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Character Development: Narrative Time

Last week, we discussed how the descriptive narrative of a story is comprised of three aspects:

Narrative point of view is the perspective, a personal or impersonal “lens” through which a story is communicated.

Narrative time is the grammatical placement of the story’s time frame in the past or the present, i.e., present tense (we go) or past tense (we went).

Narrative voice is how a story is communicated. It is the author’s fingerprint.

verb-conjugationToday we’re discussing how narrative time, or what we call tense, affects a reader’s perception of character development. In grammartense is a category that expresses time reference. Tenses are usually shown by how we use the forms of verbs, particularly in their conjugation patterns. The main tenses found in most languages include the pastpresent, and future.

The way that narrative tense affects a reader’s perception of characters is subtle, an undercurrent that goes unnoticed after the first few paragraphs. It shapes the reader’s view of events, but on a subliminal level.

Every story is different and requires us to use a unique narrative time.

Tense conveys information about time. It relates the time of an event (when) to another time (now or then). The tense you choose indicates the event’s location in time.

Consider the following sentences: “I eat,” “I am eating,” “I have eaten,” and “I have been eating.”

All are in the present tense, indicated by the present-tense verb of each sentence (eatam, and have).

Yet, they are different because each conveys unique information or points of view about how the action pertains to the present.

We often “think aloud” in writing the first draft. We insert many passive phrasings into the raw narrative, words that I think of as traffic signals. These words are a shorthand that helped us get the story down when we were writing the raw first draft, a guide that now shows us how we intend the narrative to go.

Subjunctives are insidious. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. In other words, subjunctives describe unknown intangible possibilities.

Maeve Maddox, in her article The Many Forms of the Verb To Be, says:

Of all Modern English verbs, to be has the most forms: am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been. In addition, the helping verb will is used to form a future tense with be (e.g. I will be with you in a minute.)

The forms are so different in appearance that they don’t seem to belong to the same verb. The fact is, they don’t. Oh, they do now, but they came from three different roots and merged in the Old English verbs beon and wesan.

William Shakespeare said it best in Hamlet: “To be or not to be… that is the question.”

Should he exist, or should he not exist—for the deeply depressed Dane, suicide or not suicide is the question. In his soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates death and suicide. He regrets the pain and unfairness of life but ultimately acknowledges that the alternative might be worse.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs, they are telling words. These words fall into our narrative in the first draft because they are signals for the rewrite.

Be_Eight_Forms_LIRF05122019In the rewrite, we look for the code words that tell us the direction in which we want the narrative to go.

We look at each instance and rewrite the paragraph to show the event rather than tell about it.

If we write a sentence that says a character was hot and thirsty, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. The reader is on the outside, looking in.

When we take that experience of thirst and make it immediate, no matter what narrative tense we are writing in, it changes everything.

Which sentence feels stronger, more pressing?

  • They were hot and thirsty.
  • They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.
  • I walk toward the oasis with dry, cracked lips and parched tongue.

The way we show the perception of time for these thirsty characters is the same – the narrative is in the past tense in the first two cases and the present in the third.

Each sentence says the same thing, but we get a different story when we change the narrative tense, point of view, and verb choice.

“Were” is a verb, but it is subjunctive and is perceived as a weak word, where “trudged” conveys power. The narrative time in which the story is set (past or present tense), verb choice, and expansion of the imagery – these combine to change how we see the characters at that moment.

No matter what narrative tense you choose for your story, using strong verbs to describe their actions and emotions will reinforce the reader’s connection to the characters.

For my short story, View from the Bottom of a Lake, the narrative tense that worked best was a past tense, close third person.

Peggy Jayne smiled. Beneath the green-glittering gaze, her toothsome smile flayed her daughter, leaving Sarah breathless, panicking and longing for her lake.

Who are youSometimes the only way you can get into a character’s head is to write them in the first-person present tense, which happened to me with Thorn Girl. I struggled with her story for nearly six months until a member of my writing group suggested changing the narrative tense and point of view.

Once I did that, the story fell out of my head the way I had envisioned but couldn’t articulate, and I wrote it in one evening.

My first instinct is to shake my head and back away.

But I don’t. Long ago, my Lady told me that in every life, a time will come when you arrive at a precipice. You must either leap the chasm or fall to your death.

I stand at that place now.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. We must keep in mind that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything, so the first-person narrator cannot be omnipotent.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Every story is unique, and some work best in the past tense, while others need to be in the present. When we begin writing a story using a narrative time that is unfamiliar to us, we may have trouble with drifting tense and wandering narrative points of view.

This happens most frequently if you habitually write using one mode, say the third-person past tense, but switch to the first-person present tense.

For this reason, when you begin revisions, it’s crucial to look for your verb forms to make sure your narrative time doesn’t inadvertently drift.


PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Character Development: Emotions

Character Development: Showing Emotions

Character Development: Managing the Large Cast of Characters

Character Development: Point of View

This post: Character Development: Narrative Time


Credits and Attributions:

Maeve Maddox, The Many Forms of the Verb To Be, Copyright © 2007 – 2021 Daily Writing Tips. All Right Reserved

Quote from View from the Bottom of a Lake, © 2020 Connie J. Jasperson. Story first appeared in the anthology Escape, published by the Northwest Independent Writers Association and edited by Lee French.

