In theory one can write a book or story in any combination of voice and tense. Some combinations work well, and others are difficult to keep from being awkward. We usually write In third person past tense, or first person past tense. Third person works well when we are acting as a narrator telling someone else’s story. First person works very well when we are telling something about our self. Usually the story has happened, so past tense is a natural way to tell the story. We could use future tense or even present tense, but it won’t work as well, even for the best of authors.
Most scholars say that second person can not be used, but I know of at least one book written in second person. The technique worked, but not very well. First person plural, however is a viable option. The problem is that few of us are used to using “we” continuously.
My grandfather had five children, one of whom was living in India with her husband. He felt it would be helpful to have a family news letter. Every Sunday afternoon, he would prepare The Sunday Snooze. Only recently did a cousin inform me that it was a pun for “The Sunday’s News”.
At that time, one could purchase an aerogram for about half the price of an airmail stamp. This was a piece of light weight paper with postage printed on one side. One could write as much as possible on the paper, fold it, and mail it, but you could not send any enclosures. Grandpa would alternate sheets of carbon paper and sheets of manifold paper.. Manifold paper was the light weight paper then used by secretaries to make carbon copies. He placed the stack of carbon paper and manifold paper on the aerogram and crank the stack of paper into his typewriter. He would type a one page news letter and mail out a copy to each family.
The typed copy would be the aerogram to Aunt Wilma and Uncle Charles. Everyone else got a carbon copy. Originally there were five copies, or perhaps as many as seven if he sent copies to other relatives. My grandfather also had 14 grandchildren. As each of us married, he added another carbon and sheet of paper so that us married grandchildren could get our own copies. Fortunately he went into a retirement home before too many of us married. I do not know how he got all of that paper into his typewriter as it was.
I am now the patriarch of the family and decided to resume publication of The Sunday Snooze in the form of a group e-mail. A copy goes to each of my relatives and one to each of my wife’s relatives. I write it in first person plural because it involves news of the both of us, and sometimes items about other relatives. I write most of it with my wife adding a sentence or paragraph here and there as she proof reads it.
I found myself in deep distress. In the middle writing, “We went to the gym. . .”,I kept finding myself slipping into the use of singular pronouns. It is terrible to be talking about what we did and then say I did such. My English teacher would certainly have marked that down for not using the same tense for the entire paragraph or more. Of course, I have to go back and replace I with Reynold and She with Gay. It is frustrating, but probably good practice.
I recently wrote a book length manuscript about a future king of England who falls in love with the last remaining unmarried royal princes. Unfortunately she is not the kind of woman he should marry, and their relationship causes all kinds of tension in the book. At one point he tries to resolve some of the tensions by having a meeting with some of his adversaries. He is advised to remain very formal because formality will give him, the king, a psychological advantage. Centuries ago, the monarchs of England began the practice of referring to themselves in first person plural when seated on the throne for formal state occasions. For example the king might say, “We have read a report of the situation, and we are not pleased! We have determined the act to be treasonous, and upon conviction, we will order the crown prosecutor to ask for capital punishment.”
So here is this future king who is used to talking much like any commoner, and his advisers have recommended that he sit on the royal throne and speak about himself in first person plural. As with the family letter, I struggled with the dialogue. It was hard, but it was fun. The king certainly had a psychological advantage when he thundered, “We are not pleased!”
Most of the time we write in third person singular and occasionally in first person singular. If you are an author, consider trying to write something in first person plural or even in third person plural. It may not be anything worth publishing, but it should expand your writing skills.
Reynold Conger is a retired scientist and teacher. In his retirement he writes fiction. For information about his books go to www.ReynoldConger.com.