Friday, June 17, 2005


Most stories are told in the past tense: I remember when. But it's consdered very modern in some circles to put everything into the present tense: I'm walking along Main, and I see a spaceship at the next corner. You could even, I suppose, write the story in the future tense: And then you will walk along Main, and you will see the spaceship. But that seems as much PREscriptive as it does DEscriptive.

Another decision is the time setting for your story -- again, one is pretty much limited to past, present, and future. Past is nice because you can romanticize it, justify all your research. Present seems easy, but stories set in the present have a bad habit of becoming dated as time passes, and with hindsight come questions such as, "What do you mean, you didn't NOTICE the political implications of the women's movement?" Some writers take to science fiction because they can invent any world they want, probable or improbable, but it's hard not to base things on the NOW and then you might as well plan to exaggerate some aspects to make a point. Writers who have not been regular readers of the sf genre can also make howlers of mistakes by forgetting some of the basics of science.

-- Rachel Holmen

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Who's telling this story?

How do you want to tell your story? Do you want events to unfold as described by some neutral observer (usually called "the omniscient narrator"), using the third person? This is the style used for newspaper articles and most academic writing. "John Smith, a tall brown-haired man, was walking to work when he noticed the spaceship landing at the next intersection. The light was still green."

Or do you want to tell the story from John's point of view: a first-person narrative? "I'm John. I walk to work every morning -- keeps my cardiologist happy. Tuesday I was shocked to notice a spaceship landing at the intersection of Grant and Stockton."

More rarely, a story is written in the second person. "You remember, darling, how we used to walk to work? And the day you saw the spaceship landing? You thought the markings seemed Russian, but of course they were Phringlant."

A related issue is whose activities you follow in the story. Do you report only on what John does? Or do you follow Mary as well, and George, and Sam, and the Phringlants? A classic bestseller such as Alex Haley's HOTEL follows a different person each chapter for a while, then brings characters together in some chapters for interaction that advances the plot.

Short stories generally only follow one person, and are typically written in the third person. But you add texture to longer works when you trace the actions of various characters. (And sometimes you can even get away with telling an entire story from a differing point of view, and sell it as a stand-alone novel. Consider Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME and ENDER'S SHADOW.)

-- Rachel Holmen