Point Of View and Tense

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Last year I wrote two separate pieces on Point of View and Tense and how they helped characterize the tone of a story. Today I’m reworking those posts into a singular article. These two elements are very closely related, and so I thought it would be best to bring them together in one updated piece.

Point of view (or POV as we shall refer to it from here on out) provides the lens through which your readers will experience your story. Different POVs have their own strengths and weaknesses, providing unique narrative opportunities while also imposing specific constraints. First person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and second person are the primary POVs used in fiction. Some authors even use a mix of different POVs in a single story to evoke a specific set of feelings in the reader.

The tense you choose to work in, whether past or present, sets the tone of the piece.

Past tense is probably the more commonly chosen tense, and the majority of stories are written this way. If you think about it, this makes sense, since the way we as people tell stories to our friends (even when it’s just some funny thing that happened at work) is almost always in past tense because we’re relating things that happened to us. For that reason past tense is very familiar to most readers, so it can make a story more accessible. It feels very natural for a story to be related that way, so people don’t think about it too much.

Present tense, on the other hand, is slightly less common and can be kind of jarring. People don’t relate events like this in real life, so this is usually a more stylistic option, one that forces the reader to engage with the text in a certain way. However, it does also provide some unique storytelling opportunities, especially when combined with certain POVs, that lead to refreshing tales.

Sometimes when you sit down to write a story, you’ll know exactly which POV you want to use and what tense you want the story to be in. But sometimes you might not know, or sometimes you might find that your initial choices were wrong for the story.

Below I’ve listed all of the POVs for fiction writing along with their strengths and weaknesses. I’ve also included how past and present tense usage works with each of them.

I hope that going through these might help you either figure out which one best fits your story or at least provides you some ideas as to what voice you might approach your writing with.

First Person

Definition:
First person is the use of the “I” pronoun, so this means that the story has a narrator who tells the tale directly from his or her point of view. Usually first person stories only have one narrator, but there are some stories that make use of multiple first person perspectives to flesh out a tale.

Examples:
Many popular YA books like Twilight and The Hunger Games are written in first person. Moxyland is a great example of a novel that switches between multiple first person perspectives.

Pros:
Writing in first person really allows you to get into the head of a character. Since you’re in the character’s head, you can monologue and let the character think about the events going on in the story. When done well, the author can create a very stylistically unique voice for the story.

First person is a great POV for newer writers to use, since it lets you delve into the head of the character and really get to know him or her. Having immediate access to that character’s unique voice and perspective is an easy way to write a narrative that isn’t dry, which can be an issue when utilizing other perspectives.

First person is also great for writing unreliable narrators, since the reader only sees what the narrator allows them to. Over time you can start dropping hints that maybe the narrator’s view of what happened and the reality of the situation aren’t quite the same. I think this is something that’s harder to do effectively in other POVs.

Cons:
The story you’re writing is limited to what the narrating character(s) sees and experiences first hand. You can’t really add details the character wouldn’t know. You also have to be consistent with the narrator’s voice. Deviations in tone will be even easier for the reader to spot because they will become attached to the character and know how he or she sounds when speaking.

When writing multiple first person characters, you have to make sure that each of them is unique and has a distinct way of thinking and narrative style. If you fail to do this, all of them will start to blend together, and that will be a problem, especially when writing in first person. In third person this is less of an issue because you want your story to have a unified tone anyway, but multiple first person perspectives is where you want to ditch that, and that can be difficult to do.

Tense Combinations:
A past tense tale told in the first person is, as I said earlier, the most natural way to tell a story. It’s how speak to our friends about events that happened to us. In a lot of ways it makes sense that this style is favored by newer authors and YA authors. For newer authors it likely feels more natural, and for YA authors it’s a way of telling a story that their readers might be able to more easily gravitate towards.

First person present is a somewhat stranger way to tell a story. It has the feel of a person narrating his own life, which can be a sort of awkward way to relay events. But one of the advantages of it, I think, is maintaining suspense. In a past tense story, presumably the narrator is alive and retelling events. In a present tense story, you can’t know what will happen to the narrator as the tale unfolds.

Third Person Limited

Definition:
While grammar would teach you about third person, there are actually two forms of third person in fiction writing. The most popular is called “third person limited”. This means that the story is being told in third person (he said, she said, etc), but the narrative is tightly focused on the feelings and experiences of a singular character, at least in any given scene or chapter.

Examples:
Harry Potter is an example of third person limited. Almost the entire story is told from Harry’s point of view, and as readers we only really know what he knows, and we are often told what he is thinking and feeling in a given moment. The Game of Thrones novels are another example of this. The story bounces between many characters, but in any given scene or chapter we are seeing the world firmly through the eyes of one character.

Pros:
This is a pretty flexible form of narration, I’d say more flexible than first person. It allows the writer to move seamlessly between multiple characters or even just provides the option of having one-off chapters with one-time characters who can expand on what’s going on (think of the opening of every Law and Order episode where we see a body being discovered before our protagonists appear on screen).

The author also doesn’t need to be in the head of the character all the time and can focus on what the character is thinking or feeling at relevant times rather than all of the time. This can allow for a very clean narration style that isn’t reliant on having a protagonist with an interesting voice to keep the reader engaged. Relaying the events and emotions of the characters well is usually enough.

Cons:
You can run the risk of sounding bland or overly didactic when writing in this style. First person forces the author to engage with a character in the way that third person doesn’t. It can be harder to generate unique voices for your characters when you aren’t in your protagonist’s head. It can also be hard to create a stylized form of prose that’s your own when you don’t have a character providing the tone for you.

