POV and Narrative Tense
Two important elements of writing—point of view and narrative tense—need to be decided before you start writing. If you fail to do this, when you’re finished with the book, you may end up having to go back to make things consistent and up to professional standards.
Point of View
Point of view (POV) specifies through whose eyes the story is being told. Just like in life, a story can change completely depending on the POV. The inability to grasp this concept is a common problem with new writers, so if this is your first exposure to it, please read on carefully.
There are three basic POVs from which to choose, and the time to establish it is with the first sentence of your book.
FIRST PERSON – In first-person narrative, the story is narrated using the pronouns I, we, me, mine and my.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
—Opening line of Moby Dick by Herman Melville
SECOND PERSON – Probably the rarest writing mode is second person narrative, in which the narrator tells the story using the pronoun you, often transforming the reader into a character.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
—From Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
THIRD PERSON – Most novels are written in third-person narrative—using he, she, it, and they—from a narrator’s perspective of the story.
The Dursleys hadn’t even remembered that today happened to be Harry’s twelfth birthday. Of course, his hopes hadn’t been high; they’d never given him a real present, let alone a cake—but to ignore it completely…
—From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling
There are several reasons most novels are written using third-person narration: 1) it is arguably the easiest style in which to write, 2) it tends to be more objective, 3) it gives the writer more freedom to introduce information, and 4) it can allow the narrator to know everything there is to know about some or all of the characters.
But there’s more to know about third person. You also need to choose between third-person limited and third-person omniscient. In third-person limited, the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character—the protagonist—and not what’s going on in the
heads of other characters. If not done properly, what results is narration that hops into the heads of characters who are not the POV character—a sin known as head-hopping.
In the following example of third-person limited, Jillian is the POV character, and we the reader know only what she sees and hears and what is going on inside her head and nobody else’s.
Jillian stood behind her podium contemplating how she would answer the moderator’s question. She had less experience than the rest of her running mates and no experience managing a multi-million-dollar budget. She looked over at Darin on her left. He glanced back at her and smirked.
But in this next example of third-person omniscient, while Jillian is still the main character for this particular scene, the narrator knows what is going on inside everyone’s head.
Jillian stood behind her podium contemplating how she would answer the moderator’s question. She had less experience than the rest of her running mates and no experience
managing a multi-million-dollar budget. On her left, Darin chuckled to himself, knowing he was the one on the dais with the best experience for the position.
Writing in third-person omniscient—with multiple POVs—is acceptable if done properly and if it is indeed most fitting for the story. If your story calls for multiple POVs, and you decide to write in third-person omniscient, it is best to make the POV character change obvious to the
reader, placing it between chapters or major breaks in the narrative. To avoid confusion, some authors name the chapters after the person whose POV it is, eliminating any guesswork for the reader.
While writing in multiple POVs is permissible as well as fun and challenging, my advice for first-time writers is to stick to a single POV. Then, once you have more writing experience, you might want to try multiple POVs, but only if the story calls for it and you fully understand
how to do it gracefully. The most important POV rule is to be consistent. Once you pick a
POV, stick with it throughout the entire manuscript.
Another decision to make before you begin writing is whether to use past- or present-tense verbs for the main action in the story.
PAST TENSE: Grace raced to the finish line. Her ponytail whipped about as she took each stride.
PRESENT TENSE: Grace races to the finish line, her ponytail whipping about as she takes each stride.
Past tense is most widely used in fiction for these reasons:
· Since past tense is familiar to readers, many have come to expect it and may actually be annoyed by present tense—they don’t have to adjust to something different from what they’re used to when they begin reading the story.
· It’s arguably easier to write in past tense because it allows you to more freely jump around the timeline of your story, resulting in the story being told in a more fluid/natural manner than it can be in present tense.
· This may be a stretch, but some readers are more likely to believe a story where the events seem to have already taken place, as opposed to events that are happening as they are reading it. After all, the events must have taken place in order for the author to have written about them.
You might want to consider using present tense in the following situations:
· When the story is told within a short time frame, and especially when there is constant action. Think of The Hunger Games, which follows the harrowing experience of the heroine over a twenty-nine-day period.
· When the action unfolds with a sense of urgency and immediacy, and you want the reader to experience it while the action is happening. Like if the protagonist is one who lives in the moment or is impulsive or foolhardy, and you want the reader to experience the character’s dilemmas and then growth as they happen.
· When it is important for the reader to feel particularly close to the protagonist as in “We are all in this together,” making it easier for the reader to connect or empathize with the character. Veronica Roth does this well, especially in Divergent, where assigned personality factions within the social structure—the brave, the kind, the intelligent, the selfless, and the honest—are meant to complement each other but instead cause them to compete. The author’s use of present tense brings the reader in close to the tumultuous relationships between the factions.
There is no right or wrong narrative tense choice, as long as you stick to one or the other. Most editors and readers do not care which tense is used, as long as it is used properly and consistently—failure to do so can be incredibly distracting. For example, you don’t want readers to wonder if a particular event is happening now or if it was a flashback.
Refresher Course in Tenses
Even after you choose the narrative tense, you will find it necessary at times to use tenses other than simple present or past to show the reader the sequence of events throughout the story. For those who may need a refresher lesson, here are examples of other verb tenses you may need to use from time to time.
SIMPLE FUTURE TENSE—used to indicate an action or feeling that will occur in the future.
Grace will run this marathon.
The baby will be hungry in about an hour.
FUTURE PERFECT—used for actions or feelings that will be completed before some other point in the future.
The marathon will have ended by the time Grace leaves her home.
The baby will have calmed down by the time we get to the day care center.
PRESENT PERFECT—used for an action that started in the past and the event still has some influence in the present.
Grace has run this marathon in previous years.
PAST PERFECT—used when talking about an action that happened further back in the past than some other event that also happened in the past.
Grace had run marathons before she became ill.
As with POV, narrative tense is not an arbitrary decision. You will want to choose the one that works best for the story, the genre, and your readers.