Quote from Thorn Girl, © 2019 Connie J. Jasperson. Story first appeared in the anthology Swords, Sorcery, and Self-rescuing Damsels, edited by Lee French and Sara Craft.

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Time Management #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

If you are planning to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, you will need to develop some time management skills.

Writing daily is easier once it becomes a behavioral habit. Making the best use of your time requires a little self-discipline.

Most of us have jobs and a family, so our time for personal projects can be limited.

First, you must give yourself permission to write.

Your perception that it is selfish will be your biggest hurdle. Trust me, it is not asking too much of your family for you to have some time every day that is sacred and dedicated to writing.

When I first began writing, I was in high school. I wrote some short stories, but mostly I wrote poetry and lyrics for songs. Later I married the bass player in a heavy metal band and began writing songs with him.

During the 1980s and 1990s, as the single mother of three children, I held down three part-time jobs. I couldn’t afford cable, so with only four channels via the antenna, TV was pretty minimal at our house. Card games, dominoes, books, and the library were our usual evening entertainment.

It was during this time that I began to write fiction seriously. We read books so quickly that the library couldn’t stock new ones in our areas of interest fast enough for us. So, when my children were doing their homework, I sat in front of my second-hand IBM Selectric typewriter and pecked out fairy tales to read to them.

In the summer, I did that while they watched videos or played Super Mario et al., on the old Super Nintendo.

That gave me at least one hour every night in which I could write, sometimes more. Yes, I did have to help with some of their homework but having me there, typing away next to the gerbil cage seemed to keep them on track, and I did get several pages written every night.

It was all crap, but I made it sound better when I read it aloud to them.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was developing discipline and a work ethic in myself as well as in my children.

Two of my daughters write fiction as well as holding down jobs and raising families. All five of our kids are hardworking adults who are raising families and who also have an artistic life in music or writing or both.

Having an artistic life means you allow yourself time to create something that is meaningful to you.

The following is a list of ideas to help you carve the time to write  and still be a full participant in your family’s life.

  1. You must decide what is more important, your dream of writing or watching a television show that is someone else’s dream. Do you want to create, or do you want to be entertained?

Personally, I would say that if you didn’t like the way Game of Thrones turned out, too bad.

It was George R.R. Martins creation, and he did it his way. He has written more than thirteen novels, numerous short stories, novellas, and too many screenplays for me to count.

GRRM did all that by sitting down and writing every day. He is an award-winning author because he makes the time to write despite his heavy schedule as a speaker, screenwriter, and editor.

So, don’t waste your time complaining about how George did it and don’t bother searching for a replacement show. Write your own Game of Thrones and do the way you think it should have been done. Writing fan fiction is a great, time-honored way to start your writing career.

  1. You have the right to take an hour in the morning and the evening to use for your own creative outlet. Get up an hour early and write until the time you would normally get up. That will be the quietest time you will have all day. Give up that 9:00 p.m. TV show and write for one more hour. There are your 2 precious hours.

If you use those two separate hours for your stream-of-consciousness writing, you could easily get your 1,667 words written every day, possibly more. I am a slow keyboard jockey, and I can do about 1,100 wonky, misspelled words an hour during NaNoWriMo.

But they ALL count, misspelled or not.

  1. Write for five minutes here and ten minutes there all day long if that is all you can do. Every word counts toward your finished manuscript.
  2. I took my lunch to work and wrote during my lunch half-hour whenever possible.
  3. I also wrote on the bus when I didn’t own a car.

You don’t have to announce you are writing a book if you don’t wish to—I certainly didn’t feel comfortable doing so. If you want to spend your lunch time writing, politely let people know you’re handling personal business and won’t have time to chat.

Some offices will allow you to use your workstation computer for personal business, but most of my places of employment frowned on that. I brought a notebook and pen as I didn’t own a good laptop. By writing down all the thoughts and ideas I had during the day, I had a great start when I finally did get a chance to write. If your work allows, bring your laptop or your iPad/Android. So you don’t get into trouble with the boss, sit in the lunchroom (if you have one).

You can also set aside a block of time on the weekend to write, though that can be difficult, as setting aside an uninfringeable time on a weekend can become a hardship, especially if you have a young family. This is where getting up early for that one quiet hour can really keep your story flowing out of your head and into the keyboard/notebook.

Writers and other artists do have to make sacrifices for their craft.

It’s just how things are. But you don’t have to sacrifice family for it. Sacrifice one hour of sleeping in, and sacrifice something ephemeral and unimportant like one hour of TV.

By  writing in short bursts whenever you have the opportunity, you might get your first draft finished, and get that certificate that says you completed 50,000 words in 30 days.

But more importantly than any winners certificate, you will have created something special, something unique that is a piece of your soul, your intellectual child, as it were.

A novel is nothing but an idea and the discipline to sit down and write it from start to finish.

Inspiration and self-discipline—that ability to start and finish a project that began as an idea, a “what if,” is what creative writing is all about.

You can achieve your goal of 50,000 words in 30 days if you give yourself permission to create and make the time to do so.

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