Choosing the Right Viewpoint and Tense for Your Fiction [With Examples]

by Ali on September 17, 2013

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Image from Flickr by Andréiai

Who’s telling your story?

Perhaps the choice is easy and obvious: you’re writing from a particular character’s viewpoint in the first person (“I”) and the whole story is from their perspective.

Or perhaps it’s trickier than that. You’ve got a story to tell involving multiple characters, and you need to make some choices.

The point of view (POV) or viewpoint is the angle the story’s being told from. For instance, in Emma Donaghue’s Room, the point of view character is 5-year-old Jack.

The story might be told in the first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“s/he”). It can also be told in past tense or present tense, which I’ll come onto a little later.

Second person is rare, but first person and third person are both very common, so I’ll tackle those two first.

First Person

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero.

(Emma Donoghue, first lines of Room – Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

A first person narrator tells the story as though they’re talking to you or, occasionally, to another character. Normally, nowadays, it’s their story – they’re both the protagonist (main character / hero) and the narrator.

(The protagonist and the narrator aren’t invariably the same person, though, especially in 19th century fiction. E.g. Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist, but Doctor Watson is the narrator.)

First person narrators are necessarily limited to what they know, so the reader only gets the action from a particular time and place. They may be unreliable, not necessarily deliberately.

First person allows you to do a lot with voice, particularly if your narrator has an unusual voice (think Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). It can create a close connection between the reader and the narrating character, and it can create some interesting effects – in Room, for instance, the reader understands far more of what is going on than the narrator Jack does.

Some readers really dislike first person, so you may potentially limit your readership. It can be hard to do well: if your story relies on your main character overhearing conversations or intercepting letters, you might struggle to keep it convincing.

Third Person

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong—belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd.

(Graham Greene, first lines of Brighton Rock, Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Third person narration is at some distance from the characters. It can vary from almost as closely linked as first person (with the narrative using the character’s turn of phrase and including their thoughts) – or it can be distant and impartial, as if seen by a god-like observer. These are known as “limited” and “omniscient” third person. In practice, most fiction falls somewhere between the extremes.

It’s usual in third person novels for multiple perspectives to be given – usually either with several “limited” views from different characters’ vantage points, and potentially with some “omniscient” narration too.

Third person is probably the most conventional choice, and works well if you have a wide cast of characters.

For many authors, the choice between first and third is automatic: one or the other simply feels right for your story. If you’re struggling to decide, try drafting the same scene in first person then in third person – which seems to work better?

Second Person

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.

(Italo Calvino, first lines of If on a winter’s night a traveller – Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Very little fiction is written with “you” as the main character. It’s sometimes used for experimental short stories, as well as for “choose your own adventure” books (remember those?), but it’s unlikely to be a good choice for anything else.

There are, however, some literary / experimental novels written in the second person, like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (quoted above).

I read Charles Stross’ Halting State a few years back, which is written from three second-person viewpoints. (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk). This fits with the subject matter of the novel – text-based virtual worlds tend to use “you” – but I found it a distracting irritation, and it’s now pretty much all I remember about the book.

If you do want to give second person a go, use it for a short story, and don’t just do it for the sake of it – have a narrative reason for making the reader the protagonist.

 

As well as deciding on first or third (or maybe second) person, you’ll need to choose whether to tell the story in the past or present tense. (I’ve never read a story written in future tense – if you know of any examples, tell me in the comments!)

Past Tense

Police officers, as a rule, don’t need an excuse to go to the pub, but one of the many non-excuses they have is the traditional end-of-probation booze-up when members of the shift get the brand new full constables completely hammered. To that end, Lesley and me were dragged across the Strand to the Roosevelt Toad and plied with alcohol until we were horizontal. That was the theory, anyway.

(Ben Aaranovitch, Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot), Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

Past tense is often seen as the “natural” storytelling tense, and it usually makes sense: after all, when we tell a story, we’re relating something that happened in the past, not something that’s ongoing.

It has the advantage of reading easily and smoothly: if you want readers not to notice your style and to get absorbed in the story, past tense is a good way to go – especially with third person narrative.

