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?