How to choose POINT OF VIEW and TENSE

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The point of view (POV) and tense you write your story in is an element most beginning writers tend to forget about. Depending on how they're used, they'll add or take away from the story. Before you start writing, you should put a bit of thought into which tense and point of view you want to write your story in. There is never any right or wrong tense/POV to write your story in, and good writers can pull of writing the same story in any tense/POV. There are pros and cons to each that might help the story be told more easily or more effectively, but it's really up to you which you choose. Here, I'll discuss the pros and cons and the general instances where you might want to use each, but this is never concrete or absolute, so cater your choice to your story specifically.

POINTS OF VIEW

1st person: This is when the story is told through a character's eyes and the words “I”, “We”, “My”, and “Us” are used. The Catcher in the Rye was written in 1st person.

1st person can be used to get very deep and personal with a single character. If your story has a single protagonist, this might be a good choice. This is a tense that can help build a deep relationship between your reader and the protagonist. It's my personal favorite to write in because I love exploring personal emotions with my stories. Warning: if you want to write in 1st person, your protagonist needs to have an exceptionally unique and interesting voice. Since 1st person is only limited to a single character, if that character isn't present during a major event, the readers will miss out on it.

2nd person: This is when the protagonist is talking directly to the reader and uses the words “You” and “Your” are used. The Choose Your Own Adventure books were written in 2nd person.

Novels usually aren't written in 2nd person. This is a tense generally reserved for poetry and short stories because it's awkward to read for a prolonged period of time. This is a good tense to use if your story is written in letters or phone conversations or something like that. Otherwise, for a normal novel, you should avoid 2nd person.

3rd person: This is when the narrator is not a character in the story. This is the traditional storytelling point of view using words like “He”, “She”, “His”, and “Her”.

3rd person can be broken down into two divisions:

-3rd person limited is very similar to 1st person, only the pronoun “I” is never used. The story follows a single character (unless the point of view changes, which I'll cover later), and all narration is told through their eyes. Eragon was written in 3rd person limited.

-3rd person omniscient has the “all-knowing” narrator, a god of the story if you will. This narrator knows everything about everyone and all the history. The Lord of the Rings series was written in 3rd person omniscient.

3rd person is what most authors tend to utilize. It sounds more natural to read. Omniscient is a good perspective for very complicated plots and large casts of characters. Fantasy novels often utilize 3rd person omniscient because it allows the readers to get a full picture of the world and history. For example, the protagonist might not be present while an important event is happening. If the story were written in 1st person or 3rd person limited, the readers would've missed out on this event. With omniscient, the narrator can get into every character's head at once. It's not a very personal POV, and if there are a lot of characters, it'll be hard for the reader to get emotionally invested with each one, or the author will tend to lean toward certain characters, and they become more developed than others, so be careful how you invest your time among the characters.

3rd person tends to be used for complex plots and is more plot-focused, whereas 1st person is geared more toward emotions and thoughts and is more character-focused.

As I mentioned, any story can be told with any POV, but some would be more effective for certain situations. For high fantasy, you'll probably want to use 3rd person, but then here I am using 1st because I'm stubborn and like creating an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist, rather than focus on the world and plot (and that's my own shortcoming, so don't fall into that, my lovely readers).

CHANGING POVs

If you have two or more protagonists, 3rd person might be your best bet. Only really good writers can handle switching between two or more POVs in 1st person. This is because in first person, each character is required to have unique voices, and beginning writers tend to write all their characters with the same voice. The readers may get confused on whose POV they are currently reading, especially if the POV changes frequently. If all the protagonists sound the same, they'll get muddled together, and that's not good. In 3rd person, the voice will remain the same for all the characters, but we'll know exactly who the focus is because their names will be used. In first person, it's all “I”, so the distinction between characters might get confusing.

Once again, this isn't concrete. Due to my stubbornness, I'm writing a high fantasy series in 1st person with multiple protagonists and switching POVs between them. Theoretically, that is the worst choice of POV for that situation, but I'm still doing it. Why? I like first person. End of story.

Choose the POV you're most comfortable writing with, because if you were writing in 1st person for years and then you suddenly force yourself to write 3rd person omniscient, the writing will come out clunky and forced and unnatural (unless you're just awesome. Then ignore this). Writing in 1st person and 3rd person are completely different. It's almost like learning a new language. In first person, it's very possible to cheat the narration. In 3rd person omniscient, cheating the narration doesn't exist because the narrator knows everything. Practice with each POV and find the one you like best.

If you're still unsure which POV to use, pick a scene or a chapter in your story and write it in all the different POVs. See which one suits the story the best.

TENSE

Past: The natural storytelling tense. This is the one most commonly used.

One thing to keep in mind is how far in the past are the events happening in terms of when the narrator is telling them. Is the narrator recounting something that happened to them years ago or just seconds ago? The writing will be tweaked for each instance because if the events happened long ago, the narrator should be all-knowing about what's going on, so they'll have insight into future events that the protagonist at that moment in the story wouldn't know.

Present: This is being seen in writing a lot more recently. It's the popular choice when coupled with 1st person POV for stream-of-consciousness books. It's a bit awkward to read and write, which is why most people don't use it, but some authors can really pull it off like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. This is if you want your readers to really be in the moment with your character.

 This is kind of a side note, but you should NOT switch tenses in the story. Maybe if you have some type of time traveling character, but even then, switching tenses will confuse your readers. Write the entire story in either past or present. Maybe it can start in present, and then the character goes on to tell the story of the past (think of the movie Titanic), but that would really be the only instance where changing tenses is acceptable.

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