Present Tense

She laugh, dance a little happy jig waiting on me to get her out. I give her a good hug. I reckon she don’t get too many good hugs like this after I go home. Ever so often, I come to work and find her bawling in her crib, Miss Leefolt busy on the sewing machine rolling her eyes like it’s a stray cat stuck in the screen door.

(Kathryn Stockett, The Help, Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk)

The present tense is often seen as a more literary choice, though there’s nothing stopping you using it for commercial / genre fiction. For the reader, it can make the story seem more immediate, but it also risks feeling slightly “off”.

Present tense is more commonly used for first-person than third-person narratives, and might be tricky to pull off in a third-person novel. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t do it, but give it a bit of thought before committing yourself.

(One quick word of caution: some writers find that they accidentally switch between past and present tense without meaning to. Make sure you choose one and stick with it!)

 

So … what’s right for your short story or novel?

If you don’t know what to pick, third person, past tense will (usually) be the easiest to work with.

If you’re writing a mainstream or genre novel, you’ll probably want to use past tense. Third person or first person can both work well, but unless you have a main character with a strong or unusual voice, I’d recommend third person.

If you’re writing literary or experimental fiction, and particularly if you’re writing a short story rather than a novel, any viewpoint (even second-person) and either tense can work. However, try to have a reason for your choice: don’t go for an unusual viewpoint for the sake of it.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on viewpoint – especially if you’ve read novels with unusual viewpoints (or ones where the author’s choice really didn’t work for you). Drop a comment below!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth Maria Naranjo September 17, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Yes, I remember the choose your own adventure books, and I loved them! Whatever happened to those?
On POV, I like third person best unless, like you point out, the character has a unique voice and first person really lets them shine, or the narrator is unreliable. I have a difficult time with second person POV. It almost always feels gimmicky to me, but there are two examples I can think of where it’s perfect. One is that short story “How to Talk to a Hunter” by Pam Houston and the other is the collection by Laura Numeroff that includes “If You Give a Moose a Muffin.” Have you heard of those? Kitty will love them in grade school, they are so cute. :)
Present tense used to throw me off a little, but it’s getting so common I hardly notice anymore. I like both present and past tense.
I think I’ll check out that Italo Calvino book–thanks for the great examples. And maybe I can find some of those choose your own adventure books in a used book store . . . my daughter would like those.
Elizabeth Maria Naranjo’s last blog post ..800 Reasons to Submit Your Writing

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Ali September 18, 2013 at 5:00 pm

I read a lot of the Choose Your Own Adventures as a kid, and often picked them up second-hand — good luck finding some. :-) I’m know there are similar stories around that use hyperlinks for a similar effect (literary example here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afternoon,_a_story)

I agree on second person POV often feeling gimmicky. I hadn’t heard of either of those stories — thanks for pointing me their way! If You Give a Moose a Muffin looks very cute, and How to Talk to a Hunter looks kind of creepy. And they both use the future tense too … there we go, it is possible. :-)

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Elizabeth September 18, 2013 at 8:50 pm

You know, I never even thought about that–the future tense in those stories. I wonder if that’s the difference then; maybe I only like second person POV when it’s combined with the future tense.
Elizabeth’s last blog post ..800 Reasons to Submit Your Writing

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Alexander September 18, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Hi Ali. I have been following your posts for some time and purchased, but not yet used your book, on e publishing. The editors of our draft longer books and Calvin who checked the grammar, punctuation and spelling of our first book Ywnwab! – Autumn Story-book (published last Thursday), all say we jump around too much between tenses and points of view. Since reading John Braine’s book about writing and then reading his Room at the Top and living as Joe Lampton we have enjoyed writing in the first person present tense. We will now keep your post at hand when self editing to see if we can stray less … Best wishes Alexander.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Write-Novel-John-Braine/dp/0413315401/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379523932&sr=1-1&keywords=john+braine+writing+a+novel

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Room-At-Top-John-Braine/dp/0099445360/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1379524037&sr=1-1&keywords=john+braine+room+at+the+top

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Ali September 19, 2013 at 10:54 am

Thanks Alexander, and good luck with your future self-editing — a lot of writers struggle with keeping point of view and tenses consistent, so it’s definitely not just you!

