"What tense and point of view should I use in my memoir?" This was a question posed to us last Saturday after one of our personal history seminars. "What a great topic for a blog post," I thought. So here it is!
Tense and Point of View
Here are two narrative conventions we must consider when writing our life stories: tense and point of view.
Tense is the indication of the period of time in which the story is happening: past, present, or future.
Past tense: "The motorcycle came to a screeching halt in front of my house. I cringed as I saw my father peering at us through the window."
Present tense: "The motorcycle comes to a screeching halt in front of my house. I cringe as I see my father peering at us through the window."
Future tense: "The motorcycle will come to a screeching halt in front of my house. I will cringe when I see my father peering at us through the window."
Because we are describing events of the past, the obvious option for autobiographical writing would be the past tense. Present tense is a riskier stylistic choice (especially for memoir) but can be very effective in creating a sense of excitement and immediacy. (Many popular fiction books in recent years, such as Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, have used the present tense.) You may want to try using present tense only if you enjoy a creative writing challenge and you are willing to fight against the natural inclination to use the past tense.
Future tense would be very difficult to pull off in an entire narrative, but can be used occasionally to combine with the present tense to create a sense of foreboding: "Now, as we head out the door, my father appears sanguine. But much, much later, the motorcycle will come to a screeching halt..."
Point of View
Point of view is the mode of narration for your story: who is telling the story? You have essentially three choices: first, second, and third person.
First person: You are telling the story. "As I crested the hill, I saw that the barn was on fire."
Second person: You are telling the story, but you are putting the reader in your place. "You come to the top of the hill and you see that the barn is on fire."
Third person: An observer is telling the story. "As she crested the hill, she saw that the barn was on fire."
First person is by far the most oft-used voice for memoir writing. It is the least objective, most personal form of writing. It gives the reader a glimpse into our feelings, opinions, and thoughts.
Second person is rarely used in autobiographical writing. Second-person narrative (usually combined with present tense) puts the reader directly into the shoes of the protagonist, which can be an exciting technique in fiction, but quite difficult to pull off, unless (and even if) you are writing your story as a novel.
Third person lends the narrative an objectivity and authoritative air, which is appropriate for journalism or academic writing but would be distancing for a memoir. However, third person narration is used regularly in biographies; you may well use this voice when writing a history about someone else, such as your mother or an ancestor. You can even go back and forth between first and third person if you are a character in the story, for instance in this story I wrote about my grandfather:
Once, after I scraped Granddad's Oldsmobile against a beat-up car in the next parking stall while shuttling Grandmommie to the grocery store, I pleaded with him to not tell my dad. “I don’t see why he has to know about it,” he replied with his twinkly smile. He and I, later that evening, drove down a dirt road to visit the owner of the dilapidated vehicle I had dented. As we were invited into an even more dilapidated and odorous wooden shack, he greeted the car’s owner cordially and without a hint of condescension. He explained that he would rather not call the insurance company, but preferred a settlement between gentlemen. He gave the man $1,000 in cash as compensation for the minor paint scuff and we went on our way. “He looked like he needed it more than I did,” was all he would say on the drive home.
In this instance I have used the first person to tell the story, because I was present in the story: "I pleaded with him not to tell my dad." But I use third person in describing my grandfather's actions: "He gave the man in $1,000 cash..."
Consistency is Key
The vast majority of memoirs, autobiographies, and personal histories are written in past tense, with a "first person" point of view. It makes sense: you are telling your own life stories, about things that have happened in the past, and so it feels more natural.
Whatever tense and POV you choose, keep it consistent, or you might confuse your reader. You want to avoid phrases that switch in the middle, like this: "We were seven miles from shore. Suddenly the sky turns dark." The first sentence of the phrase is in the past; the second sentence is in the present.
However, you can switch tenses when using direct quotations, as in the following example:
"The motorcycle came to a screeching halt in front of my house. I cringed as I saw my father peering at us through the window. 'You are in some big trouble, Missy,' he bellowed as the front door flew open."
Notice that although the narrative is in the past tense, the father is speaking in the present tense.
Only you can decide whether to play it safe or take some risks with your tense and point of view choices. No matter what you choose, make sure that the style supports your own authentic voice and doesn't detract from it.