Changing Narration Voices and Tenses ft. Margaret Atwood and Shinjini Kumar


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Some months back I had a completely random thought

We are done.

Just like this sentence popped out of nowhere, I thought it'd be interesting to use it in a story where it's completely unexpected. The story — at least in this first draft — starts as:

"We are done", I hear someone say. I interrupt Litany singing PS2 in my ear pods. It feels like a dream broken.

If you notice, I've used simple present tense. It wasn't in the first shot that I decided to have it so. At first I started writing it in simple past and as a third person narrative:

"We are done", Arindam heard someone say. He interrupted Litany singing PS2 in my ear pods. It felt like a dream broken.

After writing about 500 words, I felt that the narration was too impersonal and insouciant. It was then that I decided to try to write it down in simple present and first person narration. Margaret Atwood talks about this.

In her masterclass, there's a section called Who Tells The Story Narrative Point of View? In it there's a subsection called You Can Always Change Your Mind. In it she says the following.

How are you going to decide who's going to tell the story? Learn by doing. You pick a likely canditate and start off, and if that is not going well, maybe you need to reconsider. So if you started with a third person and it's not going well, try switching to the first person, vice versa. Maybe if that character isn't working out for you at all, maybe you want to come at it from a point of view from a different character. Maybe you've chosen the wrong narrator. Writing 'The Blind Assasin' I think I had to start over three or four times, because I had picked the wrong narrator. The first one that I had picked was a younger person telling the story of this older woman. Next came an attempt to approach her through two journalists who were interested in the novel written by her dead sister. However the two journalists started having an involvement which took over the story, and their's was not the story I was really interested in telling, so I got rid of them. And then I had the woman start telling her own story and that's when the novel really started to move. You know when things have started to move, because you start writing faster *giggles*.

Then she goes onto say that as a writer you've got to decide how much the narrator knows. Does the narrator know more than the reader? Or less? Or equal?. It's going to be either of those arrangements. She gives the example of the novel Dracula, which has a narrator that knows less than the reader. One of the Agatha Christie's novels had a first person narrator, who knew more than the reader ( and the narrator turned out to be the murderer at the end ). In the end she says that it's always interesting to write the same event from multiple points of views and then decide which one(s) is(are) clicking.

In my story, the reader knows as much as the narrator does at any given point. Things are happening to the narrator and he's talking about it. There are also stream of consciousness short monologues going on, which help to get to know the narrator better. The way I'm able to keep my reader ( at the time of this writing, only me ) curious is by establishing some unknowns before every step of the narration.

For example, the story itself starts with an unknown person telling the narrator We Are Done. Narrator gets confused by it. He tries to find the person who's said these words, in pitch black darkness. It's snowing. That person reveals herself and a conversation ensues. At every step of the conversation, I plant more known unknowns. It's thrown as much at the narrator as at the reader.

A small excerpt from the beginning of my story #

“We are done”, I hear someone say.

I interrupt Litany singing PS2 in my ear pods. It feels like a dream broken. A moment before, the consciousness experiencing senses without a body – the lyrics of the songs talking to me, as I tap my feet in the snow. The next moment, the saliva drooling on the pillow and riling up the beard – eyes open to the darkness around. An aftertaste of a pungent snack but nothing to kill or replace it with. I raise my head from the Spotify playlist which conveniently says ‘hmm…’. Next up, a song I haven't heard, of an unknown artist, unknown genre. Not anymore. Next up, a lamp in front of me.

It’s pitch dark behind the street lamp, which is circumspect with a spherical white dome of light. Mediocre, I think. It snowed an hour ago. I couldn’t have stayed inside, knowing I didn’t know when I’d be in the mountains next. Like always, running behind something fleeting. I hear footsteps from an invisible door from the back of the house I sit in front of and squint my eyes to look for the outline of the voice I just heard.

“We are done, aren’t we?”

A Story I Read Recently #

I recently read a lovely story by Shinjini in Sahitya Akademi's bi-monthly journal Indian Literature. It's a first person, simple present narration. The narrator knows as much as the reader, like in my story. In the possible future blog post, I'm going to try to run down the things that caught my eye in her story — Family Values — as a writer. In it, Shinjini has shown sarcasm, conflict and contradiction without the need to explicitly write about it. She uses short sentences, sometimes even one word ones. They help keep the pace of the story decidedly fast.

She was kind enough to share with me another story she's written, which has first person narration as well, and is available online.

Shinjini's story 'No Tomorrow' Published In The Beacon Webzine

Shinjini has been a Director with Price Waterhouse Coopers and has worked with Citigroup. She's planning on starting her own startup.

Indian Literature subscription is 500 Rupees for a year ( 6 editions ). This was the first time I read a whole edition, and I thoroughly enjoyed and learnt from it. You get everything — essays, research pieces, poetry, short stories, short stories in translation from a number of Indian dialets, book reviews and more.

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