Choosing your Tense and Point-of-View

The point-of-view of your story and the tense it’s written in has a huge impact on the structure of your novel and feel of narration. Done well, your POV and tense will work seamlessly together to create an engaging tale and believable characters. Done poorly, the reader can be left feeling disjunct from what’s happening. This article is a (very) short introduction to the main POV’s and tenses, as well as tips for using them.

What’s a POV?

Thank you, bolded heading. Put simply, the point of view is the ‘camera’ through which the story is relayed. It could be a single person, or it could be an omnipresent, all-seeing narrator. The main POV’s (using John as an example of a main character) are:

  • First person:
  • The ‘camera’ is a single person – John (although this ‘single person’ may change between chapters or scene breaks). John cannot tell the reader anything more than what he sees, hears, feels, tastes, smells or guesses. Of course, if John can read minds or police reports, he may be able to relay information he doesn’t strictly know. A good rule of thumb is that if you see the word ‘I’ used often, the story is in first-person.
  • Example: The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. “I gave her my deluxe I’ll-kill-you-later stare. I didn’t mind being in trouble for pushing her. I just wished I could remember doing it.
  • Second person:
  • This one’s a bit more complicated. Essentially, the ‘camera’ is YOU. That’s right, you. The story is shown through ‘your’ eyes, in a similar manner to first-person stories. Instead of ‘I’ being used to indicate the POV character, ‘you’ is used instead (i.e. you walk down the staircase). Often, second-person stories are told in present tense, to heighten the sense that you are physically there and interacting with the plot. This POV is used in interactive fiction – things like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Novels.
  • Example: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
  • Third person objective:
  • This is a relatively uncommon POV. Done well, it often has a highly cinematic feel. Done poorly, it results in a lack of connection to characters and the narrator. In this POV, the ‘camera’ is located outside John and any other ‘POV characters.’ No information is given to what is going on inside the characters. You won’t hear any interior monologue from John about how much he likes his shirt or how he wishes that his neighbour would quieten down. To make up for this, dialogue is often used extensively, and characters tend to be quite good at conveying their feelings to one another. In this POV, the narrator is a mere spectator of events. This is often considered to be the most distant POV.
  • Example: Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway (short story). “The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid. ‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked.”
  • Third person omniscient:
  • The ‘camera’ has complete access to everything that’s happening. The narrator can tell the reader what’s happening not just inside John’s head, but inside every else as well. This POV uses a person’s name or improper noun (i.e. ‘he/she,’ ‘the man/woman,’ ‘the courier’) to refer to the main character. While giving the writer lots of freedom, this POV does limit the opportunity for individual character development and can remove suspense.
  • Example: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. “He reached for a second clip, but then seemed to reconsider, smirking calmly at Saunière’s gut. ‘My work here is done.’ […] Alone now, Jacques Saunière turned his gaze again to the iron gate. He was trapped, and the doors could not be reopened for at least twenty minutes. By the time anyone got to him, he would be dead.”
  • Third person limited:
  • The ‘camera’ has access only to the thoughts and feelings of the main character, John. Everything it ‘sees’ is limited to John’s perspective. Note that this main character may change between chapters or even within chapters. Basically, this POV is the first-person POV with ‘John’ instead of ‘I’ (i.e. 1st person: I walked. 2nd person: John walked.) This is probably the most commonly used POV.
  • Example: The Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan. “Will made an attempt to return the smile but it was a dismal failure. He picked at the plate before him, piled high with his favourite foods. Tonight, his stomach knotted tight with tension and anticipation, he could hardly bring himself to swallow a bite.”

Cool. And the tenses?

Tense are relatively simple, unless you want to get all crazy and get into things like Simple Present Tense and Present Perfect Tense. But we shall leave this black magic to the halls of the university professors, and focus instead on the three main tenses:

  • Past tense:
  • ‘It happened.’
  • Example: John walked down the path.
  • Present tense:
  • ‘It is happening.’
  • Example: John is walking down the path.
  • Future tense:
  • ‘It will happen.’
  • Example: John will walk down the path.

How about the Pros and Cons?

Again, we’ll start with the POVs, once again using John as our main character. I’ve given the most time to first person and third person limited, as these are the two most common POVs:

