When I first renewed my love of writing fiction several years ago, I had a nasty tendency to write in first person, present tense point of view.
I didn’t do it deliberately–that was simply the way the words came out.
It was only once I discovered first person, present tense is considered risky that I had to stop and ask myself why I was using it. Or, for that matter, why I would choose any particular point of view or tense.
One blogging literary agent says:
…[P]resent tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.
I knew I needed a better reason than, “First person, present tense just comes naturally.” I had to ask myself:
- What do I want to achieve with this story?
- What point of view is going to help me best achieve that?
- What tense is going to be most appropriate?
Books are written in either:
- First person, present tense: I stand and walk toward the door.
- First person, past tense: I stood and walked toward the door.
- Second person, present tense: You stand and walk toward the door.
- Second person, past tense: You stood and walked toward the door.
- Third person, present tense: She stands and walks toward the door.
- Third person, past tense: She stood and walked toward the door.
Third person POV can also be limited, objective, or omniscient, depending on the narrator’s level of awareness of characters’ thoughts and actions.
Third person limited, past tense, and first person, past tense seem to be the most commonly used.
But, if you ask anyone, “What is the best point of view to use for my novel?” you’re likely to get an answer something like this:
You should use whatever point of view and whatever tense helps you tell your story in the best possible way.
It doesn’t matter so much what comes naturally to you, but what feels natural to your story, and what will feel natural to your reader.
To Revise, or Not to Revise?
When I started my current work-in-progress, it began as first person, present tense narration. After a few thousand words and a quick slap on the wrist, I decided to change to third person limited, past tense. It seemed less risky, and while I continued to write, I was confident I’d made the right decision.
I began to notice that nearly every book I picked up in the same genre (to the one I’m writing) was written in first person, past tense. Still, I stuck to my guns and continued writing. Third person limited was right for me.
Recently, I returned from a long break from my first draft and had a good, hard look at it. What I see now is not what I saw when I began writing. The third person narration feels too distant for what I’m trying to achieve, but I also don’t want to fall into the I, I, I trap reserved for writers of first person.
I don’t have a clear answer at the moment, but I’m trialling different points of view with small excerpts from my draft to help me make the decision.
One thing I am sure about, though: I won’t be using present tense again for this project.
Please take a moment to share your thoughts on the following:
- Which POV comes most naturally to you?
- Which genres do you think best suit first/third person narration?
- Are there points of view you refuse to use or read, and why?
- How do you make the decision on which POV to use?
Join the discussion
The Author-In-Training says
I recently went through this process with my latest piece. Luckily, I have a writer friend that has agreed to pre-read my work and provide critique.
Limited third person – past tense, feels the most natural to me, but I challenge myself to do practice pieces in first person-past or present tense. I think first person-present is the most powerful, if the author can handle it well.
I think the POV used shouldn’t be dictated by the genre, but I can see where certain stories would benefit most from certain specific POV’s.
The choice of POV has never played a role in my decision making process for reading something. The major factor for me is whether or not the piece captures my attention.
In my last quandry about what POV to use, I originally wrote the piece in limited third-person – past tense. Then when I began revising, I made two versons in first person, one in past tense, and the other in present tense. That’s when my writer friend came in and told me how she felt about each version. I decided to go with first person-past tense.
Thank you for bringing up this topic. I found it difficult searching for resources while I was trying to make my decision. Hopefully it helps others in the same situation.
Hey, thanks for your comment. Like you say, “If the author can handle it well,” first person-present tense can be really effective. I think that holds for any POV or tense. If it’s not done well, it’s not effective. Guess we all have a lot of practice ahead of us!
I’m glad to hear you settled on a POV. All the best with your writing!
It’s funny that you posted this now, because I’m struggling with this very issue right now. In the past, I’ve mainly written third person limited, which is standard for my genre and also seems to come naturally to me.
However, my WIP has been coming out a “hot mess”: it’s all first person, but some scenes have felt “right” in past tense, others in present tense. For a while, I kept trying to find a tense, and then finally said, “Screw it. That’s what first drafts are for.” I’m just plowing through and I’ll fix it on revision.
