Being a Better Writer: Tense and PoV Choice for Your Story

Welcome back from your weekend, everyone! I hope you had an enjoyable one, especially as looking at the numbers from the Anniversary MEGA-Sale, quite a few of you were reading Dead Silver and Unusual Events! Don’t forget to leave reviews! On Amazon, Goodreads, both, or even elsewhere!

Now then, it’s a new week, so that means (obviously, by this point) that it’s time for a new BaBW post. And this week, once again, we’re going to be looking at a topic request from a reader. Which is, in this case, a question of Tense and PoV use.

Now, we’ve actually discussed this a little bit before, talking about perspectives and the differences between the different types of PoV (Points of View, for those confused at the moment). So I’m not going to rehash that here (after all, you can click that link). But that’s not what this reader wanted me to do anyway. No, they had a different question in mind. In the aforelinked and mentioned article, I’d discussed that it was up to you, the writer, to decide which PoV to use and where. And this reader wanted a little help with that. They wanted to know how they were supposed to choose.

So today, we’re going to talk a little bit about that. And, granted, I don’t expect it to be that long of a post, because the answer is both simple and not … the trick being that the “and not” portion is mostly on you, the writer. If you’re looking for me to tell you “this is the better choice for your story,” I can tell you right now you’re not going to get that, because I don’t know your story (and that’s not an invitation to begin messaging me hundreds of story ideas and asking how to write them, just to be clear). I can give you a little bit of nudging in the right direction, but in the end I can’t really give a “proper” answer to which one you should use because it’s not my story.

Outside of “Don’t use second-person,” anyway. 99.999% of times, that is the right answer. In fact, unless you’re ghost-writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book, just don’t use second person, all right? Safer for all of us that way (also, don’t think you’ll be the one to buck the system, you likely won’t be).

Oh, and just in case, here’s that link to the piece on perspectives again. If you haven’t read it, you probably should do so now.

Past Versus Future Tense: Which Should I Use?

All right, so before we jump into the part of the discussion on perspectives, let’s talk about tense for a moment (that’ll give you time to digest things), starting with a simple question: which is best for what you’re writing?

Past. There you go. Answer over.

Okay, maybe you want more. Maybe you’re still a little iffy on past and present tense. Fair enough. So then, here’s a sentence in past tense:

Samantha picked up the die and rolled it in her hand.

Right. Now here’s that sentence in present tense:

Samantha picks up the die and rolls it in her hand.

The entire story (every sentence) will be like that.

Personally, I can’t stand present tense, likely for one of the most common problems with it: A lack of chronology. Or in layman’s terms, it has serious problems with establishing a good timeline.

Why? Well, in past tense writing, you’re setting things up in a A to B style. Stuff happens, which leads to stuff, which leads to stuff. You might even rearrange or reword a few things for prose reasons, but overall you get a very clear progression when writing past tense: this happened, and then this, then this, the final result.

Present tense, on the other hand, doesn’t do that. There’s no A to B style from sentence to sentence. Each sentence is A. A thing happens. Another thing happens. This thing happens. Then this happens. Each one is A, none of them are B.

Now, I won’t say that present tense doesn’t come with some unique capabilities. It’s an immediate style of reading for the reader (again, that “everything happens in the now,” approach). Everything is presented to the reader as if it’s happening that exact instant. And for some that’s a trait worth pursuing. This in turn can, in some cases, make the book feel more like the events of someone’s life and less like a retelling of such. It can also capture the feel of “moment-to-moment” life very well. Flow is never broken. Point A, point A, point A, ad infinitum.

At the same time … it loses a lot of things that Past tense has little issue with. A chronology of events, for example. Present tense also has trouble giving descriptions of events, scenes, and characters, something Present tense cannot do because it can’t stop to dwell on something near as easily, and when it does, the description and focus can start to feel jarring. Present tense gives the impression of events being related, distilled into needed components that are mentioned … but cannot focus on them in the same way.

Ultimately, kind of like writing in second-person, writing in present tense isn’t going to be something you do a lot of. Most of the time (as in, 99% of the time or more), you’re going to be writing in past tense.

A Side Not on Past Tense versus Present Tense

There’s one thing I feel I must mention before I move on, and it’s important enough to give it its own context. Past tense can be used for both stories that are happening currently and happened some time prior. You do not need to use present tense to write a story that is happening “as you read it.” Past tense can be used for both the story that took place six years ago and the story that is taking place as you read it. Past tense is flexible like this. In fact, past tense is flexible enough that SUPER MODEL switches from one to the other, the story starting in the past when the main character is six as a retelling, and then gradually morphing into a current account by the end. This is a flexibility you cannot achieve with present tense (you could perhaps mimic something similar … but only by cheating and mixing past tense with present through dialog and don’t try that until you really know what you’re doing please).

First-Person Versus Third-Person PoV

Right, so moving on from tense, what about First and Third person?

Okay, again, this is a short answer: You need to use the one that works best with your story. Which one is that? Well, you’ll have to decide. Again, in reading the perspective’s piece you should have gotten an idea of what each one does and how it works … the trick for you now is to put that into practical effect with your writing.

