Choosing tense and point of view

Before we finally decide a piece of writing is completed, it is important to look at how well the tense and point of view support the story. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes it helps to experiment and see how each affects the way the story comes across.

I am reading The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenberg. It has occupied the best seller list for a number of years and I decided it was time I read it. I find the idea behind the story intriguing. For those who have not yet read it, it is about a girl who forms a relationship with a man who travels back and forth through time while she ages normally. They marry and eventually manage to have a child. Henry is a librarian and Clare is an artist. We learn little about their professional lives as the story focuses on their meetings as he pops in and out of her life in various time zones. It is an unbelievable story made believable by the character portrayal. It is odd to think that a full grown man would unexpectedly appear naked (he leaves his clothes behind when he travels to a new time zone) to a young girl who calmly sets about finding him clothes. He also becomes a competent thief in order to dress himself when he arrives in a new time zone.

We learn that he arrives naked and, because we learn about this from Henry’s point of view, we are left to imagine what other people see when this person appears out of nowhere. We know he is thin but there is little detail apart from that because we are reading from the inside or beside the narrators rather than the outside in as a viewer.

We see the world through Henry and Clare’s eyes using first person narration in sections in present tense from the points of view of Clare and Henry. By having the two main characters tell their stories from their perspectives, the reader experiences a sense of immediacy and of being part of this very strange experience. The reader believes the narrator because the reader occupies the character’s body. We can suspend belief because we are told this is how the world works according to Clare and Henry

First person point of view also means the reader sees very little of their lives outside their worlds. Managing the world around a character in a first person narrative is a challenge. However, given the nature of this story it is an ideal structure. We see their meeting places, catch glimpses of their parents and other people in their lives, but the focus is concentrated on these two people. It is the perfect way to describe how the rest of the world reacts to Henry popping in and out of time zones.

Henry has difficulty explaining his disappearances at his job, although this is minimised and largely resolved by the explanation that his employers tolerate a few disappearances because his work is so good. Nevertheless, the question about how his coming and going is tolerated is glossed over and made easier by the use of present tense and first person. A different perspective would highlight these discrepancies.

The reason I am taking some time deconstructing The Time Traveller’s Wife is because I am fascinated by the way the author has made something so fantastical work and given the reader the freedom to suspend reality in order to believe the possibility of time travel by a character.

When I first started writing Bend with the Wind, I began with present tense, first person. I chose first person because I wanted the reader to get inside my character, to feel what she feels and to live her life vicariously.

However, the most important realisation I had was that I wanted the reader to relate closely to this character and if I kept telling her story in the first person we began to think that we were getting the story she wanted us to believe rather than draw our own conclusions. For my story, third person gave me distance and allowed me to show my character’s flaws and mistaken judgements.

It is very important to choose the right point of view from which to tell your story. The tense will enhance the reader’s experience and ensure he or she comes away with an impression of the character that is the one you want the reader to have.


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