Who knows? On revision, it may end up third person. 🙂
I’m so glad this has been timely for you! I’ve experienced the same thing–some scenes do well in 1st person, some do better in 3rd person. It’s all very complicated, isn’t it?
Hopefully we’ll both figure it out soon, though! Thanks.
Jamie D. says
I have a super-hard time getting into reading a 1st person narrative, always have. Feels like the story’s being told to me, rather than being able to put myself in the story. I realize I’m in the minority, but for that fact alone, I rarely read 1st person, and when I do, it’s always because someone I “know” wrote it. If I don’t know the author and see it’s a 1st pers. narrative, I won’t buy it. Just personal preference.
I write romance – and all of my writing is 3rd pers. limited. (past tense). I like having more than one perspective, and normally write from at least the 2 main chars POV. Though I am playing with some 2nd pers./present tense “choose your own” plots in another genre.
If you write and read a lot of romance, it’s understandable that you’re more into 3rd person. I read a lot of 3rd person omniscient during my university days, since that’s more typical of classic literature. However, I’m often put off by omniscient narrators in modern literature because it feels out of place to me. Thanks!
I’m about two thirds of the way through Suzanne Collins Mockingjay, the last of the Hunger Games trilogy, which was done entirely in first person present. She does a wonderful job and I really like the series. That being said, it’s never come naturally to my writing. I feel like all of my stories are something that have already happened and I’m simply relaying the details. But, that’s me…and it’s also the ideas I’ve had so far. I imagine there might be a time when I’ll have to strongly consider person and tense, but until then, I’ll judge trudge along with old reliable third, past.
I’ve heard that about present tense–that people feel it doesn’t work because the story should have already happened. I’ve seen it done really well in short stories. I once read a novel that was 3rd person present, which I found annoying.
Stina Lindenblatt says
I write YA in which first person present is common.
My wip was in first person past tense, but an author at the SCBWI LA conference critted the first 15 pages and told me to rewrite it in present tense. She felt it would solve a problem I was having. She was right, plus it worked well for the story, which is a romantic suspense. Present tense adds to the suspense.
Whatever works, works! I don’t think anyone can tell you to never use a specific point of view. They can only caution that some are harder to pull off than others, I suppose. Good luck!
It depends on the story. I rewrote the first thirty pages of one story (fantasy) 4 TIMES: third, first, third and finally stuck with first. I prefer first, but it depends on the genre and the type of story you are conveying. Writing picture books in first person wouldn’t work, but when the reader enters the ego-centric world of me, me, me, then first person really reaches it’s stride. I don’t think I would enjoy reading a historical romance in first person–it wouldn’t feel right.
First person can be limiting though, which is why using it depends on the story. I do not like stories that are in multiple first person. I don’t want to be confused when I’m reading and this style does it to me every time! First and third works best if you have to slip in another POV.
Interesting comment on using 1st and 3rd if you have to slip into another POV. I was toying with the idea of doing just that, but I don’t recall ever having seen it done. Any reading suggestions where I could see an example of that? Thanks.
Erika Liodice says
I’ve been struggling with this same issue lately. My current manuscript is written in first person, past tense and I’ve been trying to gauge if I should switch to present tense. It’s helpful to know that this may be “risky”; I think I’ll stick my original POV.
Great post! Thanks!
I say present tense is risky only because I’ve read a lot of advice that says it’s really difficult to pull off well. Plus, I’ve heard that it seems to go in cycles. Agents sometimes say they get a deluge of submissions written in present tense, so perhaps it’s a trend that perks up every now and again. I definitely like to write in present tense, but I’m leaning away from it until I get more experience under my belt.
I write in 3rd person limited, past tense. I always have just because it’s more natural. But your post has me wondering…it sounds like thinking of the why behind my style would be a useful exercise.
You’re right, Cam. I think a writer is usually pretty safe with 3rd person limited, past tense, but it’s still good to make sure you’re using the most appropriate POV and tense for whatever project you happen to be working on. Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Benison O'Reilly says
Great post Suzannah. Struggling with this one myself at the moment. My published novel is 1st person, past tense. It came really naturally to me, but at this stage I’m leaning towards 3rd person, past tense (& probably limited) POV for my next. Recently read The Bride Stripped Bare, which is written in second person, past tense. It creates in a really distinctive voice, but I think it’s a POV only to be attempted by a skilled operator!
