bad main character just drives me up the wall.
Chris: You know, that’s what I’ve heard of for first, actually. Like, I know somebody who- she sometimes reads first, but hates reading first because if she doesn’t like the main character, it’s much harder for her to put up with it. I think it’s partly a factor of distance. As I said, the problem with ‘you’ is that, if you don’t identify with the character, it’s just very repelling, right?
And I feel like the closer the distance is, the less tolerance there is for characters that you don’t like, because you can’t form that close engagement, that close bond with them if you don’t like them. So, that’s kind of- even though, if you do like them, it’s more engaging. That is one of the downsides of that close narration.
As far as tense goes, certainly, present tense is a little more immediate, and I feel like maybe it echoes sort of the same effects. I’ve heard of it being used well with thrillers, actually, because if you want things to feel more tense, using present tense seems to do a better job; just like Ariel’s example with the second-person imperative, that was also present tense. So, it was just very- it felt very tense. It was very in the now.
Oren: There’s- one thing that I’ve noticed is that, if you’re going to have a distant viewpoint, I feel like you have to start with the action of the plot much sooner. I mean, it’s generally a good idea to get into the plot sooner rather than later, but there are some books that start and are very close, and the plot doesn’t get going for a while, and that’s okay, because we’re really into the main character’s emotions. The main character’s feeling something really strongly, and that’s like, ‘okay. We can be into that.’
But if the writing style is distant, and the story is about the main character’s feelings, it’s like, it just doesn’t feel right. I talked about this on the podcast before, but there’s a book, 2312, that starts with the main character’s grandmother dying. And that’s like, the only important thing that happens for several chapters, and it’s very, very distant. It’s like, ‘I don’t care that the main character’s grandmother is dead, and I don’t really feel like she cares either.’
Because- and maybe she does, but I can’t tell, because the writing is so distant that like, her feelings don’t feel very real to me.
Ariel: Yeah, third person distant is kind of cold in comparison.
Oren: Right. And like, if the plot had started sooner, if they had revealed what was going on earlier, I might have been willing to stick with it, but by the time they got to the actual plot, I was just so fed up. I was like, ‘no, I’m done.’ And I actually stopped listening, which is very unusual; I almost always finish books that I read.
Chris: I feel like, once you get into good omniscient, you’re lowering sort of emotional- how emotionally in touch you are with the main character, but like, you have interest that you can use to replace it, because again, with that narration tool, you can state more things in your narration.
But like, if you’re just sort of distanced- I feel like there’s probably some times that you would want to do that, but it does sound kind of cold and then dry, because it’s cold, and then you have not as much to keep the reader engaged anymore.
Oren: And I’ve also seen- you actually wrote an article about this recently, the world- storytelling sins of worldbuilders; I’ve noticed that this happens a lot when they use distant third-person, especially omniscient third-person, where they think that telling you about their world is interesting. [Chris laughs]
And I think maybe the reason they think that is that they’ve read books like Terry Pratchett, where- books like Discworld, where it seems like Pratchett is just telling you about Discworld, and that’s interesting. But like, almost always when Pratchett goes on a rant about Discworld for several paragraphs, it has some kind of relation, and it’s some kind of commentary on what is happening in the story, or it’s a setup for a joke or something.
But I’ve read, especially in science fiction and fantasy- epic fantasy, I should say; epic fantasy and space-opera science fiction. People have a big tendency to be like, ‘you know, I did all this worldbuilding, and I would like to share it with you.’ [Chris laughs] And I’m like, ‘I don’t- no thank you. It’s fine- okay, five pages? Sure, why not.’ [Oren and Chris laugh]
Chris: It’s a powerful tool that can easily be used badly, right? It’s like, that’s where it really- you really got to know how to use restraint and know how to create interest if you’re using omniscient, because there’s no rules to help you, so, you better know what you’re doing. [laughs] What about you, Ariel? What are your biggest pet peeves when you’re reading works, and you think that- how do things do perspective wrong, in your opinion?
