Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

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