This article was first published in the July/Aug 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.
Imagine that right now you’re in a coffee shop and glance up from your work and see … a leopard.
How do you feel about a leopard gazing at you from just over there, by the counter with the cream and sugar? Shocked, frightened, curious? How do you react?
Let’s further assume that the situation resolves happily for you and for the leopard. The leopard doesn’t hurt you or anyone else and is gently returned to the zoo.
You’re a writer, so of course you’re going to share this experience. How you tell the story, though, will be shaped by when you tell it.
As it’s happening, your thoughts might narrate: It’s about time for another cup of coffee. I’ll just go—wait! Is that—it can’t be—a leopard? It’s staring at me. Panting. Drooling. Should I run? No, no, if I run, the leopard might chase me …
A week or two later, you might tell the story to a friend—narrating from the point of view of remembering a recent event: I was at my usual table at Capitol Perk, tapping away on my laptop. Then the coffee shop chatter suddenly stopped. The strange silence made me look up, only to see what everyone was staring at—a leopard. Right by the counter. I caught its piercing gaze. My heart started pounding. I wondered if I should run …
Years—even decades—later, you might still tell the story—narrating from the point of view of looking back on a long-ago incident: That instant, when I looked up from my laptop and saw the leopard in the coffee shop, was the pure, distilled moment when everything changed for me, in my personal life, in my writing life. Oh, I didn’t realize it in that moment—my heart pounded in panic as I wondered if I should run—but since then, when I’ve felt stymied by a decision, that leopard’s piercing green eyes appear before me and …
How we tell our stories changes depending on when we tell them, relative to how long ago we had those experiences. As time passes, we might imbue an experience with more, or different, meaning than it had in the moment. Deeper wisdom, fresh perspectives, or new information might become important to the story. In the above example, shock as the focus of the story makes sense during or after the experience; lessons learned might become the new focus when the story is told years later.
Likewise, the point in time in which we’re narrating our characters’ stories matters a great deal in how we craft point-of-view, whether we’re writing in first or third person. Your novel, story, memoir, or essay will be much stronger if you take the time to firmly decide at what point in time, relative to the story events, is this story being told?
Simply deciding, well, I want to write in past tense, so … sometime after the events, isn’t specific enough. My novel, My One Square Inch of Alaska, takes place in 1953 and is about 17-year-old Donna and her ill 11-year-old brother. After the first drafts, I realized the story wouldn’t reach its full potential if told in first person as the events unfold. Insights vital to the story were not ones that a teenage girl would have expressed. Ultimately, I had Donna narrate the story 12 years later from an adult point of view after she’d had time to mature enough emotionally and intellectually to process the events.
On the other hand, in The Widows, my main character, Lily, is the wife of a sheriff who has just been killed in the line of duty. I wanted the immediacy of Lily’s emotions and actions, so I wrote in present tense. But to keep her feelings from overwhelming the story, I also wrote in third person.
Choosing at what point in time you’re narrating your story depends on your story goals. Do you want immediate emotion or action, perhaps in a thriller or action-packed story? Opt to narrate the story close in time to the events—or even right in the thick of them. Are you aiming for a more reflective story? Narrate by looking back upon story events. (Bear in mind that the further back your character is looking, the foggier those memories might be—but that in itself can be a story element!)
This is the third of three columns in which I’ve examined point of view—busting myths; examining how to manage emotional distance; and how to manage the point of time from which the story is told. All the choices you make about point of view should work together to serve the story you’re telling, but making those choices takes, well, time. Speaking of which …
Taking Time as a Writer
Respect yourself as a writer—and your project—by giving yourself all the time you need to thoughtfully consider your point-of-view options. You might do so while planning your project, drafting, or revising—or even in all stages. Art is not a linear process. As I like to tell writing students—your project will be a mess, until it isn’t!
Sometimes, it’s healthy for you and your story to set it aside for a little while. Just as the character who saw a leopard in the coffee shop will have a fresh perspective on the incident a few weeks afterward, you’ll feel renewed from the break and have a fresh take on what you’ve created—and how to best proceed.
But how do you know if you’re taking too much time? Sometimes it’s tempting to extend taking a break into the realm of procrastination. Ask yourself. Your gut instinct will know if you really need more time away from your work—or if it’s time to get back to the project.
Be honest with yourself about how much time you have for your writing. Your circumstances may mean that an hour a day is reasonable. Or your schedule may mean that an hour a week, with occasional additional bits of time, is exactly what you can give to your writing. That’s perfectly fine! Don’t pressure yourself to spend more time than you actually have—but when it is time for you to write, honor that time, yourself, and your work by giving your efforts your full attention.
On a larger scale, remember it takes a long time to learn the writing craft—and truth be told, there’s no end to learning. You’ll always find there’s an element of your craft you want to improve or learn more about. Likewise, give yourself—and others—the time needed for receiving helpful feedback and finding publishing outlets that are the right fit for your writing—and for you.
Bear these tips in mind, and you might discover that, as the old saying goes, time is on your side.