Choosing a Point of View and Tense

So much depends on perspective. The victor often pens the history books, and a different story can be told from the eyes of the defeated. When telling your story, it's important to find the mode that translates best for your novel. Point of view and tense can change the pacing of the novel, even modify the voice. This is an important decision to make while writing your novel.

Let's brush up on tenses. Since there is no future tense in English, only modal (will, may, can, should, etc) and progressive tense (going, finding, punching, etc), there are no books written entirely in future tense.  Quick refresher:

Present: The Hulk smashes.
Past: The Hulk smashed.

Got it? Good.
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First Person:

In first person, we’re directly inside the head of the point of view person. Typically, the main character is the one telling the story. The advantage of first person POV is, as a reader, you’re directly in the character’s brain. You know what they know. Their motivations make sense. Being that close to a character has its drawbacks. If they’re not engaging enough, you’ll lose readers. An average protagonist has a chance of falling flat to readers and is sometimes unable to carry the story.

“I roundhouse kick Loki in the throat. It brings me immense satisfaction.”

Twilight Saga, Between by Megan Whitmer, and Hunger Games Trilogy are all in this tense. It’s really big right now, so chances are any book you pick up will be first person present. It’s not a natural tense, so it can be jarring to a new reader. It is excellent for increasing the urgency and tension in a story. Everything is happening now and it gives the driving pace a novel sometimes needs.

“I roundhouse kicked Loki in the throat. It brought me immense satisfaction.”

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. First person past tense is considered one of two natural storyteller voices.

First person with multiple viewpoints is tricky. The voices need to be distinctive, and you risk losing the appeal of a character when the reader finally gets a chance to peek inside his or her head. There is beauty in mystery. Be careful not to lose that for your character by giving us too much.

Second Person:

Second person is great for giving directions to the nearest grocery store and “Choose your own Adventure” novels, but it’s hard to pull off in a longer form. There are some excellent short stories in second, and I’ve heard on literary fiction that use it. But that’s not my gig.

“You roundhouse kick Loki in the throat. It brings you immense satisfaction.”

“You roundhouse kicked Loki in the throat. It brought you immense satisfaction.”

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney employs second person and does it well. It’s not YA, but it’s worth a read if you’re interested in and intense study of craft.

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Third Person:

Third person is a little more complicated. Third person offers a distance between the reader and the character, focusing more on the action of the story and less on the character’s thoughts and personality. The reader has a chance to see the big picture, and world building comes out more naturally.

There are multiple modes:

Objective: The narrator doesn’t reveal any of the character’s thoughts or feelings. The reader must draw conclusions solely on the actions and dialogue of the character.

Limited: The narrator reveals the thoughts and feelings of one character through explicit narration. The reader may still infer, but the viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings are still revealed. This is the most widely used of the third person modes. 

Omiscient: This is the god point of view. The narrator is aware of what is going on everywhere, both internally and externally. Think Pride and Prejudice. This viewpoint has more or less fallen out of favor.

“She roundhouse kicked Loki in the throat. It brought her immense satisfaction.”

This is the second natural storyteller voice. Third person past is everywhere. Throne of Glass is a great example of this. It’s close and uses multiple viewpoints.  The Giver, The Maze Runner, Harry Potter.

“She roundhouse kicks Loki in the throat. It brings her immense satisfaction.”

This is uncommon. I personally haven’t read any books in third person present. The Wake books by Lisa McMann and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern are an example. There is a risk in doing anything unusual, in that you can push the reader out of the story.

It’s easier to switch between viewpoint characters in third person. There’s no guessing what the other characters are thinking and doing. The world exists beyond the mind of the character. It’s very important, however, to avoid head hopping. If you come in close on a character, stay with that character until there’s a section break or a new chapter. Head hopping is a rookie mistake. (Third person does head hop, but that’s the nature of the mode.) There is also such a thing as too many viewpoints. Combine and trim where you can.

Once you know the rules, you can break them. If a natural storyteller voice fits best for your narrative, write it that way. You'll have plenty of examples to read and study. Some stories demand more challenging points of view. 

It is possible to have it in the point of view of a periphery character, like in The Great Gatsby, though Nick tells the story in both first and third person. The Kingkiller Chronicles are both in first and third, and absolutely flawless. Read these books. The Virgin Suicides is in first person plural in the past tense. The Book Thief is first person omniscient. 

Remember, we are creators. We can do almost anything. Find what works and execute it well.

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-Nat





5 comments:

  1. This is a really comprehensive post! You did a great job with it. It can be difficult to make a post like this easy to understand.
    Wonderful post!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    Inklined

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  2. Nice recap of those important parts of writing (and reading).

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  3. Love the way you wrote this! Great and memorable way to talk about this.

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  4. Love this. What a great overview of the different styles and I loved how you still give "permission" for writers to create and not feel like they HAVE to follow a particular style!

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  5. Is there future tense in other languages?

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