How to Choose Your Novel's Point-Of-View & Tense
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How you choose to structure and style your story's prose can make all the difference.
Two of the biggest elements that affect your prose are, of course, point-of-view and tense. Does it really matter if you write your book in first-person or third-person? In past or present tense? In some cases, yes. In fact, point-of-view and tense are a bit like the clothes you wear each day. They may not change who you are, but they do affect others' impressions of you.
And a good first impression can make all the difference, right? So today, writers, we're going to explore the kinds of impressions point-of-view and tense can make and how you can be sure to choose the right option for your story!
Who is narrating your story?
Before we can discuss how to choose the best point-of-view and tense for your story, we need to ask this one simple question.
Though most modern novels feature the protagonist as the point-of-view character, this doesn't have to be the case. Some writers choose to utilize a secondary character's perspective as the point-of-view, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby. We may follow Nick Carraway's experiences, but the main subject of the novel is most definitely one Jay Gatsby.
Other writers choose not to utilize a close narrative at all, instead using an external and often omniscient narrator to explore the story's events. Which type of perspective you utilize in your story is completely up to you, but the choice doesn't have to be a complicated one. Simply ask yourself, "Who would tell the best version of my main character's story?"
Often, this is the main character themselves. But in the case of The Great Gatsby, if Fitzgerald had told the story from Gatsby's perspective, the reader would have been deprived of all the man's mystery and deception, making for a much less engaging story. Better to tell the story from the perspective of one who's just met him, Nick Carraway.
If your story follows many characters through their lives, writing in multiple points-of-view may be a good option, but don't forget to consider an external narrator as well. Utilizing such a narrator would allow you to move quickly between characters' thoughts, events, and even separate timelines.
External narrators can be a great option if you're only writing about one character's experiences as well. If you're looking to tell a story that reads a bit like a legend or fairy tale, give an external narrator a try.
But which point-of-view should you choose?
Point-of-view is the mode of narration through which a story is told. Three general points-of-view exist:
1. First-person POV uses the pronouns "I" and "we".
Ex: "I run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
2. Second-person POV uses the pronoun "you".
Ex: "You run through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
3. Third-person POV uses the pronouns "he", "she", "it", or "they".
Ex: "She runs through the woods, tearing through branches and tripping over roots."
First- and third-person POVs are most common, with second-person often reserved for interactive fiction stories such as the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. One example that breaks the mold, however, is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, in which second-person is used to place distance between the protagonist and their experiences, reflecting their state of mind.
First- and third-person POVs each come with two main "sub-modes", so to speak.
1. In First-Person Reliable, the narrator tells the story as they see it from their perspective.
- This is the more popular first-person sub-mode.
2. In First-Person Unreliable, however, the narrator purposefully deceives readers to serve their own purposes.
- For two excellent examples of unreliable narrators, check out Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Now for the third-person sub-modes:
1. In Third-Person Limited, the point-of-view is restricted to one character's thoughts and experiences at a time.
- With this sub-mode, which is the more popular of the two, the narrator must be a character in the story.
2. In Third-Person Omniscient, however, an all-knowing narrator relays the stories of one or multiple characters.
- A narrator who shares multiple characters' thoughts and experiences is a true-omniscient, while a narrator whose knowledge is limited to just one character is called limited-omniscient.
Whew! That's a lot to think about, right? If you're feeling a bit overwhelmed, consider how different points-of-view are most often used:
1. A first-person POV is most frequently used in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction (think: The Hunger Games or Divergent), in literary novels, and in stories in which one primary character takes center stage.
This is because first-person creates the least amount of distance between the point-of-view character and readers. It's intimate. Personal. It puts readers directly in the protagonist's shoes, encouraging them to not only see the world through that character's eyes, but to become that character for a time.
2. Third-person POV, on the other hand, is great for many high-action stories and those that take place in fictional worlds. Though it can still be highly subjective, third-person offers slightly more distance between the point-of-view character and readers, allowing readers to follow that character's journey more-so than become that character.
For this reason, third-person often has more of a visual, film-quality feel that can be enhanced by utilizing other filmmaking techniques for written fiction.
All that said, there are plenty of novels that break these point-of-view norms. If you're unsure which would be the best fit for your story, choose the mode that feels most natural to write. Simple as that.
Now, how about tense?
"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:
1. With 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.
2. With past tense, however, the action has already taken place.
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 point-of-view. Present tense is more immediate and personal, meaning it pairs well with a first-person point-of-view, while past-tense allows for slightly more distance, making it more flexible. Strangely enough, however, present-tense is the option that has a more film-like quality in this case, given the immediacy of film.
Which verb tense is right for your story? Once again, the best option is always the one that feels most natural for you to write.
It is worth noting that past-tense is by far the most conventional choice, however. Because first-person is far less common, it can sometimes feel jarring to readers. This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with writing it, but it's a note every writer should consider when crafting their stories.
So between point-of-view and tense, why is the best option always the one that feels most natural if first impressions can make all the difference? Returning to our clothing analogy, don't let the clothes wear you. Put on what's most comfortable, then walk forth with pride. Confidence will always make the best impression of all.