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Default Modes

As a writer you are stuck with two modes:

1. Third person narrative, past tense or

2. First person, past tense.

There are notable exceptions such as the very occasional foray in second person (the only English- language novel written entirely in second person is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney) but second person is a narrative mode that tends to irritate the reader. (At a slim 80-odd pages McInerney’s novel does not wear out its welcome)

I know my dissatisfaction with the default modes of narrative sounds presumptuous but I’ve tried varying my narrative voices with second person and unreliable first persons. I made them so unreliable I saw polygraphs on the blank page instead of text. Postmodern theorists and meta-texts were revisited. Francis Fukuyama has a point when he proclaimed the Death of The Author. Sometimes it feels like you’re typing from the other side.

There is not much you as a writer or a reader can do about the default modes. Mainly because humans are the only animals who tell stories (unless a marine biologist possesses footage of whales or dolphins regaling each other with tales – no pun intended). We like our stories set in the past to feel a sense of history and continuity, fictional or not. Try writing a short story in the future tense (believe me, I have) and the artifice really stands out.

But don’t jettison third person or first person narratives because writers and readers love to pretend (This character could be me!). Hence, second person grates after several pages because the writer is telling the reader who or what to pretend.

Perhaps default modes are so because they *work*. Have you tried experimenting with different modes of narrative in your writing?

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6 thoughts on “Default Modes”

  1. I’ve written some short stories in first person present tense that work really well. I’ve read one novel written that way too, though I wouldn’t want to try to keep it up for a whole novel. It has a fresh kind of immediacy with it that I like.

  2. I have tried both default narratives (and hadn’t even considered 2nd person) in my WIP. I believe it really depends on the tone of the book.

    Magnus Mills, for example, always writes third person, past -tense and it works brilliantly due to the detached, irreverent nature of his literature. Mark Hayhurst who writes angsty, energetic crazy fiction pulls of first person, present tense brilliantly. Both would be worse writers if they switched.

  3. Why do you say there was only one English language novel written in the second person? I quite enjoyed Laura Fraser’s travel memoir “An Italian Affair” in the second person!

    1. I meant fiction written in second person. However I’ve not come across memoir (non-fiction) written in second person, and “An Italian Affair” sounds intriguing! Thanks for bringing it up!

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