I’m going to talk a little bit about how to choose a tense and a point of view that’s right for your story and characters.
For those who aren’t followers of my blog, I’ll tell you little about myself so you know my qualifications to opine on this subject. First of all, I’m a writer, so I love to see myself write in the same way that some people love to hear themselves talk. I also think my opinions are of paramount importance, also due to the fact I’m of the artistic persuasion, so I will state my views loudly over the boring drone of other people stating their own opinions.
Actually, I hope the above is not true. At least too much. I am, indeed, a writer. I have three published books, and a contract on two more that are set to come out on 3/7/17 and 5/2/17. I have written fifteen books in all (which are in various stages of revision and pitching), and am in the midst of drafting another. These books are in all manners and mixtures of tenses and points of view (though I’ve not used second person or future tense, and I don’t write in omniscient).
I’m also a freelance editor, and an active beta reader/critique partner, which means I’ve helped or tried to help a lot of other people decide the best tenses and points of view in which to write their own stories.
And, of course, I read a lot, and pay attention to how other professionals use tense and point of view as style and literary devices.
Okay. Here we go.
The default tense and point of view for fiction writing is third person, past tense (at least in English and Spanish, the two languages I’m familiar with). This makes sense when you think about the oral storytelling tradition. In most stories, myths, legends, and parables, the narrator is telling about something someone else did in the past. The exception to this is, of course, when someone is telling a personal anecdote. Then the narrative would be in first person, past tense. In the oral tradition, using present tense would be awkward, because that would actually be running commentary of what’s going on at the moment. Listeners might find that creepy: “The savory scent of stewing venison washes over me as Miriam adds carrots and potatoes to the pot. She bends over to fetch the peeler from the bottom drawer, and the hem of her skirt creeps upward, giving me a view of the smooth, delicious curve of her bare thigh.
“Miriam turns to scowl at me. ‘What the hell did you just say?’
“I rub the back of my neck sheepishly. ‘Sorry, Miriam.’ I really shouldn’t think things like that about my mother-in-law.”
Anyhoo, the oral tradition has influenced the written tradition, and it seems most common for books to be written in third person, past tense (this is especially true of older novels). However, you can use whatever tense and point of view you want—it’s no longer uncommon to use first person or present tense in fiction. I’ve also read stories written in second person, though I can’t think of anything I’ve read in future tense.
I will now tell you about how I go about choosing a point of view and tense for my stories. I don’t always consider the following things in the same order I list them below. My mind just isn’t that organized. My thoughts generally resemble a sluggish river roiling with piranhas and crocodiles, but it usually calms down in there eventually and I figure stuff out.
Genre Considerations, In General
One of the things to consider is the genre, although this, I think, is the most minor consideration, unless you’re writing memoir: that’s almost always first person past tense, because you’re telling about something you did or experienced in the past. I think I did read one supposed memoir that was first person present, and I found it so contrived and douchy that I had to put it down…though you definitely could pull that sort of thing off if you did it correctly.
There are other genres that are sort of traditionally third person past tense, such as mystery, westerns, and historical romance. But even with those genres, as with all the others, it’s basically free-for-all: you can do any tense and point of view you want, as long as it works for your character and story.
As a side note, I did have someone recently tell me on Twitter that an agent said they had “first person, present tense fatigue” with regard to YA. I wrote a whole tirade about “trends” here, but it ended up being 700 words. So I took it out and gave it its own post, here.
Back to tenses and points of view…
The biggest things to consider with regard to choosing your point of view and your tense are your main character (or characters), and the nature of your narrative.
Point of View
Let’s look at point of view. First ask yourself, what kind of person is your main character? Do they pull you straight into their head and show you how they think? Are you intimately involved with their thoughts? Is the story at least partially crafted by how your main character sees the world? Then you should probably tell the story in first person, so you can let your character’s voice dictate the narrative.
First person is very useful when you have an interesting main character with a strong or different voice; or an unreliable narrator that sees the world differently than others do, and part of the story relies of the reader having to figure that out. For example, my book The Other Place, which has a schizophrenic main character, is written in first person—his character voice is strong, and the way he sees the world provides a lot of tension and interest to the story.
Conversely, if your character is stand-offish and doesn’t tell you a lot of their inner thoughts (perhaps even their motivations are in question); or the story is very plot-driven and relies on seeing events and character interactions from the narrator’s standpoint, then tell it in third person.
Additionally, if the “vibe” of the book depends a lot of the setting or scenery; or if the narrator voice is what’s really interesting (as is the case in a lot of humorous books, like Terry Pratchett’s or Carl Hiaasen’s), then you should write in third person.
If the book is very much driven by the narrator voice, and relies on the humor or drama involved in seeing events from more than one character’s point of view within a scene, then third person omniscient is warranted. Be careful with omniscient, though; it’s the easiest point of view to do badly, and you’ll end up confusing and putting off readers if you spread them too thin and make it difficult for them to identify with any one character, without letting them identify with the narrator voice. It’s better to choose one character’s point of view, or change POV only in chapter/scene breaks.
If you have a very hands-on character who tells you all your thoughts, but perhaps their voice isn’t as distinct, or part of the story relies on being able to see character interaction and other environmental factors from outside the main character’s head, consider writing in third person close point of view. That’s when it’s in third person, but you have a lot of inner dialogue (and no head-hopping at all).
I’ll touch briefly on second person. It can work well if your character is a certain kind of crazy (I am myself “crazy”, as I tell you about endlessly in my other blog posts, so please humor me in my use of this word, because I love it for some reason). I’ve seen second person used to great effect with characters who see themselves as not being exactly in control of their own actions, and yet still at the center of the universe. I don’t know if that makes sense, but if you can’t describe exactly why the narrative of your story needs to be in second person (or at least have a very strong sense of why), you probably shouldn’t write it that way.
It also works best, in my opinion, if only portions of the book are written that way, so readers don’t burn out.
And as for first person omniscient… just don’t, unless your character is a supernatural being of some sort.
Moving on to tense. This choice is also driven mostly by your character and your narrative. If you’re writing about someone who sees the world as very immediate…perhaps they don’t do well with taking the “long view” and contemplating their actions before they act, or they experience what’s going on right now very strongly for one reason or another, then present tense is the one you want to use. The best example of this type of character, as opposed to other types, is in Carl Hiaasen’s Native Tongue. Most of the book is written in third person (sort of omniscient), past tense, but when the narrative slips into the point of view of Pedro Luz, it goes into present tense. Pedro Luz is this completely steroided-up, bullheaded bully who is heavy on the action and not huge on thinking things through, so the change in tense is completely organic. Hiaasen does it so well that you hardly notice, and just slip naturally into the character’s point of view.
My book The Other Place, which I mention above, is also written in present tense, because the main character experiences the present so strongly that it sometimes takes over his whole perception and makes it difficult for him to remember that this too shall pass.
Also, if your narrative relies on the feeling that the character arc and story arc are unfolding in real time, as opposed to being told by someone looking back on events as an older, wiser person with knowledge above and beyond that which they had at the time, then it’s best to go with present tense.
If none of the above things are true, you might be better off defaulting to past tense. Still, it’s your call, and you can definitely choose either tense or point of view on a mindless whim and make it work.
As for future tense…I’ll leave discussion of that to someone with a graduate degree in literature.
If anyone has other thoughts on how to choose a point of view and/or tense, I would love to hear them!