There’s a story in your head, and it’s awesome. You’ve come up with a captivating plot, lovable characters, unique challenges, and a satisfying ending. But knowing what happens in your story is only the start. There are still major decisions to consider before you put that plot to the page.
The way in which you tell a story is just as important as the storyline itself, and of all the stylistic choices an author has to make, none is more important than the story’s point of view (POV) and the story’s tense. In other words, Who is telling the story? and When is the story happening? The answers to these questions act as the lenses through which your reader experiences the story.
Let’s take a look at the various choices an author has when picking a POV for their story.
In a first person POV, the main character narrates their own story and uses the pronouns I and me. Example: “I lost my way in the woods and became afraid.” This POV is widely used across all genres and for all audiences, but today is found most often in YA fiction, where it is the definitive form.
There are many reasons to consider writing in a first person POV. It creates an immediate connection between the reader and the main character. The reader sees what they see, feels what they feel, and understands their desires. It can make for casual, conversational, easy-to-digest prose, almost like meeting up with a friend and hearing about their day—perhaps this is one reason why it’s so popular with YA authors.
There are also challenges to doing first person well. If your whole book is presented in the voice of a single character, that voice must obviously be very strong. And there are limitations to first person. Since all the information comes from the narrator, the reader can only ever know things which the narrator knows. All scenes must be events that the narrator is present for.
How many First Person Viewpoints can I have?
Typically first person stories stick with a single POV character. For example, in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” every scene is narrated by Katniss Everdeen. But it is possible to have more than one first person viewpoint, such as in an ‘epistolary novel’ where the story is presented in the form of letters sent between different characters. In cases where you include more than one first person POV, it is crucial to develop distinct voices for each narrator to avoid confusing the reader.
Cliches with First Person
Be aware when writing first person narration that some readers complain it can come across as ‘whiny’, particularly in YA. That’s not actually a fault of the POV itself, rather it shows when an author has failed to create an interesting POV character. The narrating character must be someone with whom the reader wants to spend their time. But another cliche is that a narrating character who is completely charming and perfect in every way gets very boring for the reader, very quickly. So if you choose to write in first person, design your POV character with care. Keep them compelling but believable, unique but relatable, imperfect but inspiring.
Usually, in first person fiction, the reader can trust that they are seeing the story as it truly happened. But some authors take it a step further by creating an unreliable narrator, forcing the reader to gradually realize that they are reading a biased view of the events. Maybe the narrator is lying to them, maybe they’re lying to themselves, maybe they’re intellectually immature and unable to fully recognize the meaning of the events around them. An example of an unreliable narrator can be found in Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel “The Name of the Wind”. The novel is told from the point of view of Kvothe, a character who wants to be viewed as righteous and heroic, and therefore bends the truth of his story to show himself in the best possible light. Unreliable narrators can make for fascinating stories, but might be too much for a new author to handle.
The least used of literary POVs, second person puts the readers themselves in the starring role, and uses the pronouns you and your. Example: “You lost your way in the woods and were afraid.” Outside of experimental fiction, it is very rare to see this POV. However, in the current age of video games, choose-your-own-adventure Netflix shows, and a growing market of VR entertainment, some people speculate that second person fiction will grow in popularity in the near future. An example which recently received wide acclaim is Alyssa Wong’s novella “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, which uses second person and earned her a Nebula nomination.
Feel free to experiment with this POV if you’re feeling quirky, but know that it’s going to be a very hard sell to the average reader.
When writing in third person, the story is told from an outside viewpoint. It uses the pronouns he, she, and they. Example: “She lost her way in the woods and was afraid.” This perspective is widely used across all genres and for all audiences, and is historically the most common form in fiction. It is especially helpful if your story includes a large cast of characters or interwoven plot threads.
Third person is best explained by identifying its subcategories:
Third Person Limited
In third person limited, the reader only knows what the POV character knows. It is similar to first person in that regard. Example: “Sally got lost in the woods. Fear filled her veins like ice. Then a wolf leaped at her from the shadows!” You can still get into the character’s head by showing mental thoughts and inner monologues, while not being confined by the character’s voice and singular perspective. But you can’t reveal anything the POV character doesn’t know.
Some third person limited stories use only a single POV character. In ‘The Hunger Games’, for example, the reader always knows what’s going on in Katniss’ head, but never anyone else’s head, as she is the only POV character. Other books use multiple POV characters and alternate between their viewpoints, such as in George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones”, where the author has dozens of POV characters and gives them each their own chapters and storylines. Jumping from one POV character’s perspective to another can be very confusing if not executed smoothly. When done poorly, it’s referred to as ‘head-hopping’ and readers can lose track of whose perspective they’re currently in. To avoid this confusion, most authors include a chapter or scene break between changes of viewpoint. At the very least, a viewpoint change should only happen after a paragraph break. A good general rule is that the first name mentioned after a viewpoint change is the name of the character whose head we are now in.
