POV and Tenses
Problems with POV tenses within fiction are common. We all slip up occasionally, shifting from tense to another in the narrative without realising. Even established authors do it, so don’t feel too bad.
Verb tense tells us when the action occurs - in the past, the present or the future. It also lets us whether the action was completed or is continuing.
Past tense is the narrator telling us what happened, since it happened in the past. Present tense is telling us the events as they happen, now. Future – well that’s self-explanatory, it’s what will happen in the future, from this moment.
First Person POV and Tenses
With first person point of view, you can have first person present tense or first person past tense. Most first person stories are past tense. This means the narrator looks back and tells his or her story:
I saw her there, she was lovely. “Hello,” I said.
First person present can be a difficult beast to master, and yet most new writers inexplicably choose this POV for their stories.
I see her there, she is lovely. “Hello,” I say.
The reason it’s difficult is because the narrator is dealing with the present only, and cannot possibly know the future, and therefore cannot indicate to the reader what may happen, nor describe past events. And because it’s present tense, it’s also very easy to slip into past tense in the middle of a paragraph or within dialogue. For example:
I know what I want to say to him, but I can’t find the words. (Present tense).
He looks at me. (Present tense). He frowned. (Past tense)
‘Look, John, it’s not working,’ I said. (Past tense)
See how easy it is to slip from one tense to another? Just a few words can change the whole thing. Readers won’t notice so much because they’re not out to pick tiny errors like this, but editors do look for them, and you should try to discipline yourself to watch out for them too.
I would advocate first person past tense to new writers, more so in short stories, to create a sense of immediacy, but remember that by using first person you can’t observe everything (as narrator) because the character can’t. (But you can in third person).
Third Person POV and Tenses
Third person POV can be limited and unlimited. Limited means you stick with one character throughout the story without changing to other characters. Unlimited means you can switch point of view from one character to another in new scene or chapter.
Third person past tense is the most common form of storytelling. The story has already happened and the narrator is telling us about it. This past tense offers a great deal of scope for description, narrative and dialogue in terms of depth and range (unlike the limited, distended first person POV), and by offering diversification, you’re able to explore inner thoughts of different characters, describe action from a subjective point of view (rather than the limited I did this, I saw her do that of first person). You can move around freely within the dimension of your novel/story, just like a movie.
Third person present tense is less common and makes for a stilted, awkward read. For instance, ‘Mike goes to the diner to meet Jenny. He crosses the road, aware of speed of the cars and thinks at the back of his mind...’
This reads more like a stage/movie script, which is fine, but doesn’t work so well for fiction. It has immediacy, but it leaves little room for scope to explore.
As with all writing, which POV you choose and how you write is entirely up to you, the writer, but it’s worth looking at the different viewpoints to see which one works best for you and, more importantly, which one works for the story.
Next week: Writing styles