Tense Combinations:
Closed third person past is one of the most popular ways to tell a story. I would wager that most fiction, especially main stream genre fiction, is told in this style. Past tense is a very natural way to relay a story, and having the sense that events in the story already happened feels very natural to a reader.

Closed third person present is more stylistic, but I think it is far more common than first person present and feels more natural. Having a character experience something in the present makes the story feel very immediate, and closed third person can capture this without the sort of awkward feeling of the narrator relaying events as they occur.

I also enjoy closed third person present for stories that include a lot of flashbacks or reminiscing. It’s very easy to slide back into past tense in this case and deliver a very natural moment from the past, sometimes even in the middle of a scene, and you can distinguish between the two without any other indicators.

Third Person Omniscient

Definition:
Third person omniscient is the second, and far less popular, form of third person. In this iteration of third person the author isn’t tied down to a singular character and can convey what each of them are thinking at any given moment. In a single scene (or even within a single paragraph) we learn what all of the characters are thinking and feeling about anything they encounter.

Examples:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great example of this style. It’s also popular in older novels but is rarely used in modern fiction writing, especially when it comes to popular or genre fiction.

Pros:
This style lets you explain everything that is going on without being confined to the perspective of a singular character. Even during the course of a single scene you can hop between your characters’ heads and reveal what they are thinking or feeling about something.

You also have the potential to create a fun narrator voice that can stylistically enhance a story. The narrator can be outside of the story in a sense and provide his or her own unique tone.

Cons:
There is a lot of distance between the characters and the reader, so the reader is seeing what the narrator reveals. They are told what the characters are feeling or thinking rather than experiencing it more organically from the characters themselves. This distance can make a story less engaging for readers when handled poorly.

This is also a very difficult, perhaps the most difficult, style to write well. Other POVs allow the characters to tell the story, engaging the reader by revealing what they are feeling or thinking. Third person omniscient can’t fall back on that, and so the way the story is narrated has to be engaging, or the reader won’t continue with the tale.

Tense Combinations:
I think all of the same ideas from third person closed apply here. I think writing an omniscient narrator in past tense is maybe a bit more natural, but I could see present tense working as well.

Second Person

Definition:
I’ve put second person last as probably it’s the rarest form for authors to tackle. This is a narration style using the pronoun you. So, as an example, “You walk into a bar. The bartender looks at you and asks what you want.”

Examples:
These days writers more commonly use second person to flavor a novel or in the short story form. If you want to read an example of a great second person story, I recommend “The Cheater’s Guide to Love“. However, there are some novels, like Bright Lights, Big City, written fully in the second person as well.

Pros:
It’s stylistically unique because it is so rarely used. Second person also brings the reader immediately into the action in a way that other POVs don’t. The narrator is telling the reader that he or she is experiencing the events of the story as they happen, which drives home each event in a way that the more passive POVs can’t.

Cons:
People aren’t used to it, and many readers don’t like it because the style is invasive. Instead of being told about something, you are being dragged into the story, which can be jarring. Many people want to reader a story to experience someone else’s story, not to be told that they are experiencing something themselves. And if they happen to disagree with the opinions or actions of the protagonist, it will be even harder for them to distance themselves, so you might lose readers that way.

Tense Combinations:
Second person and present tense are a natural pairing. Both create an immediacy for the reader, and both generate a more stylized version of storytelling. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a second person story that’s written in the past tense, and I’m not sure how it would work, but if anyone has second person past stories to share, I’d be happy to read them.

Hybrid

Definition:
Some stories use different POVs for different sections. This might look having one POV in first person and another, or multiple others, in third. It could also look like including a second person segment to draw the reader into a specific bit of the tale. All of the tense choices hammered out in the earlier sections would apply here.

Examples:
The Quantum Thief is a really great example of this. The protagonist (the thief himself) is given a first person POV because he has to unwind the threads of the story’s mystery in his head, but other characters are given third person limited perspectives.

The Night Circus has brief sections in second person that are used to show the reader all of the wonders of the Night Circus. The rest of the story is told in third person closed.

Pros:
Stylistically this is a very interesting way to tell a story. It allows the author to access the strengths of each POV style for different parts of the story while mitigating their weaknesses. For example, in The Quantum Thief, we get to see the world through the perspective of one character while he unravels an internal mystery about himself, but because other perspectives are relayed in third person, we still get that wider view of the world the story takes place in and can learn about events that the narrator is unaware of.

Cons:
This can be jarring for readers, as it’s not something people are used to. Basically you’re going to have to justify choosing to do this rather than writing only in one POV. Why is it necessary for you to have one first person narrator while the other characters are only in third person? Or what do the second person bits add to the narrative? In the end it’s your stylistic choice, but your readers should feel like that choice was meaningful.

Choosing which to use…

This isn’t always apparent. Sometimes the story you want to tell will dictate the style. My advice is first to play to your strengths. Maybe you enjoy one of these styles more than the others. If you’re good at creating very strong character voices and like to have internal monologues, then go for first person. If you want to be more detached and show more of what’s going on, go for third person limited. If you have a great but detached narrative voice, try omniscient.

My other piece of advice, if you’re not sure, is to try writing scenes in different styles. See what works best for the story by experimenting. For example, if the story is told almost entirely from one character’s POV, then try writing it in both first and third limited and see which you prefer. Finding the right way to tell a story always involves experimentation, but if you know the theory behind different writing mechanics, you can be more equipped to experiment thoughtfully rather than randomly.

Which POV is your favorite to use? Are there pros or cons for different styles that you think I missed? Let me know in the comments, and I hope this was helpful.

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