Third Person Cinematic
It is also worth mentioning what author Orson Scott Card has coined third person cinematic, as it is currently very common to see in genre fiction. In third person cinematic, the author takes a moment in an otherwise third person limited story to break out of the character’s perspective to setup a new scene. It’s a bit like an establishing shot in movies, hence the name. For example, a chapter might begin with a description of an empty forest glade: birds hopping through the ferns, breeze in the branches, the calmness of the morning. Then the main character arrives and the birds scatter. From this point onward, the reader is placed firmly back in the head of the POV character, though for that first paragraph, they were momentarily outside of the character’s perspective.
Third Person Omniscient
In the days of Charles Dickens and Jane Austin, the dominant form was third person omniscient, where the story is told by a narrator who knows everything that will happen and what’s going on in every character’s head. Example: “They lost their way in the woods and were scared. Little did they know that a wolf was waiting for them in the shadows.” These days, third person omniscient can still be found in novels of all types (such as Frank Herbert’s “Dune”), but third person limited is more common.
Sometimes—specifically in humorous writing like that of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, or in lighthearted middle grade fiction—the omniscient narrator also becomes a sort of character, telling jokes and commentating on the story as it unfolds. If used consistently and cleverly in the right kind of story, this technique can be fun, but it is more common to keep the omniscient narrative voice detached and invisible.
Third Person Objective
Though not often seen in modern genre fiction, there is also third person objective, wherein the author simply describes what’s happening without ever explicitly stating what’s going on in any character’s head. Think Hemingway. Example: “They lost their way in the woods.” There is no mention of how they feel about their predicament. The reader must come up with all subtext on their own. This gives the prose a bleak and colorless quality which can be used to great effect for certain stories.
Sometimes a book can use multiple types of POV. “The Name of the Wind”, for example, actually starts out in third person until the reader meets the character Kvothe. Kvothe then tells his story and the novel transitions into first person for the bulk of the book, with occasional third person interludes and a third person finale. This sort of technique is hard to pull off, but can be used in novels if the author feels it best fits the story. It should probably be avoided in short fiction.
Now let’s transition into talking about the two tenses an author has to choose from when deciding when the story should take place...
When using the past tense, a story is written as if it has already happened. “She was lost in the woods.” It can be used in combination with any of the above-mentioned POVs, and it is the primary tense used with third person and in adult fiction. Historically, it is the dominant form of tense in literature.
When using the present tense, a story is written as if it is taking place ‘live’, playing out as the reader reads it. Example: “I am in the woods. I can’t find the path. I’m lost!” It can also be used with all the various POVs, and is the most common tense used in first person YA.
Some authors and readers believe present tense adds an intensity, immediacy, and intimacy to the prose, and that reading present tense feels almost like watching a movie. Others feel that past tense can accomplish this just as well. In the end, the choice to tell a story in past or present tense comes down to what feels most natural to the author, what best fits the narrative voice, and what is expected by your specific audience.
Flashback scenes can be used to build the backstory of characters and plotlines. In the case of stories told in present tense, this sometimes requires a temporary change to past tense. Example: “I am lost in the woods. I remember being lost once before. I was a child and had taken a wrong turn.” Just like how you need to make smooth and obvious transitions when hopping into a new character’s POV, so a jump from the present to a flashback must be clear so as not to confuse the reader.
Choosing your Viewpoint, POV Characters, and Tense
You should take the time to really think about what lens will be best to tell your story.
If you choose to write in first person or third person limited, you must pick which character or characters are best suited to be given their own POV. You generally want to pick active characters who face obstacles and make difficult decisions that impact the story. This keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. Only occasionally will a POV narrator be a side character, such as in the Sherlock Holmes stories (told by Sherlock’s sidekick Dr. Watson) or The Great Gatsby (told by Gatsby’s friend Nick Carraway), but in most cases this decision makes for a weaker story.
Many authors experiment, writing scenes with various POV’s and tenses to see which has the strongest result.
Let’s look at an example…
Say you want to tell the story of a medieval battle. Two massive armies face off on the battlefield. Soldiers march. Horses charge. Arrows fly. Thousands die in the fury. One side wins the day.
The next choice you have to make is which POV and tense to use. Each choice will bring a unique flavor to the story.
Maybe you try first person present tense and narrate the scene from the POV of a grunt soldier. The reader is in their head, feeling the real-time terror and trepidation leading up to the first volley of arrows. When the action starts, the reader gets a front-row seat to the bloodshed, the chaos, the excitement. Told in this way, the story could be very intimate and emotional, and will probably focus more on character and less on plot.
But let’s say you want the battle to feel more epic. Then maybe a better choice is to write in multiple third person past tense. Include a scene about the grunt soldier, but then switch to the POV of a general looking at the battlefield from afar, worried his plans will go awry. Jump to a scene about soldiers in the opposing army, presenting readers with the struggle of finding themselves sympathizing with characters on both sides of the battlefield. Presented in this way, the story can have more nuance, more complexity, and more flexibility in terms of what you can show.
And of course you can always go with a god’s-eye-view and tell the story using third person omniscient, entering the minds of myriad characters and hinting at the outcome before the battle has even begun.
All of these are good choices and could make for a solid end product. The choice comes down to what you, as the author, feel is the best fit for your story vision. And remember, no matter how you decide to tell your story, stay consistent. No reader wants to be suddenly broken out of the story by sloppy head-hopping or erratic changes of tense.