Editing Your Work: Tense and Point of View

It’s me again! Last time I talked about dialogue tags (and how to make them better in your own work), and today I’m going to talk a little bit about tense and point of view.

To me, tense and point of view are linked inside the greater umbrella of voice or ambience of a story. It will flavor how people read your work, and is one of the harder things to go back and edit if you decide you’ve written in the wrong tense/point of view. (Those of you who have done this, I feel your pain.) They are also silent players, helping to shape your story by providing a framework to work within.

A lot of new writers, I’ve noticed, have trouble with tense and point of view. Hopefully I can clear up a few issues.

First, let’s talk about tense. Tense may be slightly less important than point of view, but it still ought to be done well and with thought. There are several reasons to pick one tense or another to tell your story, and I’m going to give you my thoughts on each. Also, please, unless you are incredibly confident in what you’re doing, stick with ONE tense to tell your story in, please? Tense hopping isn’t just confusing, it’s also terrifyingly aggravating.

Present tense creates sense of urgency. We, as the readers, live the story “in the moment.” It can create a feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next and is a very active voice. I’ve seen it best used with first person point of view–with the story being a character’s stream of consciousness as events play out in front of them. (Although, I have seen present tense done very very well with third person pov, so YMMV.)

Past tense is pretty popular tense to write in. When I read past tense, I tend to have a subconscious feeling of “these events already happened,” like someone is literally telling me a story, as opposed to me witnessing events as they unfold (like a present tense story). But maybe this is just me.

Anyway, past tense arguably the easiest tense to write in. Probably why it’s pretty popular.

Future tense. I am really not sure if I’ve ever read a story written in future tense. Elements of the story could be in future tense, of course. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done, but I can imagine that, unless done with a deft and steady hand, this would be a hard tense to pull off.

Now, point of view, or pov for short. Point of view is so, so, so important. It’s literally who is telling the story. Often thankless, when point of view is used correctly, it’s hardly noticeable. Yet, when it’s used incorrectly, the entire story can be frustrating and confusing for the reader. It can make the reader question how the narrator got their information, or why the narrator feels the need to give exposition (especially in first person pov).

Third person limited is a very serviceable point of view. Lots of stories are written this way. It’s a little bit less intense than the first person pov (which I’ll get into below), and certainly less rigid in it’s form, and therefore easier to “get right.” The characters may still only “see” through their own filters, a/k/a what they notice, but it is a lot less daunting in my experience than writing in first person.

Also, even though it’s limited to one character’s viewpoint at any given time, that doesn’t mean the entire story is stuck following one character around. You can change which character you’re following–just make sure that, at the very least, each character has their own paragraph. Ideally they’d have their own chapter or scene, but technically they only need a paragraph.

However, this kind of character jumping can lead to “head hopping” (which, if you’ve never heard that term before, means you’re jumping from one person to the next too much) and can be incredibly confusing to readers if A) used too frequently or B) without substance. We’re going to constantly question “who’s talking now?” if you say, have three character’s viewpoints in one page. Three’s an arbitrary number, of course, but generally speaking, if there’s ever cause to question which character the story is currently following, then you’re jumping too much or without clarity.

Third person omniscient or unlimited. All issues are resolved if you’re doing third person omniscient, because you–as the writer–can literally jump into anyone’s head at any time that you need to. Or no one’s head at all, and speak from a voice akin to God’s. You are limited to no single voice at any given time.

Same caveat as with the limited point of view–if you’re head hopping, it can be really jarring. In this sense, there’s very little difference between third person omniscient or third person limited. Just make sure there’s never a cause for the reader to wonder “who’s talking” and you ought to do alright.

Second person. USE INCREDIBLY SPARINGLY. While good for experimental fiction, for a reader, it can be really irritating to read and make people throw up their hands declaring “wtf??” faster than anything else I’ve seen. Seriously. USE AT OWN RISK.

(That being said, I’ve read some truly fantastic short stories in second person. I’ve also read some truly terrible stories in second person. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of those things where either you do it very very well, or you shouldn’t do it at all.)

First person. This view, while my favorite, is also the most problematic. At its core, with first person pov, you (the reader AND the writer) are inside someone’s head. This can be done incredibly well with think pieces (studying how a character’s thoughts change and flow within a story) or high action pieces (when you’re following closely behind a character and seeing exactly how they react to things.)

But what I see most people struggle with is how to effectively use first person pov. Because you’re literally in the character’s head, all information is filtered through the lens of that character. They should not be giving out information that A) they don’t know and B) they don’t care about. A is pretty obvious, but B seems to trip people up, especially new writers.