Ariel: My biggest pet peeve- and it’s an editor’s fault every bit as much as the writer’s fault, is pronoun reference problems. And I see it more often in third-person, because with first-person, ‘I am talking to him,’ and you know exactly who ‘I’ am, and you know exactly who ‘him’ is. But in third-person, ‘he is talking to him.’ Which ‘he’ is talking to which ‘him’? [Chris laughs]
So, it’s got to be clear who is doing what action, and- that’s a grammar problem, I know it’s not as much of a storytelling problem, but-
Chris: Well, it’s definitely a problem if the audience- reader gets confused about who… [trails off] And I’ve seen some really funny- things that I think are really funny, where some of those authors, in third, especially, use funny things to replace pronouns. Because they are like- because it can become confusing, and they’ll just be like, ‘you know, the other one,’ and like, I just- [laughs]
I mean, I can understand why they’re using it, but to me, ‘the other one’ just is a really funny, like, I can’t help laughing at that when it’s used instead of like, ‘he.’
Oren: There’s- I do think there’s a reason why there’s a natural temptation to have one female character and one male character if you have two characters talking to each other, because you get to use different pronouns! And it’s exciting, and it’s like, ‘oh, this makes it way less likely that my two characters will be confused for each other.
Chris: Yeah. [laughs] But none of the old fantasy classics do that, right? They’re all like, a sausage fest, so- [Chris and Ariel laughs]
Oren: Well, yes. I’ve just, I’ve noticed that when I write scenes and I have two characters, I will very often want to have one of them male and one of them be female, cause it’s just so much easier to tell them apart that way cause I can use ‘he’ and ‘she.’ And that’s lazy, right? Like, that’s me just not wanting to be careful with my pronouns and actually describe the characters.
Chris: Hey, if you can still plot effectively under that restraint… [laughs] Like, sure. Why not?
Oren: It’s also especially important if you plan on having your story be an audiobook, because if you’re just reading the book, your reader may have a certain amount of patience and be willing to reread a sentence if they’re not clear on who it’s referring to. People who listen to audiobooks- at least, anyone that I know who listens to audiobooks will not do that.
Like, it is a lot more effort to rewind your audiobook, even if you’re using an MP3 player, which is what most people use nowadays. Not very many people are listening to audiobooks on cassette anymore. It’s still a lot more effort to rewind if you are confused by a sentence. So, if you want your book to sell on Audible- and really, we should all want our books to sell on Audible, be careful with your- to differentiate your characters and their pronouns. Be super clear on that.
Chris: That’s interesting. So, one thing that’s very confusing to me is when authors refer to a perspective that is called ‘multiple third-person.’
Chris: I know. I figured out after a while that what is meant by that is that you actually have a book that just alternates multiple viewpoints of different characters.
Chris: But what it sounds like is head-hopping, basically, where it’s like, ‘well, you know, I’m in third-person, but I can just sort of go around and switch which third-person- which person wherever I want to,’ and it’s like, ‘well, no.’ I don’t really think there’s any such thing as multiple- or it’s not very good- [laughs] -multiple third-person, cause you’re only doing one person at a time, right? Like, generally, you have one person per scene.
And then, the thing I’ve heard is like, ‘well, if you really want to switch to somebody else in this scene, what you should do is just go ahead and put in that empty paragraph space, so it looks like a scene break, and then pick up where you left off.’
But then, because the reader sees that border, they know something is changing there, and so, it’s- again, it’s basically like a new scene, but at the same time, you’re basically picking up where the last scene left off. But of course, I don’t really like multiple…
Oren: I remember, we had a podcast about that, didn’t we?
Chris: Yeah, we had a debatecast. I believe I won that debatecast.
Oren: Oh, did you? I think the jury’s still out on that one… [Chris laughs] The jury will be deliberating until the end of time, I think. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Ariel, do you want to weigh in on multiple points-of-view?
Ariel: I love multiple points-of-view.
Ariel: And it’s not just in third-person, it can happen in first-person as well. Like, in the Twilight books, most of it is first-person from Bella, but there are a couple Jacob chapters-
Chris: And is that also in first-person when it switches to Jacob?
Chris: Okay. That’s what I thought, but…
Ariel: And… I don’t know; I like the richness of it. There’s a lot more characters to care about, because if you’re only following the protagonist, and then the protagonist changes every few chapters… [Chris laughs]
Oren: Feeling like the tide is swimming in my direction.
Chris: No! Okay, so- going back to talking about like, engagement with the characters-
Oren: Oh, now she doesn’t want to talk about it anymore…
Chris: No, I am talking about it. This is actually related. This is like, foreshadowing, okay? Going back to what we were talking about, about like, engagement with the character, where it’s like, if you’re in the close perspective, you have more engagement with that character, but then what happens if you don’t like that character, where it’s very repelling, right?
