POV & Tense

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A key ingredient in the recipe of your novel is POV (point of view) and tense. This is the perspective from which your story will be told, and how you tell it can make a huge impact on how readers engage with the story.


The most common combination in fiction is third person, past tense. You can have third person omniscient--where the narrator knows what every character is thinking/feeling and shows all of those perspectives in the story. More common in effective and commercial fiction is third person close, which means you stay in the head and tell the perspective of a single, main character (or a few characters, if writing multi-POV).

Pro to third person: Third enables a writer to describe more than just what the main character(s) see, making it a great perspective to aid worldbuilding and setting.

Caveat to third person: Third person can be distancing and less engaging, depending on how it is used/wielded. It takes a lot of skill and craft to infuse third person with strong voice.

Most common in YA fiction: First person present or past tense.

Pro to first person: First person is immediate, and an ideal perspective for getting "inside the head" of a character. Everything that happens in the narrative is through the character's eyes.

Caveat to first person: First person can be a crutch for lazy or novice writers. It's easy to write everything from a first person perspective--you can basically describe everything that is happening in straight-forward, "I" driven sentences. First person can easily devolve into telling, have too much navel-gazing, and be limited on description. There are also narrative constrictions when it comes to worldbuilding.

Past tense vs. Present tense: this is all about your verbs. Past tense: "She walked to school." Present tense: "She walks to school."

Past tense is the "invisible" tense--it is the most common used in storytelling, and thus readers are used to it.

Present tense can be more immediate because the reader is with the character as things are happening. However, present tense can be less organic and more jarring.

I'm going to be completely honest: I do not care for first person, present tense most of the time. It's lazy writing + jarring tense = I keep falling out of the story. Yet, it's a tense that be used to great affect by a skilled writer. Stories that are driven by high stakes and lots of action, especially thrillers, are well-served by first person present tense. My favorite example is my go-to exception: THE HUNGER GAMES. Collins employs first person, present tense with incredible skill--it feels immediate, personal yet detailed and dynamic. No lazy writing there.

My favorite combination for YA is first person, past tense. You get the immediacy with the "invisible" tense. I also LOVE third person past, especially third person close, and feel it is often the best choice for fantasy stories. Libba Bray, one of my favorite YA authors, often uses third person past tense.

Third person present tense is a thing, but I find it jarring to read. Bless you if you can master it. Let's not even talk about second person.

You should choose the POV and tense that feels most organic to your story, and to you as a writer. When you're starting a story, if you're not sure which approach to take, you can try writing your opening scene in different ways. See which one you like best. Get a feel for how changing the POV/tense impacts how you tell the story. There are subtle differences.

As an example, here is the opening passage of my debut BRIGHTLY BURNING. BB is told in first person past tense (just like Jane Eyre!), but for this exercise, I've transposed it into other POVs/tenses.

First person, past tense (ORIGINAL)


The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that was my protein ration for the day wasted.

First person, present tense


The gravity stabilizers are failing again. I glance up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmer red like droplets of blood, though I know it's just cherry flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that's my protein ration for the day wasted.

Third person, past tense


The gravity stabilizers were failing again. Stella glanced up from her sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from her drinking glass. They shimmered red like droplets of blood, though she knew it was just cherry flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that was her protein ration for the day wasted.


Honestly, they're each fairly similar. I opted against first person, present simply because I don't enjoy writing it. I LOVE third person close, but made the choice to stick with first person here because part of what made the original Jane Eyre feel so immediate was first person. Later on in the book, first person would also give me more freedom to play out the mystery and romantic tension elements in a specific way. I wanted the reader to know only as much as my main character, Stella, could know in the moment, and I wanted to play with internal narrative a lot.

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