Choosing your Tense and Point-of-View – Part 2

Yesterday we looked at the different tenses and point-of-views (POVs). This week I’m taking some time to evaluate the pros and cons of each tense and POV. If you haven’t read part 1 of this article, check that out before reading any further. 

Again, let’s start with the Point of Views (POVs), 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: 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 readers.

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.

It’s getting Tense:

(I’ll give you a sec to savour that wonderful pun. You’re welcome.) 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:

  • 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 are always secondary to developing great characters and an interesting plot. But they are important, because the POV and tense 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.

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


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