Chris: So, I have a big vendetta against multiple points-of-view because I- okay, first of all, I’m a picky reader, obviously; I just don’t like that many things, I don’t finish a lot of things, but when I do like something, I really like it and I’m really addicted to it and I really want to finish it. And I am also very character-focused, so it’s really important who the viewpoint character is.
And then, what ends up happening is, I’ll read a book, and I’ll start with- it’ll start with who is the central character throughout the book, despite how much it wanders. And I’ll be like, ‘hey, I really like this character, I really want to read to this character’s end.’ And then it’ll just be like, ‘hey, but now we’ve got these other people,’ and these other people are really boring, and I’m not sure why I should care about them.
It always feels like the other viewpoints are never quite as good as the central one. Like, they were not- there was never quite as much time spent with them. And now, I’m not interested in this other one, but to get to the first one, I have to read through it, and it’s just painful, cause I don’t- I wouldn’t choose to read that story.
Oren: Well, it’s definitely weird when you have a book that starts with one main character and sticks with that main character for several chapters, and then switches to someone else. At that point, it’s like, ‘wait, hang on a minute.’ Whereas- I feel like with Game of Thrones, one of the reasons it worked so well is, Game of Thrones is like, ‘chapter, switch. Chapter, switch. Chapter, switch.’ It’s not like- we don’t have five chapters from Eddard’s perspective.
Ariel: But- I don’t know, I still thought that Eddard was the main character.
Oren: Well… But like, that’s sort of the trick of Game of Thrones, right, is it’s tricking you. [Ariel laughs] It’s tricking you into thinking that he’s the main character. But I would argue that it’s deliberately set up in such a way that it throws us right into the idea of multiple points-of-view. It doesn’t- like Wheel of Time, for example, where Wheel of Time is from Rand’s point-of-view for most of the book.
In fact, it might even be for the entire first book; it’s been a while since I’ve read those early books. And only later does it start switching into multiple points-of-view, and it’s kind of like, you know, I didn’t love Rand, but I feel like these other points-of-view are kind of a distraction from Rand, and just making the story take longer.
Chris: Yeah, Wheel of Time definitely has chronic series bloat, where it just sort of adds more things in it as it goes, and it gets slower and slower. [laughs]
Oren: And I’ve read other books where that has been the case, where it’s like, it’ll be like, ‘hey, we’ve had ten chapters from this one guy who is clearly the main character,’ and then now it’s like, ‘no, let’s have two chapters from this other guy,’ and it’s like, ‘ehh.’ You have to make the characters roughly equivalent in the amount of screentime they get in order for that to work, I feel like.
Chris: That’s a really good point, is that you’re setting an expectation where the book is about this main character, and then the other characters feel like a distraction from the story. An annoying, slow, distraction. Whereas I feel like there’s some situations where the plot actually needs all the characters, because it’s an intrigue, in which what you’re actually narrating is the way all these characters interact with each other.
There’s a really good reason for them all to be there; you have a reason for being in their perspective, so that you know what they know and know what they- how they’re maneuvering on their end. And I think Game of Thrones does some of that, but like- this is not spec-fic, but I think my best example of- is like, The Westing Game, where it’s a bunch of- it’s a young-adult book where a bunch of people are competing to win this cryptic contest so that they inherit a bunch of wealth from this guy who died.
Oren: Do they have to spend to night in a haunted house?
Chris: No. [laughs]
Chris: They’re trying to sleuth things, but like, there’s a bunch of people, and they’re very closely interacting with each other, so, there’s a reason to switch to somebody else, because they’re all heavily involved in the same story. As opposed to like, why- if you don’t know why you’re suddenly narrating about a new character and somebody else’s perspective, it’s very disjointed. If you don’t know how it connects to the first person, it’s very disorienting.
Oren: Well, it helps- I think the distance, the physical distance you’re going to have your characters be apart is directing influenced by how important what they’re doing is to each other.
