How to Choose Your Novel's POV & Tense
Well, it's about time friends.
So many of you have reached out to me over the past year to ask one significant question: which point of view and tense should I choose for my novel? In fact, after "How do I find time to write?", this is probably my most asked reader question.
And today, I'm going to answer it for you!
Choosing the point of view and tense for your novel may seem a bit insignificant to some. Does it really make a difference if I write my novel in first- or third-person? Past or present tense? Well, yes and no. Stick with me for this analogy, friend:
Your novel's point of view and tense are like the clothes you wear each and every time you go out into the world. They don't change who you are as a person, but they do affect everyone else's initial impression upon meeting you.
Does that make sense?
Even though point of view and tense usually don't change the quality of your story, they may affect how readers approach it. Because of that, you do want to put a bit of time into considering which point of view and tense are right for your novel.
Not sure what to consider or which options to choose? Read on, writer!
Who is narrating your novel?
So, first things first. Before we talk about how to choose the right point of view (POV from here on out) and tense for your novel, you need to figure out who your POV character is. Who is narrating your story?
Though most modern novels feature the main character as the POV character, this doesn't have to be the case. Some authors choose to have a secondary character narrate the main character's story (think: Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby), while other authors choose to have a god-like narrator who knows and sees all.
The choice is completely up to you, but it doesn't have to be a complicated one. In order to choose the right POV character for your novel, ask yourself one simple question:
Who can best tell my main character's story?
"But Kristen, isn't my main character always going to be the best person to tell their own story?" Not always.
If your main character is intentionally deceptive or has a mental illness that would cause them to cloud the truth, they might not be the best character to lay out the full scope of their own story.
A secondary character or a god-like narrator may do a better job of getting all of the facts straight, and they may add a bit more tension to the novel, as well.
"But Kristen, if I choose an alternative narrator, how will my readers know my main character's thoughts and perspective?" Well, it's time to ask yourself another question: "Do my readers need to know my main character's thoughts and perspective?".
Sometimes, choosing an alternative narrator actually adds more intrigue to your novel because of how the narrator must discover the main character's story for themselves. Readers can follow along as the narrator pieces together the juicy details of your main character's journey.
In those cases, if some of the main character's thoughts and perspective must be known, you can deliver them via a few well-crafted lines of dialogue.
That said, most authors will still choose to have their main character tell their own story, but this is just one item that is worth considering in case your novel is the exception. Ready to do a little more considering? Let's talk about POV!
So what is POV anyway? Great question!
POV is the "mode" through which a novel's narrator tells the story. There are three general POV modes:
- First-Person POV: uses the pronouns "I" and "we".
Ex: "I run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
- Second-Person POV: uses the pronoun "you".
Ex: "You run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
- Third-Person POV: uses the pronouns "he", "she", "it", "they" or a name.
Ex: "She runs through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
Typically, only first- and third-person POVs are used in novels. Second-person is usually reserved for those interactive fiction stories directed towards middle grade readers (you know, those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books).
Now, the first- and third-person POVs each come with two main "sub-modes", so to speak. You can write in:
- First-Person Reliable: the narrator tells the story as they see it from their perspective.
- This is by far the most common sub-mode of the first-person POV.
- First-Person Unreliable: the narrator purposefully deceives readers to serve their own purposes.
Ex: Both Nick and Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.
- Third-Person Limited: the POV is limited to one character for the entirety of the novel.
- The narrator must be a character in the story (can be reliable or unreliable).
- Third-Person Omniscient: the narrator tells the perspectives of multiple characters (true omniscient POV) or the novel features multiple narrators' perspectives (limited-omniscient POV).
Ex: Terry Pratchet, Philip Pullman, and Frank Herbert have all used true omniscient POV in their novels, while a common example of limited-omniscient POV is A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.
Fun Fact: My upcoming novel, The Dark Between, is written in limited-omniscient POV and features four POV characters.
Whew! That's a lot to think about, right? I know you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed, so allow me to talk about how these modes of POV are typically used in fiction.
- First-Person POV. First-person is most often used in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction (think: The Hunger Games or Divergent), as well as thrillers, mysteries, and adventures in any age market.
This is because first-person POV creates the least amount of distance between the narrator and readers. It puts readers almost directly into the narrator's shoes, allowing them to get right into the middle of the action.
If your novel features a lot of external, physical struggles (action scenes, chase scenes, etc.), writing in first-person POV might be the right choice for you. Why? Because most readers aren't beating up bad guys or driving cars at 100 mph every day.
They need a little help getting sucked in to these scenes, and making it as easy as possible for readers to put themselves in your POV character's shoes can make all the difference.
- Third-Person POV. On the other hand, third-person POV is more often used novels that focus on internal, emotional struggles or in novels that feature rich, complex worlds (fictional or real).
Why? Because third-person offers more versatility. In more emotional novels, readers will likely have a much easier time relating to the POV character. They don't need to be in that character's shoes to stay intrigued. The emotional connection is plenty enough to keep them turning pages.
And in those stories with complex worlds, utilizing third-person POV allows the author to offer multiple perspectives that lend themselves to better storytelling and world-building.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "But Kristen, I can think of–like–20 novels that break these norms right of the top of my head". Me too, friend!
And that's the awesome thing about choosing your novel's POV: it truly matters less than you think it does. When you're making this decision, your biggest concern should be which POV you are most comfortable writing.
Does writing in one mode of POV drive you nuts? Then don't write in it!
Above all else, the POV you utilize needs to seem natural. If it doesn't, your prose will be stunted and awkward, and that's not going to endear any readers. So choose the POV that you love writing best, and give your readers the true experience they deserve.
Ready to talk tense? Let's get started!
So, what is tense? Fantastic question, friend. "Tense" refers to verb tense, the tool through which you express action and its relation to time in your writing. There are two types of tense that are most often used in fiction:
- Present Tense: the action takes place in the moment, now.
Ex: "I jump over the fallen tree trunk, narrowly escaping a nasty tumble."
Books: The Hunger Games, The Handmaid's Tale, The Night Circus.
- Past Tense: the action has already been completed.
Ex: "I jumped over the fallen tree trunk, narrowly escaping a nasty tumble."
Books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Maze Runner.
Typically, tense follows a similar pattern to POV. Present tense is most often used in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, as well as thrillers, mysteries, and adventures.
Just like first-person POV, present tense is more personal and creates very little distance between the POV character and readers, making it very easy for readers to slip into the POV character's shoes. This is especially helpful in action-driven stories.
However, novels that utilize present tense are much more rare than novels that feature first-person POV. In the vast majority of novels, past tense is used. This is because past tense offers much more flexibility.
Present tense requires an author to always remain in the immediate now. They don't get the opportunity to move easily through time, giving only the most important story details. They must constantly remain in the present, which lends itself to sharing unimportant details about the POV character's actions simply because they follow a natural, sequential order.
And unless their eggs and bacon are poisoned, readers usually don't care about what your character had for breakfast. Know what I'm sayin'?
So, which verb tense should you choose for your novel? Just like POV, you should always choose the verb tense you are most comfortable with. Past tense is most often used because it's the natural choice for storytelling, but some writers do prefer to write in present tense.
If that person is you, don't feel pressured to use past tense. Readers will notice any awkwardness in your prose, and it will be off-putting. So when in doubt, always go with your gut and stick to what you know best. Cool?
I hope this has helped clear up any confusion you might have over POV and tense.
If you have any questions about making the right choice for your novel, or if you have any additional tips or tricks you'd like to add, sound off in the comments below!