Choosing your Tense and Point-of-View – Part 1

Your story’s point-of-view and tense has a huge impact on your novel’s structure and feel. Done well, your POV and tense will work seamlessly together to create an engaging tale with compelling characters. Done poorly, the reader can be left feeling disjunct from what’s happening. This article is a 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 or POV for short 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 POVs (using ‘John’ as our 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 (outside of dialogue), 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 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 he likes his shirt or how he wishes that he owned a pet saber-tooth tiger. To make up for this, dialogue is often used extensively, and characters tend to be quite forthright with each other. 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 Harry Potterseries by J.K. Rowling. “Harry kept to his room, with his new owl for company. He had decided to call her Hedwig, a name he had found in A History of Magic. His school books were very interesting. He lay on his bed reading late into the
    night, Hedwig swooping in and out of the open window as she pleased.”

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 / John walks down the path.

Future tense:

  • ‘It will happen.’
  • Example: John will walk down the path.

Check back tommorrow for part 2, where I’ll assess the Pros and Cons of the different POVs and tenses. 

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

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