Like, in Game of Thrones, it does sometimes feel a little weird that we are spending so much time with Daenerys, who is all the way across the ocean on this other continent, and it’s really not clear how anything she’s doing affects what the other characters are doing. And like, I know that she will eventually, but-
Chris: Yeah, I think she should be in her own book. [laughs]
Oren: For most of the book series, it’s like, ‘everyone else,’ and then ‘Daenerys.’ [Chris laughs] Which is a little weird and doesn’t work super well. A book that I’m reading right now- which has a number of problems, but it does multiple POV pretty well, which is Downbelow Station, which is a sci-fi series, and even though the main characters are spread out over vast distances- because it’s a sci-fi series, they have faster-than-light communication and faster-than-light travel.
The things that they’re doing all are relevant to each other, and all matter, and it’s useful for the plot to be able to switch over to this other character who’s back behind the line, and then switch to this one character who’s on the front lines. Because one thing that really drives me out of a story is if I sense that the story is twisting itself to make all the important things happen within the field-of-view of one person.
Because you can sometimes fall into that trap with a single point-of-view, because you don’t want a super important thing to happen somewhere else because that was an important thing, and the audience didn’t get to see it cause your character wasn’t there.
And good writers, of course, find ways to pull this off, and you don’t notice, but it really turns me off if I feel like, ‘well, it didn’t super make sense for this battle to happen right here, but it had to, cause that’s there the main character was and there was no way to get them away from there.’ So, that’s one of the reasons I like multiple POVs. I think it’s Déjà vu; I think we’ve said this all before…
Chris: We have on our multiple POV podcast.
Oren: I’ll just splice in some clips from that podcast. [Chris laughs] It’ll be great. [laughs]
Chris: So, is there any kind of unusual narration that you guys have liked? What about you, Ariel? Can you think of any book that did something kind of unusual that you thought was- that was cool?
Ariel: Yeah; we’ve talked a lot about epistolary- epi-stolary narration, and World War Z did something so cool in the book.
Oren: Oh, yeah.
Ariel: And I wasn’t expecting it at all because the movie completely left that part of it out. It’s written in… sort of interviews, but before any of the interviews start, the narrator says that they’re specifically going to leave themselves out of it. So, anytime that you see the narrator in there, it’s just a question to continue the conversation of the interviews, and it’s so cool that you get so many different perspectives and point-of-views and little, tiny stories within this larger novel.
Chris: So, it’s mostly like, interviews that are recorded that are put in there?
Chris: So, you would call it epistolary- epi-stolary? [laughs]
Chris: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
Oren: I was going to say World War Z. She stole my answer. [Chris laughs] For pretty much the same reason; it’s called ‘World War Z,’ right? And unlike the movie, which just comes up with increasingly contrived reasons for Brad Pitt to be flying all over the world, it’s like, ‘hey, let’s find out what this guy in Alaska was going through when the zombie apocalypse happened; and what about this guy who was on a fishing boat?’
It’s like, it is World War Z, with the idea being that zombies happened to everybody, and let’s see what they all think about it. And there are some elements of the book that I think are kind of culturally insensitive or stereotyped. But leaving out the fact that the two Japanese characters are one- an extreme otaku guy who finds a samurai sword, and the other is a blind monk-
Chris: Oh, geez.
Oren: So, if you can get past that part, which is a problem, don’t get me wrong; but, I think the format is still solid. I think that Brooks just fell victim to unintentional cultural stereotyping right there. He was just like, ‘I want to write some Japanese perspectives cause Japan is important.’ He was like, ‘alright, and then this otaku guy finds a samurai sword.’ Cause he just thought that would be cool, and he didn’t realize that that was super stereotypical for Japan.
But otherwise, I think it works very well. What about you, Chris? Do you have any weird narration that you like?
Chris: Let’s see… I do think I like the idea of- if you’re going to- if you want to switch perspective using this sort of mixed media format, where you have- cause you could have a book that’s like, some letters and some interviews and some third-person narration. And if you use mixed media, it’s actually the most natural way to jump around. But I can’t think of like, a book that did that.
One thing that is not actually writing, but is kind of- that I watched recently, that I think kind of relates to this is, I actually watched the first episode of Sense8 just last night, and it’s… The main criticism of it: it’s got eight main characters, and it switches back and forth between them very rapidly.
Ariel: That’s a lot of characters.
Chris: And they are not- they’re in different places of the world, so they’re not anywhere next to each other. Of course, the reason why it’s using them is because they have kind of a psychic connection with one another, so that’s their reason. So, it’s- and you know that they’re going to come together.
