Looking at another thread on tense, I realize that this one of mine may be misconstrued as me asking for help fixing a specific paragraph. Rather than that, I am asking for advice in general on dealing with situations where the narrator is talking to the audience in past-tense. I provide a concrete example not because I just need someone to fix it, but to illustrate what I'm talking about. It's unlikely that this will be the last time I encounter this particular dilemma so a quick fix is most certainly not what I am asking for.

I'm currently working on a book and decided to try something I had first attempted 15 years earlier -- including an omniscient narrator in the book as a character. Needless to say, this brings with it a number of challenges.

The first major challenge has been tense. Initially I had chosen to write every scene with the narrator in it as present tense. Eventually I decided this was a bad idea, and am looking to see how I could go back and fix this issue.

There is, however, one major snag -- when talking directly to the audience. So far I've only done it once, so the audience isn't going to be expecting it, but it is the first paragraph of a new chapter, which should make it less jarring to the reader.

Furthermore, this is most certainly not a comic scene. The situation is that I've been putting the MC through hell for the last two chapters. This is especially problematic for the MC since unlike most heroes, mine doesn't have some kind of preternatural ability to deal with stress and at the end of the previous chapter had sunk into a sort anxiety induced catatonic state.

A secondary part of this drama is that the narrator, a character in the story, is powerless to do anything. The previous chapter ends with the narrator expressing this feeling in a very terse manner. The chapter in question starts with the narrator telling the audience, essentially, ``I want to reach through the screen and give the MC a big hug and a cup cocoa, but I'm just another actor bound by the rules of this world".

In total, due to the placement of the four wall breaking, I don't feel this is too jarring, and the overall effect is worth it.

However, this presents a problem when it comes to tense. I've thought of a few solutions, but none of them are ideal. I could simply have a tense shift, but I have a strong dislike for those both as a reader and author. I could add in some extra verbs which would be past tense, but that completely kills the mood. I could also simply change the tense of the verbs already there, but the result of that was. . . odd. It just sounds weird talking to the audience in past-tense.

The paragraph in question is below. I didn't want to include it, but as I'm writing this I realize I can't expect any decent feed back without the actual prose, even if it can be used to figure out who I am later. I did, however, remove the MC's name.

I want to reach through my screen and just give the bereft MC a hug, to hold her and wrap her in warm blanket. But I can do none of these things. I'm just a sword in a story of my own creation. Another actor bound by the rules of another world.

Actually, now that I think about it, this isn't breaking the fourth wall, but rather is meta. I'm engaging the audience, but I'm not actually talking to the audience. The idea is to draw the reader into the scene by referencing a real and immediate commonality with the character -- reading a dramatic scene on some medium. As a reader I've frequently found myself wanting to comfort a character in a book, but this takes it a step further.

Needless to say it's a fantasy setting.

P.S. In case it matters, while I haven't broken the fourth wall before this, the sword is a very meta character. This was made explicit

MC: "How do you know this?"

N: I could explain that I'm the voice of the author but settled on, "I'm a magical sword. I know things"

And the narrator talks to the MC and makes no effort of avoid saying things "we can't just assassinate the Big Bad because she has plot armor." That hasn't actually come up, but it would be something like that.

Normally this is at least partially comical, always delivered dead pan. For example

MC: You can read minds?

N: No, but I can read my screen, which has a similar effect.

P.P.S Overall the tone of the book is dark and the meta tends to be sardonic, often disparaging the MC, and other characters in general, or expressing frustration.

  • It's not clear what feedback you are seeking. It sounds interesting. What's your question? It sounds to me that you have worked through it. – DPT Feb 16 '18 at 19:11
  • I haven't worked through it. Rather I've found three solutions, none of which are actually any good. My question is how to handle past-tense when either breaking the fourth wall or self-referencing. Does that answer your question, or am I still being too vague? The purpose of those suggested solutions was to demonstrate that I have in fact thought on this, but am in need of outside assistance since my own mind is insufficient for the task of answer my question. – Nero gris Feb 16 '18 at 19:19
  • Hello @Nerogris, your question is too long and unclear. We suggest you to trim it down a bit, so that your main question comes clear. I invite you to take a look at the help center where you can find a lot of suggestions on how to work on this site. – FraEnrico Feb 19 '18 at 7:59

(The present tense seems to work for me....)

What I've seen done (and you can consider) is to make your 'bug' a feature, instead. Set off each chapter (or just occasional chapters) with this type of meta paragraph. And offset it in font/style. You can infuse these with elements that give the narrator more depth, or add elements orthogonal and complementary to your story. Now it becomes a part of the contract with the reader, we expect it and are fine with it. Here are some quite bad examples:

An early chapter could be:

The MC doesn't know what's in store. It's best this way, because (s)he is the only one that can (blah blah blah) but if (s)he knew, (s)he might refuse. ...

A later chapter,

I'm impressed. (s)he doesn't know that what (s)he's accomplished has taken us one step closer to (blah blah blah)

Your existing chapter:

I want to reach through my screen and just give the bereft MC a hug, to hold her and wrap her in warm blanket. But I can do none of these things. I'm just a sword in a story of my own creation. Another actor bound by the rules of another world.

A final chapter

It's times like these I wish I was more than a sword. The MC has shone (blah blah blah)

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  • That's actually exactly what I did in another book of mine, and I used a text box to add extra margins to make it clear that it was separate from the normal chapter body. I start it off with a piece of correspondence. You're right, it works beautifully, however I doubt it would fit the tone of this story. The other issue is that that paragraph flows smoothly into the next, which in turn flows into the paragraph after that and so on. For what it's worth, I currently favor leaving that paragraph the first half of the following paragraph in present tense and changing the rest of past tense. – Nero gris Feb 16 '18 at 19:38
  • @Nerogris Perhaps it was your book where I enjoyed its usage then. Good luck. – DPT Feb 16 '18 at 19:40

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