POV and Tense in My Novels

Some readers (and writers) have strong opinions about their favorite POV and tense in novels. In fact, I’ve come across readers who flat out refuse to read any novel that is written in first person or present tense. Others (like me!) like to mix it up and will enjoy the perspective and tense that works with any given story.

I’ve had potential readers at author events ask me if I worry about losing sales by writing in first person (my second novel) or present tense (my first novel). My honest answer: No. If a reader does not want to read a story in first person or present tense, then some of my books may not be for them. That’s okay. I don’t choose my POV or tense based on what readers may want. I choose them based on what feels right for the story I want to tell.

If you don’t read novels in first person or present tense… Cool. You do you. (Can I interest you in my YA series? Third person, past.)

What are POV and Tense?

Let’s do a high-level refresh on POV and tense. POV, or point of view, is the character’s perspective.

  • First Person – the narrator uses I, Me, and My pronouns. You are hearing the story told from the narrator’s point of view. Some novels include first person accounts from multiple characters, often in alternating chapters.
  • Second Person – the narrator uses you and your pronouns. This is rarely used in fiction. Often it’s reserved for breaking the fourth wall to speak to the reader directly. It is frequently used in non-fiction. (See the third paragraph of this blog post.)
  • Third Person – the narrator uses he/she, his/hers pronouns and the characters names. The narrator is the voice telling the story but not a character within the story. Third person can be limited to what one character sees and experiences or have an omniscient, fly-on-the-wall view of everything happening within the story.

Tense generally refers to the story being written in present or past tense. Examples:

  • Present Tense I write books. She flies a kite. They fight dragons.
  • Past Tense I wrote a book. She flew a kite. They fought dragons.

When writing a novel, staying in the correct tense can be tricky. Especially when it comes to narrating a scene that is happening in the novel’s “now” as opposed to something that happened earlier in the characters’ lives. That’s where the grammar can shift between particular verb tenses like simple present, present progressive, past perfect, and past perfect progressive. Which is more than we’ll get into here. (More info on verb tenses here.)

Choosing POV and Tense

Arguably, most novels are written in third person past. Yet, third person past may not be the best choice for every book.

During the early stages of novels, I’ve written entire scenes in both first and third person, past and present to see which options set the desired tone and give me the best tools for telling my story. Let’s break down some of my novels.

The Insistence of Memory – Third Person Omniscient Present

POV and tense in The Insistence of Memory

The Insistence of Memory is the story of a young widow who discovers her husband built a machine that can record memories and play them back in someone else’s mind. His partner wants to finish their project, while she worries about keeping her secrets in the past.

The novel explores the truth of our memories, how they can be manipulated, and what might happen if we could see into each others’ minds.

Writing The Insistence of Memory in present tense let me subtly emphasize the distinction between our actions in the present moment and our memories of what has happened in the past. Further, the present tense tends to add a sense of urgency and emotional connection. Because of that, I find present tense works best with shorter scenes and chapters. I had already planned to use shorter scenes to manage the pace and tell the story in a series of snapshot moments. This is likely why readers frequently tell me this book reads like watching a movie.

As for perspective, I needed the omniscient POV to show the thoughts and reactions of various characters. Also, it gives readers information that my main character might not have. The plot has a twist of mystery, so it’s nice to give readers a chance to put the pieces together. Though I’ve yet to meet a reader who saw the end coming. (Challenge accepted?)

To the Left of Death – First Person (Single POV) Past

POV and tense in To the Left of Death

To the Left of Death follows the journey of a teacher who has rediscovered her love of drawing in attempt to move past the trauma of witnessing murder. Her art helps her reconnect with the world, but also pulls her back into the mystery of what happened on that fateful day.

It is a story of finding hope and healing despite the darkness of our world.

Readers either love or hate first person writing. Especially in this stream-of-consciousness style. For me, it depends on the book. In To the Left of Death, first person offered the best tools to explore how it can feel to live with PTSD. It let me show my main character’s confusion after experiencing dissociation or self-medicating with alcohol. Her narration wobbles between unreliable guilt and stark clarity.

Overall, the story is told in past tense. However, the concept of time can become somewhat elastic when coping with symptoms of PTSD. Occasional slips in tense subtly shift meaning or show jumbled trauma thinking. Honestly, the most heartwarming compliments I’ve received as a writer are from readers who could relate to the depiction of trauma survival in this novel.

The Psychic Traveler Society – Third Person Past

POV and tense in The Psychic Traveler Society

The Psychic Traveler Society is a YA adventure series. It features a 14-year-old girl who discovers that the Victorian house in her daydreams can actually open doors to new worlds. She gradually finds her place within PTS, a secret organization operating the shadows of our world, while also balancing life as a normal high school student.

Books include: Healers and Thieves, Family and Foes, and Elders and Aliens.

Choosing third person past for this series was simple. It lets readers focus on the world building, including the mechanics of psychic travel and multiple alien societies, within the comfort of third person past narration. The POV is limited to Amanda Jones, our main character. Readers only know what Amanda knows. This works for a number of reasons. It underscores Amanda’s novice status. It emphasizes how teenagers tend to focus on their own perspectives. And it allows space to not explain every detail of psychic travel and the worlds visited.

My Favorite POV and Tense

Unsurprisingly, I do not have a favorite POV or tense. Not as a writer or as a reader. It all depends on the story.

I do love to experiment with POV and tense in my writing. That’s partly why I have no rules for my Freely Written podcast. With those quick, free-written stories, I can write in any genre or style. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend allowing yourself some time to free write quick sketches that have no expectation of becoming longer stories or novels. (Though they might. You never know!)

As a reader, choose the books that appeal to you. Life is too short to force yourself to read books you don’t like. That being said, maybe take an occasional chance on a first person or present tense book. Maybe you’ll discover something new to love.

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