Ah, perspective and tense. These are a vast and thorny topic—too vast for me to cover in only one blog post. So, for today, we’re simply going to run through what perspective and tense are and which of them are best for writing. Once we've established a solid understanding of what perspective and tense are, we'll be able to discuss the ways in which writers can make mistakes with them.
Put simply, perspective means “point of view”—who is telling the story and in what manner. There are only a few perspectives from which a story should be told:
This is when your story is being told from the point of view of one of the characters. It’s usually easy to pick out—if the word “I” crops up a lot in the prose, than it’s probably first person.
Third Person Omniscient
This is when your story jumps from character to character, showing many points of view over the course of any given scene at once. There may be an implied narrator or there may not.
Third Person Limited
This is when your story is limited to the point of view of a single character at a time, but that character isn’t personally telling the story, as they are in first person. It is marked by frequent use of the words "he" or "she."
While it is technically possible to write a story from a different perspective (many choose-your-own-adventure stories are told in second person, for instance), it’s not something that should be done with any sort of regularity or without a very, very good reason.
Perspective’s pernicious twin sister is tense. Tense is the “when” of the action. Did it already happen, or is it happening right now? When we’re speaking to one another, it is very easy to keep our tenses straight; but when you’re trying to string together a coherent set of several thousand to several hundred thousand words, tense can be difficult to keep track of.
Past tense stories are told as though they have already happened, finished, and are now being related to the reader.
Present tense stories are told as though they are currently happening (“Jason runs to the car” instead of “Jason ran to the car”). This is increasingly common in first-person stories but is very unusual in third-person.
When we combine our common modes of perspective and tense, we end up with four results that encompass the majority of literature:
First person, past tense: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Animorphs series by Katherine Applegate, the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan
First person, present tense: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Divergent by Veronica Roth
Third person omniscient, past tense: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, Dune by Frank Herbert
Third person limited, past tense: The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson
Over the next week or so, we'll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each of these narrative modes, and then we'll be set to discuss some of the many, many ways in which new writers tend to break their perspectives and tenses.
Before we finish, a word of warning: many novice writers are tempted to look at a list like this and think, “But I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I want to be original! I’m going to write a novel in second-person perspective and future tense! That will get some attention.” To you, hypothetical reader who is even now nodding to yourself in confident satisfaction, I have one very important word: no.
Don’t do it. And because I’m afraid you won’t listen to me, I’m going to attempt to convey the gravity of that sentiment by isolating it as its own paragraph, capitalizing it, bolding it, and italicizing it.
I really can’t make it any clearer than that without opening up a live video chat with you and screaming it in your face. Do not attempt to write in a perspective/tense combination outside of the four that I’ve shown you here. You’re not the first person to think of that idea, not by a lo-o-o-o-ng shot. You won’t come across as clever and original, you’ll come across as amateur and inept. Editors won’t even read your story—they’ll take one look and go, “Second-person future? Why is this person wasting my time?” And then they’ll give your story to an intern and tell them to send you a rejection. I know they will, because I’ve seen editors do this, and I have done it myself.
Now, I know: There are some excellent and original books out there that are written in unusual narrative modes. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is in second-person perspective, while Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones are written in first-person omniscient. Maybe you’ve read something else that was written in an unusual narrative mode that just blew your socks off. Great. Send it to me, I’d love to read it.
But those stories are atypical. They probably got to print because the author was a well-known, respected professional with a history of turning out great work—the type of person that an editor can trust to not waste their valuable time. The type of writer who has learned the rules inside and out and now knows how to break them to spectacular effect. You’re not that person, not yet. For now, stick with the tried-and-true basics until you've mastered them inside and out.