  • First person:
  • Pros: A first person novel allows for a huge amount of intimacy and development with the main character, particularly if only one narrator is used. This POV works wonders with highly developed main characters. It allows plenty of time to convey their personality to the reader, creating an interesting and realistic story. If you love letting the reader know what John is thinking, this is great to work in. This POV can also bring with it a notion of simplicity, as you only have to write from John’s perspective. Also, you can add lots of suspense and mystery to the plot because of its limited nature. You might lace clues that John fails to see, but an intelligent reader will pick up.
  • Cons: Unfortunately, all those positives come with disadvantages. For one, you are limited to describing only what John can see. To do this, John either needs to be involved in everything that’s going on, or have some other way to view important events. The first Percy Jackson series did this well. The main character, Percy, had dreams that let him see what the bad guys and gals were doing on the other side of the country. This kept the plot moving and let the reader know what was happening. On a completely different note, using this POV provides little narrative distance for you as a writer. You may face accusations of creating a Mary Sues-esque character if you don’t give them a distinct personality. Which brings me to my next point. This POV, more so than some others, needs John to have a bucket-load of personality and a distinctive voice. No one will slog through 250+ pages of narration that sounds like its being spoken by a computer program.
  • Second person:
  • Pros: Very, very few writers can pull off a good, novel-length second-person POV. But if you can, you can create an incredible sense of connection and immediacy between the reader and the story. You can make them feel like they are John, that they are having a significant and profound impact on the events of the novel.
  • Cons: This is probably the hardest POV to pull off. Over time, the constant reference to the reader can result in boredom and disinterest, which is why this POV is used mainly in shorter stories. It can also feel gimmicky and attention seeking. Unless you’re a literary genius, most publishers will instantly reject a novel written in this POV. Use with caution.
  • Third person objective:
  • Pros: This can create a highly cinematic feel, like the reader is watching the action unfold on a fully-immersive screen. Also, it cuts out any bias from individual characters. The reader knows that the story is not being warped through the particular lens of one character. What they see is what they get.
  • Cons: This viewpoint is the most distant, unable to peer into the minds of characters. Considering that characters are the foundation of any good story, it might be unwise to cut them out of the narrative loop. The purely objective nature of this POV can make a story sound like a bland, police-style report. Also, this POV places a lot of reliance on dialogue to convey characters’ feelings and emotions, which can make stories read like a transcript.
  • Third person omniscient:
  • Pros: You can let the reader know everything about all the characters you’ve worked hard to create. This POV can add variety to your story, letting the reader see things from multiple character’s perspectives’. This can help to maintain reader interest over the course of a long novel. As a writer, it can help to reduce writers block. Stuck thinking what one character would do/say? Switch to another! Not only can you move between characters, but you can change the setting, location and feel of your story at any time. Also, this POV enables you to write from a broad perspective, useful if you have a somewhat large plot/event (i.e. a galactic battle between four different races) where it would be unrealistic for one character to narrate through the entire thing.
  • Cons: This POV can be hard to pull off. You need to find a good balance between covering different viewpoints and covering too many viewpoints. Just because you can tell us the thoughts, feelings and Long, Highly Interesting Childhood of each character doesn’t mean you should. The reader will not appreciate being swamped with waves of information. Also, this POV can remove a large amount of suspense, especially low-level tension. For instance, the narrator might tell us that John’s love interest loves him too, thus removing suspense over whether they will/won’t end up together. From a reading perspective, switching between different perspectives can jar the reader. They may have to backtrack, or worse, think about who is narrating!
  • Third person limited:
  • Pros: The most widely-used POV, and for good reason. For a start, it lets you maintain narrative suspense, develop the main characters and keep the narration plot-focussed. It also lets you create intimacy and a sense of connection between the main character(s) and the reader, particularly if you only have one or two viewpoint characters. A good example of this is Harry Potter, arguable the most successful series of all time. The use of this POV let the reader feel close to Harry and allowed for lots of suspense. Also, don’t think that this POV is constraining you to the thoughts of one character. You can still switch between viewpoints between chapters or even within chapters. Just make sure that the reader knows there’s been a change in the narrator. Also, this POV provides narrative distance for the writer. The reader will be more easily convinced that the character telling the story is a real person, rather than the author. This reduces the risk of you as the writer being accused of creating a character who is an idealised version of yourself.
  • Cons: Very few. This POV reduces the risk associated with a third-person omniscient viewpoint. Probably the only major issue with this is that the viewpoint character has to be involved in all aspects of the story, or find out what’s happening through some means. But I’m sure you’re clever enough to work around that.

Now for the tenses. As tenses are more straightforward than POVs, I’ve just provided general advice on each tense:

  • Past Tense:
  • The most often used tense. This tense works with third-person and first-person stories. Second-person can work, but can often feel strained. Most writers find this tense the most natural to write in, as stories are often read as ‘historical’ – that they have already happened. Readers find this tense natural as well. Unless you’re a literary genius, this tense will work best for you.
  • Present Tense:
  • Very rarely used in longer works, this tense is most commonly used in shorter stories. This tense can work with third-person and first person stories, but works best with second-person ones. A lot of people find this tense unnatural to both write and read in, but it does have the advantage of making the reader feel like the story is happening right now. However, it’s best to steer clear of this tense in long works, as it can feel gimmicky and attention seeking.
  • Future Tense:
  • This tense works best with first and third person stories, although it could function in a second-person story. The advantages of this tense are few and far between. It creates a lot of questions for the reader (i.e. oh, you said that John may take out the rubbish. Will he actually do it? Or is that a case of trying to show his character? Arg!) which could be both a good and bad thing. Like present tense, this tense can often come off as gimmicky and attention seeking. For the record, I’ve never come across a full-length novel written in this tense. Some people say that this tense doesn’t even exist in English. Maybe that tells you something about it.

Any final words?

The tense and POV should always come secondary to developing great characters and writing an interesting plot. But they are important, because the POV and tense you write in affects your characters, plot and a host of other things. Ultimately, you should write in the tense that feels natural to you. For most writers and for most longer stories, this will be first or third-person past tense. But if you feel like you want to write a second-person future tense story, go for it! You can always change it later.

Do you have a tense and POV you prefer to write and read in? Have you ever experiment with any unusual combinations? Let me know!


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