When writing a novel, an author has several choices to make that have nothing to do with plot, setting or characters, the meat and potatoes for any novel, that can either make or break their work. The article Choosing a Tense and Point of View for Your Novel by Eileen Albrizio, explores all of these choices and various ways they can be combined. Should the story be written in first person, second person or third person point of view? Once that is established, the author then needs to decide whether to tell the story in past, present or future tense.
Point of View
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First person point of view is when the story is narrated by the main character. The reader would be able to know what the main character is thinking and feeling in addition to what they are doing, but they would not have this same connection to any of the other characters. The story is also limited to the main character’s “line of sight”, which means the author cannot explore what is happening to another character that the narrator is not in direct contact with. This view can be identified by the use of pronouns such as “I”, “we”, or “us”.
Second person point of view is when the narrator explains, directly to the main character, what is happening or has happened to them. The reader would then become the main character, being guided on what to do or how to feel by the narrator. This view can be identified by the use of the pronoun “you”.
Third person point of view is when the story is told by an outsider looking in. The narrator is able to see what is happening to each character, even if the characters are unaware of what is happening to one another. The author is able to convey the thoughts, feelings and actions of all characters, not just those of the main character. This view can be identified by the use of pronouns such as “he”, “she” or “they”.
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Once it has been decided what point of view to use, an author must then decide what tense the story should be told in. As Nicole Thomas says in her article Past vs. Present Tense When Writing, the tense chosen can set the mood of the novel. Eileen Albrizio’s article, mentioned earlier, points out that sometimes the choice in point of view will steer an author towards the use of a particular tense.
The use of past tense means that the narrator is already aware of everything that has or is currently transpiring. Future events can be hinted at or foreshadowed, because the narrator already knows the final result. Through the use of past tense, a first person narrator could describe how other characters felt at a particular point because it may be revealed to them at a later point in time. This is the most common tense used by writers. Why? According to Nicole Thomas’ article, this is the way our brains are programmed to write. We tend to reflect on events that have already occurred.
The use of present tense means that events are unfolding at the time the reader is reading about them. The future is unknown to both the reader and the narrator and can only be revealed as time goes on, creating a sense of camaraderie towards the main character. Nicole Thomas advises that present tense works best when used with the first person point of view. Does this mean that it cannot be used with any other point of view? Absolutely not. Eileen Albrizio’s article explains how to use present tense with the various points of view.
The use of future tense means that events have not yet occurred; everything is about to happen. This is a great way to create suspense, but can heavy for the reader and is best used when writing short fiction.
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Now that all of the options have been explained, it is time for the author to determine the combination to use. Is there a formula for success? Unfortunately, there is no specific combination of point of view and tense that will determine if a novel will succeed or fail. What works for one author, may not work for another. And even for the same author, what works for one novel, may not work for another. The choice is dependent on things like the author’s comfort level, skill or intention. There is no right or wrong choice. The key is to remain consistent in your choice to avoid confusing the reader.