Two important decision you have to make early on about your novel are What POV are you using? and What tense are you writing in?
Let’s define our terms first.
POV, or point of view, means who is telling the story and in what way?
First person POV means the main protagonist is the one telling the story. The narrator speaks to us directly in some form, using the pronoun I and describing their actions, their emotions, their decisions. If you’re using first person POV, you can only describe events as the protagonist sees them – they can’t tell us about something they’re not there for, unless they learn about it later.
Second person POV means the narrator talks directly to the reader using the pronoun You. This is rarely used except in genres such as choose your own adventure: You are standing in front of a locked door. Do you rattle the doorhandle, look for a key or move on?
Third person POV means the narrator is telling us about the characters and what they are doing. The pronouns used are he, she, it, they.
To make things more complicated, there are different types of third person POV – there is close, meaning we are inside a person’s head and listening to their thoughts while watching others through their eyes, or omniscient, meaning we are watching from a distance, and see all characters equally. If we can see inside one character’s head, we can see inside the others’ heads as well. Alternatively, we’re simply describing their actions and guessing their thoughts.
Writing omniscient can be tricky as it’s easy for a beginner to head hop – to jump from one person’s thoughts to another. This prevents any kind of bonding with the characters as we don’t stay with them to learn what they feel, and can be distracting.
You can still tell the story from the POV of different characters in third person close, but the jump between characters is infrequent and marked by some sort of scene change. This way the tension can build more, as we don’t know what both sides of the conversation are thinking at the same time, for example.
Tense means when the story is set, relative to when it’s being told.
Present tense means it’s being told as things happen. I walk down the stairs. He throws the ball.
Past tense means it’s already happened and now you’re learning about it. I walked down the stairs. He threw the ball.
Future tense means it’s going to happen (or might happen). I’m going to go downtown and buy myself a car. He’s going to run for a bus. It’s not very often an entire book would be written in future tense!
Past perfect means it happened even further back than the past, before the normal timeline. I had caught a fish before, but nothing like the size of the one I caught today. He had missed his bus every day for a week, until today. Again, this is a tense for specific circumstances, not to write an entire novel in.
Combining Tense and POV
So there are multiple permutations to choose from. Which should you use?
There’s no definitive answer to this, but there are definitely some issues to consider.
First person present tense
This combination gives a sense of urgency. We’re experiencing events at the same time as the protagonist. We have no idea how things will work out. This is often used in thrillers. I stand staring at the barrel of the gun pointing steadily at my head, and swallow hard. How am I going to talk myself out of this one? In this style, the protagonist can’t know what’s coming, although they can know things they conceal from the reader.
First person past tense
This is a more relaxed style than present tense. We already know the person will survive, or they wouldn’t be telling the tale. I stood staring at the barrel of the gun. How was I going to talk myself out of this one?
There are two versions of the narrator – the one experiencing events and the one telling it later. The second version may be completely undetectable, or they may add their own opinion on proceedings. If I knew then what I knew later… Of course, that was the worse thing I could possibly do, but I didn’t understand at the time… Now, looking back, I understand why that happened, but…
On the other hand, it can be irritating if they tell the story in a way that conceals details by deliberately hiding them from the listener in order to create a desired tension.
So between the two options, consider whether your primary aim is to keep tension going – in which case use present tense – or to create a more reflective piece of writing – in which case use past tense.
Third person past tense
This is the invisible one, the classic one, the one that everyone is used to. Whether you decide to use third person close or third person omniscient, this one is a safe bet. He hid behind a car and peered out, trying to work out whether he had been spotted. They stood and argued for over an hour, until finally they both ran out of steam.
Third person present tense
This is the really tricky one. While it’s becoming more common, it’s also very unpopular in some circles, and is the most intrusive, noticeable combination of the four.
The big danger of using third person present is that it can be very superficial – I always liken it to audio description on a TV programme, coupled with the soundtrack, as it feels to me as though I’m listening to someone who’s describing the action they can see and I can’t. He’s hiding behind the car, looking to see whether he’s been spotted. Now he’s standing up, running over to the building.
This combination is very hard to use well, so be very sure it’s the one you want before committing too much time to it. If you are using it, try to dig deep into your character’s thoughts and opinions, to avoid that trap of simply narrating what you can see.
So in conclusion, which should you use?
That’s purely your decision, depending on the story you want to tell. But make sure you’re making an informed decision, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each style and which suits your story best.