Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

 
By: 
J. M. Frey
July 28, 2021

Now that you’ve decided who is going to be telling your reader your story, let’s take a closer look at the technical aspects of how that story is going to be conveyed, and what the impacts of these technical choices may be on a reader’s experience.

Point of View (who is telling your story) 

The Point-of-View (POV) is the perspective lens through which your reader witnesses and experiences the tale. But the way that lens is constructed is important, too, and worth some conscious and deliberate decision-making. Each POV has different strengths, so consider them carefully. 

  • First Person
    • “I”.
    • The story is told from the position of a character (single or multiple) as it happens.
    • Most commonly used in fiction, most notably in YA.
    • Has the advantage of being immediate and giving the reader access to the character’s deepest emotions. 
    • “I reached for the salt.”
  • Second Person
    • “You”.
    • The story is told from the position of an external narrator, who is describing the actions of a character to the reader as if the reader themselves are the character.
    • Most commonly used in blog posts, non-fiction, Choose Your Own Adventure, and self-help books. Can function in fiction, but very hard to pull off.
    • Has the advantage of enticing the reader into experiencing the emotions brought out by the plot in themselves instead of experiencing it through a proxy. 
    • “You reached for the salt.”
  • Third Person
    • “He/She/They”.
    • The story is told from the position of an external narrator, who is describing the actions of the character to the reader as they happen.
    • Has the advantage of a little removal, so readers can process the characters actions on both a logical and emotional level at the same time. 
    • “She reached for the salt.”

Scope of View (how much do they know) 

  • Limited
    • The narrator/character only relays what they can reasonably know.
    • Characters can guess at or infer other character’s thoughts, motivations, and truths, but can’t be sure of them.
    • “I love you,” I lied. I could tell by the look on the Duke’s face that he believed I was telling the truth. 
  • Omniscient
    • The narrator/character relays information that reveals that they are aware of other character’s thoughts, motivations, and truths.
    • “I love you,” she lied. The Duke was happy to hear her say the words, but he knew it wasn’t true. 

Tense (how immediate is the experience) 

  • Present
    • The action is happening in real time.
    • Can make the action and emotions more urgent and immediate for the reader
    • I pass the Duke the salt.” 
  • Past
    • The action is slightly removed, and the narrator is reporting it. 
    • Can provide a sense of distance and a more ‘literary’ tone.
    • I passed the Duke the salt.” 

Mix in a shaker 

You can mix and match POV, tense and scope, and I recommend you play around with different combinations until you find something that clicks, and feels right for your character and story. 

Direct the reader’s experience 

As much as I’ve been saying that the narrator is the lens through which the reader views a story in this series, don’t forget that you, the author, are the glassmaker. The deliberate choices you make in terms of tense and POV will influence the reader’s understanding of your narrative, your characters, and your world. 

For example: in my novel The Untold Tale, the narrator character Forsyth is a fictional creation who only later learns that he is not real. I made a deliberate choice to have him narrate the tale in First Person Present Tense Limited. Why? Because I wanted to convey a sense of immediacy to the reader. This narrator is a construct that only exists in the moment on the page, and this choice of “I” and “now” helps to solidify that.  

Whether they’re conscious of it or not, making concerted and deliberate choices about tense and POV will influence your reader’s experience of your tale.  

Activity:

Think about the latest book you read or the one you're reading now. Who is the narrator? Is the story told through a character's voice or through an omniscient one? Is the story written in present tense or past tense? Does the narrator know what the other characters are thinking, or is it a mystery to them? Now, why do you think the author chose to write the book this way? What would change in the story if any one of these details were different?

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Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses? is the sixth post in an nine part series. 

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator

Part 5: Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

Part 6: Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

Part 7: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)