I chose first-person with One Drink for two reasons at the time. One, because I’d never really written anything that was first-person before and wanted to give it a shot. Two, and more importantly, because the story was a Detective Noir, and that genre to me neededthe iconic “I walked down the street, coat turned up against the cold” style monologue because it’s part of that genre. Hence, first-person. I wanted that evocative, running monologue in the narration.

Monthly Retreat, on the other hand, was almost a first-person story, but I ended up making it a third-person story because I wanted the reader to be looking in at Alma’s life from the outside. I weighed the pros and cons of first versus third and decided that the external, third-person viewpoint would be stronger because it showed the reader the struggle Alma was going through better, rather than letting her narrate that struggle. The narrative “camera” (if you’ve read that other article, which again I’ll reiterate, do if you have not) was in spot that let you see more of what went on around her as a result of her new condition and changes and her actions/reactions. This in turn made the reader work a little bit more than a first-person view would have, and made the story a stronger piece.

Third-person I also find is better for sweeping adventures where I want to use multiple viewpoints, because switching from scene to scene becomes easier to convey to the reader (hence why a lot of first-person stories that use multiple viewpoints will head their sections with the character’s name).

Look, obviously most any story can be written in either viewpoint. I could go back and invert everything I’ve ever written if I wanted to.One Drink and Dead Silver into third-person mysteries. I could make Flash Point, Monthly Retreat, and even Colony into first-person adventures. Crud, even something like Beyond the Borderlands.

But that doesn’t mean they’d be better. I chose the viewpoints I did for those stories because they allowed me to set the look and scopewhere I wanted them to be because it made for a better story. And you, as you try to decide which to use, will need to ask yourself what writing each type for your story would achieve, and what one makes for the better story. What is important to the story that you want to convey, and what perspective will suit it best? Would your story be made stronger by the narrative directness that first-person brings, or would it be better looking at the world from a third-person lens that follows one, two, or more characters around?

Look at the viewpoint that does best to convey the story you want to tell in the manner you want to tell it.

Limited Versus Omniscient

Right, pretty much the same thing here. You’re going to want to choose the one that works best with the story.

For instance, I tend to almost wholeheartedly use limited, because I like limited. I like mystery. I like to have characters pay attention alongside the readers, to be lost in a tense moment. And there are things you just can’t do in omniscient stories that you can do in limited ones … like conceal a secret. In an omniscient story, all secrets are open for the narrator to explain and tell, so if they don’t, then they’re just withholding them from you simply for narrative tension. A limited story, on the other hand, they know as little as you do.

Now, you can blur the lines here a bit. SUPER MODEL, as pointed out earlier, starts out with a retelling before catching up to the modern day … and it should be pointed out that the retelling is a bit omniscient. The narrator drops in tidbits of expository detail that she didn’t know at the time, but knows at the current moment, making the first third or so of the story somewhat omniscient. Only when it catches up does the omniscient narration stop, because she’s now caught the reader up to everything she knows, and therefore is just as in the dark as the reader for the rest of the story.

Ultimately, this really comes down, I feel, to what kind of story you want to write. As I said, I like to do a lot of mystery with what I write, a lot of unknowns and tense moments. This makes a limited perspective far more natural than an omniscient one that would spoil the narrative. And omniscient narrative on the other hand, is often used in things like retellings (or fairy tales) where the point of the story is to convey the events and the mystery isn’t as much of a concern.

And yes, you can screw this up. While I have not read it (so I’m only repeating what I was told), a number of my heavy-reader friends who read the final book in the Divergent series (upcoming spoiler alert) were completely off-put by the fact that the omniscient, first-person narrator who is telling the story about herself tells it right up to the moment she dies … which raised all sorts of questions about the book itself (for example, who’s telling it if the main character and narrator is dead)?

However, props go to another book that also did something like this, Monster Hunter Vendetta, because it wove that death itself into the narrative as a device (as well as what came after) so that the story still made sense at the end.

Again, at the end of the day, it’s your call as to what kind of story you want to tell, and what serves it better.

One last note, however. A common theme I’ve seen among young writers is to pick omniscient narration (or worse, pinball between limited and omniscient in the same story and sometimes the same paragraph) so that they can “tell” you about the world or explain a topic or event. You’ll have a paragraph where a character will say something to another character that needs context … and then instead of showing you that context through use of internal voice or character-centered narration, the paragraph will suddenly go omniscient and tell you outright the contextual information.

Be wary of this. It’s a habit you’ll want to break if you’re going to write limited perspective. As you get better, and your skills increase, it’ll become easier to educate the reader without slipping outside your preferred narrative type.

End

So, at the end of the day, which is best for you? Past or present? First or third? Limited or omniscient?

It’s your call. In order to make that choice, weigh the pros and cons of each choice. Understand each choice too. Experiment in each to see what they offer. Read books in each to see how they approach certain scenarios and ideas.

And, in time, you’ll start to connect the dots without thinking about it. You’ll look at a story idea and think “past, third-person, limited,” or “past, first, limited.” You’ll see what it offers you as the writer and in turn, can do for the reader.

Good luck. Now get to it.

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