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Joel D Canfield September 18, 2013 at 6:33 pm

I realized now that I have 5 or 6 works of fiction in progress that some demand first person, and some demand third, and I’ve never chosen, it just is.

Coming from a long (and broad) line of story tellers, I think that bit comes automatically.

What I haven’t experimented with is point of view. The main character’s view stays throughout. I need to experiment with something akin to Watson narrating Holmes, or Scout telling her father’s story.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Why Doesn’t “I’m Sorry” Mean “I’ll Fix It” ?

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Ali September 19, 2013 at 10:55 am

For me, Joel, the choice seems to be automatic too … though it’s almost always third-person (probably because that’s what I like to read!) I want to try experimenting with first-person narrators with a strong voice, though — and Scout, of course, is another great example of that.

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jiche September 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Hi,Ali…I stumbled upon your site today and so happy I did. I have so many questions about writing and resistance (or shall I say, procrastination). I haven’t written anything that’s worth publishing yet. I just want to write. Neither do I have background nor proper training in writing. Coming November I’m going to a Creative Writing class in Guildford,Surrey.

I remember scribbling short stories at age of ten, but never showed it to anyone mainly for two reasons:
first, I’m ashamed to let anyone know that I have this ideas going on in my mind, and secondly, I’m too afraid to be criticised.

Couple of months ago I just turned 40 and out of the blue my passion was rekindled, and the idea of writing to leave legacy to my kids is what eats me up nowadays.
Thank you so much for the informative articles you’re sharing. Please keep it up.

PS.
English is my second language.

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Ali October 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Thanks for the comment! I’m so pleased you found Aliventures. Best of luck with the Creative Writing class — hope it’s a lot of fun. :-)

I think the fear of criticism puts off a lot of writers. A lot of people find it’s easier (at least at first) to share their work with a class or workshop group, rather than with friends — it can be a bit weird to let friends / family into what’s going on inside your head!

Your English is excellent. :-)

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Vicki October 25, 2013 at 2:21 am

I’ve recently been reading the Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths http://www.ellygriffiths.co.uk/ruthgalloway.htm. They are written in third person present tense and at first I found it strange, it being a new combination for me. But it’s very well done and before long I forgot about it.

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jordan February 6, 2014 at 10:13 pm

What if you’ve settled on 3rd person POV, but aren’t sure how wide to cast your net? So far I’ve been telling the story as it follows my protagonist, without regard to other characters…almost like 1st Person in that the knowledge shared is limited to what my protag is experiencing and feeling, but told from an outside perspective.

Am I limiting myself? Are there any good theories/thoughts on if I should do some experimental expanding?

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Steve Eggleston September 14, 2014 at 5:25 am

I enjoyed your post, as I’ve found – and still find – tense and pov to be tricky. It seems that to analyze it while writing a book is to over-analyze it. Every time I start, I find myself entangled in words with a neck ache. My first fiction novel, “Conflicted,” will soon be published (10/1/14 if all goes as planned), and I wrote it in three different tenses and povs before I settled on the one that clearly worked better. I wrote my first draft without thinking about tense and pov in third person past tense; it was the natural way. But the story, a legal thriller set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, seemed slow and dull, like an book written for a prior generation who had quiet nights and time on their hands. So I re-wrote it in third person present tense, and still, it felt flat. Finally I wrote it in first person present tense progressive. Voila! It worked, or so I hope. The story is primarily about a main character, the detective, not the attorney, and his role and pov in the defense of the lawyer’s brother for killing his own law partner. Ergo, “Conflicted.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now I’m working on my second book, and I feel third person past tense is the natural route for its story. But that’s what I felt last time. In the end, the right tense will be what it is in the end. It’s a little like Carlos Castaneda looking for the right spot in the room on which to sit. He does not find the spot. The spot finds him. Or so it seems.

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Ho may gose October 14, 2014 at 1:45 am
Ho may gose October 14, 2014 at 1:48 am

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