And it does a really good job of like, showing multiple perspectives of multiple people around the world in a very culturally sensitive way, and highlighting the different problems. It has a lesbian character, and all of this like- all of the different races and countries. It just, it does not feel Eurocentric or anything like that, which is very, very nice; and that’s the cool thing about throwing in all eight at once, is that you get that sort of like- snippets of around the world.
But- you know, I do think there’s some validity of the criticisms about it just being a little too much. I like the effect, but I think starting out with that many perspectives that closely clipped together- it’s actually tricky to tell them apart. It’s just, you haven’t gotten to know any of the characters yet; you’re still finding out who they are, cause it’s the very first episode.
And so, the counter to like, ‘you don’t want to spend three chapters talking about one character, setting up the expectation the book is all about them, and then suddenly switch to somebody else that doesn’t seem connected.’ At the same time, what this is doing is, it’s switching them so rapidly that you don’t feel comfortable with one character before you switch to another one.
And so, I feel like- I actually really like the effect of them switching back-and-forth and the whole like, worldview, and the- there’s a little chaos, which kind of makes sense, because it’s the chaos of them awakening to these psychic powers.
At the same time, I feel like the first episode should have showed snippets of other people, to kind of get that sense of like, a worldview, but at the same time focused on one or two people, and then added more to the next episode, so that like, before you just see them equally jostled together, you sort of have a better sense of who they are, so that you can kind of keep up a little easier.
Chris: That would be my criticism. Overall, I liked it.
Oren: Well, if we can move outside of prose… I mean, I think we should always give a shout-out to Rashomon, the Japanese samurai movie about- which is the same story told from three different perspectives. It’s not the first film to do it, certainly the film that popularized that style, cause I’ve seen several other films that use it. It’s very good; I would totally recommend it, it holds up super well.
Chris: There must have been some book that did that, but I can’t think of a book that did that same thing.
Oren: Yeah, probably. I mean, other than like, what I was saying about Maplecroft way back at the beginning of the podcast, where it does some stuff like that.
Chris: Oh, yeah.
Oren: Where there’s several scenes that are just very different from each other. Like, at one point- the first character’s name is Lizzie. She describes a scene where, basically, her sister is just sort of cowering in the corner while she’s fighting a monster. And then, her sister describes the scene, and her sister describes how she was like, hiding and looking for a weapon, that she then threw to her sister, who was about to get eaten by a fish-monster.
So, it’s got stuff like that, where it’s totally believable, based on the characters as they’ve been established so far; you can imagine that both of them remember the scene that way. Neither of them is lying, they are both telling you what they think happened. And how it actually happened…? Ehh, there was probably a fish-monster involved. We’ve got that down. That’s probably what happened. [laughs] But beyond that, who knows?
Chris: Let’s look back on tense again, because I feel like tense doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I’m very curious about tense. Does it seem like- Oren, you were saying that present-tense sort of bothers you?
Oren: It weirds me out. It’s weird. It’s like, it is something that takes me out of the story because I’m not used to it, and so, if I don’t feel like there’s a very good reason for it, I’ll get mad. [laughs]
Chris: I will say that when I read a story that was third- present- like, I was used to first-person present. In fact, I think The Hunger Games is written in first-person present. But when I- which kind of makes sense because you’re already in a very close perspective, so making it even more immediate sort of makes sense to me.
But when I was reading some third- present, I was like, ‘this is kind of weird. I don’t know.’ But I think actually, a lot of books actually do third- present just fine, it’s just a getting used to it thing.
Ariel: The story that I wrote was third- present.
Chris: Just fine. One thing I noticed that’s actually a little- slightly cumbersome about past, once in a while, is when you need to do past-past. [laughs]
Oren: Right, something that happened in the past, in a past tense story.
Chris: Yeah. Which- the wording becomes very awkward because you have to distinguish it. The thing that I’ve heard is the best thing to do; so, when you start getting into past-past, you start using ‘had been,’ like, that double-word past participle a lot, and it becomes very awkward if you do have to do it for like, a whole paragraph.
So, what I’ve heard is just, do it once. Do it the first time, then just do normal past. So, that sets the stage for ‘okay, this is past-past now,’ and then just do the rest as normal and don’t keep using the ‘had been’ type of format.