Take, for instance, a room. If you’re writing in first person and following Character Charlie around, and it’s the first time Charlie has been in this room, then you, as the writer, can describe the room as Charlie sees it. Does he notice how shabby it is? Or how grand? Is it better than places he’s been in before, or worse? Does it remind him of any places he’s been before? Does he like it there? Does it make him uncomfortable? All of these things not only help set up the scene and add description, but it works as double duty by providing character description and/or development (if Charlie’s attitudes have changed). How Charlie thinks and feels about the room is just as important to his character as the room itself.

Now, let’s take Charlie to his bedroom. We’re still in Charlie’s head, so to speak. What is he going to notice about his bedroom? To him, the bed is just a bed. The nightstand is just the nightstand. He probably barely remembers the color of the carpet, or the ceiling, or the walls. After all, he sees them all the time. People have a way of filtering things out if it’s extraneous information–and if nothing is new about a very familiar environment, Charlie is probably not going to remember, never mind notice, anything about it at all.

Now, this leads into a bit of trouble for new writers. You still want to describe the room, right? But the structure of the story says we’re following Charlie around, and you can only give the readers details through the filter of Charlie’s personal lens, a/k/a what he feels important enough to mention at the moment. Having Charlie give a tour of his room to the reader is going to be jarring, because to Charlie, these are momentarily unimportant details. He sees them every day, so why is he bringing it up?

There are tricks, of course. See, a character, ultimately, only notices changes to their environment. (In fact, you can make the argument that all stories are really just a bunch of changes to a character or characters, and what the aftermath of those changes are.) So, we’re in Charlie’s head and Charlie’s in his room. If nothing has changed, then he’s not going to bring anything up. But if there are changes to the room, changes beyond his norm, then heck yes Charlie is going to be talking about it. If someone has trashed his room, he’s going to talk about what was broken or misplaced or strewn across the floor. Depending on his character, he might even get a bit sentimental, or remember what those things were like before they were smashed to bits.

Or you can go the Doyle route (as in introduce a “Watson” for your “Holmes”), and have another character in the room asking Charlie questions, like “Where did you get this?” “Oh this is a pretty color.” etc. This can get a bit gimmicky after a while, but if done well (and subtly) it’s a great trick to be able to break beyond the filters of a first person point of view.

Ultimately, first person pov is all about one character’s filters and perceptions. If your story needs to have multiple people behind the wheel, so to speak, you can do this with a first person pov, but it can be really, really difficult. Make sure that it is incredibly obvious that you’re changing characters. Each character needs to have a scene break at the very least. Since it’s first person pov, there’s no real easy way for a reader to tell who’s talking, as all the subjects tend to fall to “I” or “me.” We really don’t know when a shift has occurred until there are other people interacting with the narrator. So, keep that in mind if you realize you need to switch and tell the story through another character’s eyes.

Now, comes the question of how should you choose which tense and pov is right for your story. This, my friends, can be very difficult, especially for new writers. Sometimes, the best way to figure this out is through trial and error. But there are a few tricks you can use to help you narrow down your choices.

First, figure out what your story is or needs to be. Is it a coming of age story? A romance? A group of people coming together and forming a family? At its heart, what story are you trying to tell. Once you know that, you can start narrowing down how you need to tell the story.

If the story is very limited to one character (like coming of age stories), you may try out first person pov first, and see how that feels. If only one character is making the majority of the decisions, or if you want to explore how events effect one character specifically, once again, try first person first. If that doesn’t work, try third person limited.

If the story has an ensemble cast, where multiple characters are making decisions that effect the plot, then I would first start with third person, and move from there. If your story has really one two characters effecting the plot (like in a romance) then either a third person limited or, possibly, first person, with each character having a chapter and the chapters alternating viewpoints.

Right off, if one of the styles of pov don’t seem to be working, then try another. A lot of time, when a piece of writing is fighting me, this is, ultimately, the problem. Switching characters or switching styles of pov entirely can help clear up a story. A good start is telling the story through the eyes of the character affected most (although this character might not actually be the one affecting the story the most–think Watson, as opposed to Holmes). But, if you find that if your scene isn’t working, you’re probably better off switching to another character’s viewpoint to see–when viewed from another lens–if the story works better there.

And if you’re at the start of your story and everything already seems to be falling apart, try changing the tense. It’s amazing how often just switching either tense or pov will clear things right up.

Whatever you decide to use, make sure it works for your story. 🙂

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