Hope you enjoyed your trip back home.
Hey Benison! Nice to see even published novelists still struggle with this issue. The nice thing is we’re notlimited to using the same POV or tense each time–in fact, I think we should try to mix it up when appropriate. Like you say, second person can be done really well, but it would take a very skilled writer. Thanks!
I definitely think it’s a matter of what the story needs. That being said, I don’t usually write in first person. I get a little carried away with characters and I like being able to get into everyone’s head…which might be why I never finish anything.
As for present tense/past tense…again, it really depends on the story but my natural tendency is past tense. I’ve even done a few short pieces in 2nd person.
I will admit, as a reader, I’ve gotten a little tired of picking up a book and reading first person–that seems to be all that’s written anymore.
I find first person annoying when all you ever hear is I, I, I. But, I also don’t like third person in cases where I want to feel I’m actually in the main character’s shoes. Sometimes I don’t notice third person at all, and sometimes it makes me feel very distanced. I suppose it all depends on the type of story and the writer’s skills 🙂
Kelvin Kao says
If I write from second person’s point of view, I feel like I am writing a script for those meditation audio tapes… “You are walking on a beautiful field. Suddenly you see a bright light. You feel your body light as a feather and you float into the sky. You smell the fragrance of flowers and you feel relaxed and happy.”… which would make me think “wait, would people really want to be told what they are feeling?”
Great point! I don’t care for second person, either, although I’m sure it can be done well by the right person.
Claire King says
Great article. My novel in query is first person present tense, and so far so good with the query process. I deliberated a lot about it though, you can see my own post on using this tense here: http://www.claire-king.com/2010/09/08/first-person-present-tense/
I wrote quite a few short stories as I was revising my novel, and so used mainly first person present tense too, partly because it was top of my mind but also because I think it works well in shorts.
My second novel, just in its early stages will be first person past tense.
As you say, it depends on what you are trying to achieve with the story you’re righting. I certainly wouldn’t not read something just because of its POV, unless of course the way it was used was clumsy.
I agree, Claire–present tense works well in short stories. Glad to hear all is going well with your querying!
In my current novel, I am using third person, past tense, limited perspective. At one time I thought of changing the whole thing to first person, past tense, but that was well after I’d written three drafts. While first person feels more intimate sometimes, I think third person has been the best choice for this story.
As for other stories, I have used first person, past tense quite a bit. I’ve found that I tend to gravitate more toward that voice for more “real world” stories, while my fantasy stories tend to stay third person. Perhaps that will change, someday, but I don’t know at this point.
As for what POV I prefer in my reading, I have to say that I don’t really have a preference. I’ll read any POV in any of the genres. I think the POV is right based on the character and their story, not necessarily the genre.
I don’t really have a preference in reading, either. But, I often hear people say they hate first person and won’t generally read it. I feel whatever works, works! Thanks.
I know what you mean. One begins to feel like an egomaniac. One suggestion I read was to somehow couch the “I” word in some other part than the very beginning.
i typed in third person and they gave me this but your not giving anough information for wat im lookin for…….ps i dont like this site sorry
Which I first attempted a novel, I wrote in first person because it was like a nonfiction written in fiction. I believe it all depends on the story and how you want to present it. It shouldn’t matter what tense its written in as long its a good story and the point gets across. I’ve read a book called Acheron by Sherrilyn Kenyon that was wriiten with a first person beginning and third person from middle to end. So you can mix it up to tell the story which is really fun to read.
Lisa Combs says
I most often write in 3rd/past. This POV allows me freedom to move in and out with my characters creating a path for the reader to follow. I am often tempted to write in 1st/present but it jams me up in offering the reader insight to other characters.
Dialogue is always a big part of my writing. This allows personal interaction between characters, revealing traits that let the reader get to know the characters. Tags for speakers drive me nuts though.