Oren: I mean, that’s sort of the standard that I’ve found. In fact, that’s one of the things that I- when someone sends me something to read for editing, I find that it’s often something that I have to correct, cause I’m like, ‘it’s not clear to me when you started talking about things that had happened in the past and what were happening right now.’ So, as long as you carefully mark the sections, it generally works.
Getting into it is a little awkward, cause you have to put in that extra ‘had been,’ or something. Which is just like, these words are a message from the writer directly to the reader, right? And you want to minimize that whenever you can. I can tell- this is actually kind of relevant to what we’re talking about.
A friend of mine- who’s actually been on the podcast before as our guest Jim, apparently had gone through a period where he had read almost entirely third-person present tense. And I showed him a story of mine to get his feedback on it, and his feedback was like, how weird the past tense was. [Chris laughs] And he was like, ‘I don’t think people do stories like this anymore.’ [Chris laughs] I think maybe you need to make it more the other one.
And I’m like, ‘Jim, that’s the weird one.’ And he had only read third-person present tense for a while. And so, apparently you can get used to it, and then third-person past tense feels weird.
Chris: Yeah. [laughs] I think it was actually one of his stories I read that was like, ‘this is third-person present, and it feels really weird.’ [laughs] So, yeah. A lot of it is just what we’re used to. So, have you guys ever seen a story in future? I know it’s not really done- except for, I think about it, I feel like when you’ve got a fortune teller or like a prophecy, which happens a lot in fantasy, I feel like that’s the natural outlet for future.
Cause like, prophecies are really a story about what will happen in a lot of them. But I can’t- I don’t know of any actual stories I can think of where future tense is used.
Oren: I’ve read a few, because I read a lot of short story- I listen to a lot of short story podcasts, and so, because it’s not a novel, they have a lot more leeway to experiment. And I’ve read- or listened to a few, kind of avant-garde, weird stories that were told in future tense. Some of them worked. Others I felt were just being told in future tense because the writer thought that that would be something neat and different, and it kind of feels that way.
It’s like, the story doesn’t feel like it has that much to say, it’s just in future tense. But yeah, I’ve seen it work. I’ve never seen anyone try it with a novel. Maybe it can be done. I don’t know. I would not be the one to attempt it.
Chris: I wouldn’t do that for a novel. I think there’s, for a lot of new writers, the impulse to like, ‘that’s weird! I’m going to write it!’ Is really strong- [laughs] -and leads to a lot of bad stories. But it’s understandable. I’m sure it’s a learning experience. What about you, Ariel? Have you ever seen future before?
Ariel: I have. I can’t think of any examples, and I’m trying to think of- I’m trying to picture it in my head, and I keep coming up with a second-person future. ‘You’re going to have a knock on the door tomorrow.’
Oren: That’s usually what I’m imagining. A third-person future… um-
Chris: That’s like, the prophecy narration, right? ‘The chosen one will do such-and-such.’
Ariel: ‘The dark lord will return.’
Chris: ‘The dark lord will return.’ Yes! There we go.
Oren: I’ve definitely listened to a few stories that are basically mocking prophecies. [Chris and Ariel laugh] The entire story is a prophecy, but it’s like, ‘and then the chosen one will get up in the morning and make waffles for breakfast.’ And you know, stuff like that, where it’s just making fun of fantasy prophecies, and that’s a good 700 word story right there. Send that off to publication, why not? [Chris laughs]
Chris: I can see that.
Oren: Does someone else want to write that as a novel? I mean, go for it? I feel roughly the same way about that as I do about like, someone walking between two skyscrapers on a wire. I might watch someone else do it, but I would certainly never do it. And I’m hopefully not watching it, cause I think they’ll fall. That’s a terrible thing. But I feel like it’s fairly likely to happen in either set of circumstances.
Ariel: The bigger problem with future tense is that there’s more words.
Oren: That’s true.
Ariel: Which is part of the reason why I mostly write in present tense, because past has the ‘had’, and future has the ‘will’. And cause it’s just-
Chris: Very streamlined. It’s elegant, right? It’s- yeah.
Ariel: -a verb.
Oren: That’s true.
Chris: It’s true.
Oren: It’s weiiiiird! [Ariel repeats, softly] [Chris and Oren laugh] Alright, well, we are about out of time. Thank you very much, Ariel, for being on the show. If anything that we said made you upset or happy, you can leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. And otherwise, we will see you in a few weeks. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing song: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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