POV and Verb Tense

cartoon-eye-clip-art_424276Here’s what happens, you sit down to write a book and draft a few pages—just whatever comes to mind. If you’re like most writers, you use your instincts to decide which point of view to use, and which tense to write in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been writing for a few years and can do it instinctively. However, this method can be a bit risky. How do you know you’ve chosen the correct point of view? The correct verb tense?

Of course this presupposes there is a correct choice for each novel, for each story. And, while I’m sure a few will disagree with my thesis, I believe this is true. Sure, you can write a story in just about any point of view, any verb tense, but for each story, for each novel, I believe there is a RIGHT one.

How do you know which is right? Simple—what do you want to do with this work? Often, the right POV and tense may not present itself until completion of the first draft. But, if you’re concerned, try several different voices up front. Rewrite the first few pages, maybe even the first few chapters in different points of view. Instead of doing everything in past tense, try out first person present tense. For the purposes of illustration, I’ve decided to include a paragraph from the first page of a YA Urban Fantasy novel I did a couple years ago. Here, you’ll be able to see (and hear) the differences between the POVs and the verb tenses and the dramatic affect it has on the sound of the passage.

FIRST PERSON PRESENT TENSE: Here’s what it is to be me. You get this first story, and you’ll get the next. In sixth grade, Emma Shankerman tells me that you can tell how good a kisser someone is by the way they say “uvas.” Spanish for grapes. The minute I hear it, I’m marching toward Jennifer East, a girl who makes super models weep in envy. She’s in seventh grade, but already I can see her on the big screen. But I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about showing her, the most beautiful girl in Thomas Jefferson Middle School, what a great kisser I am.

FIRST PERSON PAST TENSE: To know me, you first need to understand this story. In sixth grade, Emma Shankerman told me that you could tell how good a kisser someone was by they way they said “uvas,” the Spanish word for grapes. The minute I heard it, I marched to Jennifer East, a girl who made super models weep in envy. Already in seventh grade, I could see her on the big screen. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about showing her, the most beautiful girl in Thomas Jefferson Middle School, what a great kisser I was.

THIRD PERSON PAST TENSE: To know Monday Asher, you first need to understand this story. In sixth grade, Emma Shankerman told him that you could tell how good a kisser someone was by the way they said “uvas,” the Spanish word for grape. The minute he heard it, he marched to Jennifer East, a girl who made super models weep in envy. Already in seventh grade, he could see her on the big screen. But he wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking about showing her, the most beautiful girl in Thomas Jefferson Middle School, what a great kisser he was.

THIRD PERSON PRESENT TENSE: To know Monday Asher, you first need to understand this story. In sixth grade, Emma Shankerman tells him that you can tell how good a kisser someone is by the way they say “uvas,” the Spanish word for grape. The minute he hears it, he marches to Jennifer East, a girl who makes super models weep in envy. Already, in seventh grade, he can see her on the big screen. But he’s not thinking about that. He’s thinking about showing her, the most beautiful girl in Thomas Jefferson Middle School, what a great kisser he is.

Though I’d like to include an example of second person here, I’ll refrain, as most writers eschew the troublesome (but fun to read) point of view.

Did you hear the differences? Subtle as they are, I’m sure you picked up on them. Third person provides more  of a cushion between the reader and the character. First person lets the reader slip behind Monday’s eyes. Present tense makes the story more immediate, as if the action is currently happening. Past tense makes it feel more set in stone, as if it can’t be changed.

For this story, I liked the feel of the first person present tense. It was the first voice I tried, and the others didn’t feel right, didn’t seem to encompass the feel I was wanting to evoke. As limiting as first person can be (especially for an ensemble cast, which is what I was aiming for in this book), it was the right choice. It best conveyed Monday’s mind, unfiltered.

15 Comments on POV and Verb Tense

  1. Interesting thoughts! I instinctively turn to first person but I believe the new series I’m starting will need to be third person…

  2. Good post. Third person past tense is my favorite to write, but that probably stems from me being a stubborn fantasy nerd.
    Thanks for the examples of what each POV sounds like, since it seems like a lot of people are confused by that nowadays.

  3. I usualy write in first person past tence. I don’t know why, I think its because I feel more conected to the character and thier relationships with others.

  4. Katelyn Haeckel | September 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply

    I usually tend to right in first person present tence or third person present tence, probably because it’s easier for me, but after reading this and seeing the different examples I will most likely try other ways of writing.

  5. When I write a story I usually write in first person. I can’t write good in second, but in third. I like writing in first because it is kind of like I’m the character and I’m writing what I would do in that situation.

  6. Miranda Almeida | September 4, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply

    I like writing in first person passed tense because it’s like I’m the character, and I can imagine being the character more clearly when I write in first person passed tense.

  7. I usually write in first person past tense but I will sometimes transfer over to third person past tense to explain another charecter’s feelings and emotions.

  8. I usually tend to stick with First person, possibly because that’s all i really know how to do. Third person sounds a lot better and stronger, so switching my writing up could be a good thing.

  9. I usually write in a past tense 3rd person view because it is a little easier to write like that for the reason that i am use to it

  10. Hailee-Brooke Stewart | September 13, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply

    I feel like i tend to write in first person quite often, but after reading this post i think im going ton try and switch it up a bit, by writing in third person. It seems easy and alot of fun!<3 Thank you

  11. Kristin Brittner | September 13, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply

    I always used to use third person past tense, but then decided to expiriment with other P.O.Vs. Now I randomly start switching around if I don’t pay attention and I have to go back… I need to work on that. lol

  12. when i write i write in the first person because i like to mess with that one characters emotion and build that one character from the ground up

  13. Hmm.. I’m almost always using third person past tense; mostly because I have trouble with any other method. Well written examples like these can teach a lesson on their own.

  14. i usually sitch it up depending on what would make the story better. If it sounds better in third person rather than in first perons and vice versa i think thats how it should be.

  15. I prefer 1st person but ever since you introduced me to 2nd person, I really like it. I will try to stretch my abilities.

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