From an editor’s perspective
Incorrect use of point of view and tense are commonly picked up by fiction editors. Part of the confusion is that both point of view and tense are in many ways linked: first person with present tense and third person with past/past perfect tense. This link is strong when writers keep their stories consistently in one person and tense, and want their readers to enjoy this consistency. There are circumstances when they’re not linked, to convey more meaning and depth or when we need flexibility to convey an accurate timeline of a character’s perception of events. Sometimes we drop the rules to ensure we don’t bombard the reader with unnecessary words.
However strong the person-and-tense association is, there aren’t always black and white rules on, for example, always keeping first person with present; first person can often be used deliberately with past to tell a certain type of story by a character-narrator who is relating past events. It can often depend on the style of the story, who is narrating, and from what point of view that can guide a writer in their story and how an editor works on it.
The problem with point-of-view slips
When point-of-view slips occur unintentionally, they momentarily confuse readers and can look out of place. These slips do appear more often with inexperienced writers, as you could guess, but while working even experienced writers can occasionally forget who the viewpoint character is supposed to be in a given paragraph or sentence and exactly what he/she should be thinking and experiencing. It’s a lot of information to retain, and not only in a first draft. In other words, the point of view can slip your mind.
In third person past tenses, inconsistent use of tense can make the viewpoint character’s understanding of what happened when unclear, such as how understanding of past events has developed, or is developing, into present circumstances. And in first person present tenses it may be unclear why some sentences, paragraphs, scenes, or chapters are written in past tense because there is no way to translate the meaning, and it can leave the reader with a bizarre sense of displacement, a feeling of inconsistency, or jarring confusion.
How to correct point-of-view confusion
It’s a headache when you feel you need to delve into all the ins and outs of point of view rules to get the answer you want that applies to what you’re trying achieve in your story. All of a sudden you see point of view as a complex alien technical term that you’ll never be an expert in. However, the term is literal, meaning the point of view of the narrator or the character – whoever is telling the story. I find it helpful, bearing this in mind, to decide what the focus of the story should be, as a whole or while looking at individual chapters. Having this prior think can make all the difference when implementing or correcting point of view.
Asking that question ‘why am I writing this story with this point of view style?’ can give you a reasoning that can help guide your decisions on your story, and even aid you in knowing what to research if you want clarification on whether you’re using the right point of view, person, or tense.