Narrative Tense and POV



Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickman.

Eons ago, long before the dawn of recorded history, there was a caveman named Hrogthar.

Now, Hrogthar was what is popularly known as a good old boy, but he was a nobody in his cave clan. No one admired him or listened to him.

One day, walking through the jungle, Hrogthar was attacked by a saber-toothed tiger. The tiger was huge and fearsome, and all Hrogthar had for self-defense was his stone axe.

But Hrogthar was strong, and his terror gave him strength. What a battle it was! The tiger scratched Hrogthar's arm. Hrogthar whacked the tiger between the eyes with the axe. The tiger staggered back through the forest and Hrogthar pursued him. Then the tiger turned and counterattacked, and drove Hrogthar to the brink of a great precipice over a river. Hrogthar hit the tiger again. The tiger circled and nearly backed Hrogthar over the precipice. Hrogthar narrowly ducked a feint which would have exposed his breast to those huge tiger fangs. Hrogthar swung his axe—and missed. The tiger leaped. Hrogthar ducked. The tiger flew over his head—and into the space beyond the embankment, plunging a thousand feet to the river below, where it was carried away by the rampaging river.

That night, Hrogthar went back to the cave. Someone around the campfire noticed the scratch on his arm.

"What happened to you?" asked a particularly beautiful young maiden.

"I was walking in the woods today, . . . " Hrogthar began, and he noticed that all voices hushed and all eyes watched him as he told and acted out his tale.

When Hrogthar finally finished his story, everyone applauded. The chief of the clan patted him on the back and gave him a choice mastodon steak to eat.

The next day, Hrogthar thought back to what had happened. Obviously, his telling of a story had gotten him fame and fortune. He wanted more of both. He thought about it.

That afternoon, Hrogthar intentionally cut his hand on a sharp rock. When he went home that night, he told a scarifying story of being attacked by a lion—and how the lion finally fell into quicksand and perished. (Which explained why there was no body for proof).

Again everyone applauded and admired him, and the chief gave him a wonderful snake fillet for dinner.

"This is great," Hrogthar said to himself. And the next night he told his best story yet, about how he single-handedly bested a hairy mammoth, but of course could not drag the great beast back to the cave.

This time, however, something went wrong. The brave warriors turned away in disbelief that anyone could have so many great adventures.

Hrogthar thought a lot about this, too. "I can't expect them to keep on believing indefinitely that every great exploit happened to me personally," he concluded. And he was very depressed.

Then, however, after many days of thought, he had an inspiration destined to change not only his life, but the world.

That night around the campfire he got everyone's attention and began, "Imagine, if you will, that you are a lone warrior crossing the swamp. You are muddy and tired, and you know fierce animals are all around you, but you know you must press on . . . "

A silence fell. Everyone listened, willing to imagine they were the hero of the story so they would enjoy it. And when Hrogthar was done, they all felt better about many things, and the warriors applauded, the chief gave Hrogthar first servings of the horse-meat stew.

What Hrogthar had invented was the most fundamental technique of storytelling: placing the reader in the mind and heart of a person at the center of the story's action: a technique that we today call viewpoint.

The reader wants to escape humdrum reality and have an adventure. If you the writer handle viewpoint correctly, the reader will identify with the central figure of the story—imaginatively become that character—and experience the story as she experiences her own life: from a limited field of knowledge and feeling, from one set of eyes, with all the uncertainty—and involvement—of actual experience.

Putting the viewpoint inside a story character's head assures instant reader identification with that character. It's a technique so fundamental and universal that many writers tend to shrug off discussion of it because they think they know all about it. But errors in handling viewpoint are so common, and of so many different types, that more discussion is mandatory.

Instructions for the Quiz

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