Point of view and tense – first person and third person

Incorrect use of point of view and tense are commonly picked up by fiction writers and 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. Untangling these concepts so that they can be understood by the writer or editor is the first step before careful implementation.

When point-of-view slips occur unintentionally, they momentarily confuse readers and can look out of place. These slips appear more often with inexperienced writers, but while working even experienced writers can occasionally forget who viewpoint character is supposed to be in a given paragraph or sentence and exactly what he/she should be thinking and experiencing. In other words, it can slip your mind.

Inconsistent use of tense can make the viewpoint character’s understanding of what happened when unclear, such as how this understanding of past events has developed, or is developing, into present circumstances.

I will cover the main types of point of view and the tense each is in, as well as how tenses are used in fiction prose. I shall focus on first-person and third-person point of view, how they are used and some of the important advantages and disadvantages. It should also help you decide whether you are using the correct point of view for your story.

Third-person POV

Tense

Third person is written in the simple past and past perfect tense.

Use

Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs).

The third person is used to convey the main characters’ experiences, as if they are the narrators of the story and are reporting what has already just happened in the form of thoughts and relevant experiences.

Something to keep in mind when writing in third person is not to write anything else except the viewpoint character’s thoughts and experiences, so that the reader can only perceive events from the character’s perspective. Unless you’re using third-person omniscient, it could be a mistake to add other information about your story in between the character’s perspective to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, for doing so may take the mystery away from the scene and will interrupt the flow of the viewpoint character. And most of all, the inconsistency will be noticeable.

Exceptions

Third person is written in anticipation of building up towards present events, which are usually written in first person in the form of dialogue or internal dialogue (protagonist thoughts). First person is also used for italicised text in fiction, such as in the case of internal dialogue.

Advantages

One of the advantages of the third-person point of view is the flexibility to switch between tenses: simple past, past perfect, and simple present. The writer has the freedom to express a wide range of closely related circumstances that had occurred, have just occurred, or are occurring; and yet are written in the same scene or chapter. It takes skill for even experienced writers to master the tenses in such a way that is both correct and can relate a story’s events in an interesting way.

The disadvantages of the past perfect tense in third person

The past perfect tense can sometimes, when used excessively, become a platform for exposition and reader bombardment, which all writers should strive to avoid where they can. This tense can be rigid to read: ‘I had done’, ‘but when he had gone to the store’, ‘before he had thought about heading out he forgot to spend his money’. If you have to digress into background events, try to keep them at a minimum or at least directly relevant to what is happening in any given scene.

In this sense, try to limit the number of passages you write in the past perfect tense, or don’t use too many ‘hads’, which may hinder the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Instead, once you have introduced the tense with ‘had’, in a given paragraph, you are free to continue writing in the simple past and the reader should still understand what is meant. The same goes for background events that occur while the writer is already relating background events. As long as you introduce the tense with a single or a few ‘had’s’ to relate the most important immediate events in the first few sentences, then the reader has been informed of the tense and knows that what they are reading occurred in a time earlier than the time currently being discussed. It requires a bit of skill, judgment, and practice to use effectively, but that’s what writing is!

First-person POV

Tense

In contrast, the first person tense (I, we,) is commonly told in the simple present tense in fiction.

Use

Of course, the reader, as with third-person point of view, can only know what the viewpoint character knows – no extraneous background information should be added if the character wouldn’t already be thinking or experiencing it. It can help a writer think in terms of ‘showing’ the reader the story rather than ‘telling’. ‘Showing’ often makes it easier for the reader to invest themselves in the characters and events, while too much ‘telling’ can instead render readers as idle observers or magnets for excess information.

Advantages

It can grant a situation direct immediacy, and can be quite engaging and exciting to read. If the reader can develop a connection with the character or with intriguing events, it can prove to be effortless to absorb. If there are a lot of exciting events that are closely related to a single character or between one or two characters, then first person can deliver the message of the story concisely and directly, focusing only on the perspective of the character/s who matter, where lives come into contact. It’s good for putting the reader into the character’s shoes, and makes them feel as if they are there, watching events unfold.

Disadvantages

One of its disadvantages, in my opinion, is that it can be quite simple and one-dimensional. Readers can’t penetrate to the depths of a character’s thoughts or to past events with ease without breaking from the main narrative. When the author does break from the main narrative, it can often at first seem as if they are interrupting a perfectly absorbing scene with unnecessary information, which can be distracting. It can express a limited range of meanings, and only in the context of what is happening or what a character is thinking at any given time. It’s my belief that the restrictions of first person make stories linear A–B plots, but I’m sure there are many writers and readers who disagree.

Basic Story Formatting

Before publishing, hiring a professional copy editor or proofreader, or submitting to a literary agent or publisher, it is expected that basic story formatting conventions are implemented to help with ease of reading. Below I will outline the basic structure of a story, how to indent your paragraphs, how to start a new paragraph in a conversation, and how to use scene breaks to separate time, point of view, and events.

In theory, you can format your story any way you like regarding how you present your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. It is your story after all. However, if you are planning on hiring a professional editor, publishing your story, or submitting it to agents then you will need to make sure your story conforms to standard formatting conventions.

What may be obvious to professionals familiar with book layout or the parts of a published book is not always easily apparent to some fiction writers, readers, or those unacquainted with the standard format of a book/ebook. When concentrating on your story, characters, and plot; which are where you should be concentrating as a writer; it’s easy to lose track of the required standard formatting. If these conventions are not adhered to then they may appear to be jarringly unfamiliar to readers, who are used to reading standard formats, and this may put them off reading your writing because the presentation may look unusual or unprofessional. As far as you’re concerned, as the writer you’ve done your job and in your own way you’re right, but when your story is complete it may be time to think of how your story will be received.

Not including preliminary matter or end matter (at the front or end of a story respectively), this is how your story should be arranged from the whole story down to its constituent elements:

1. Story
2. Sections
3. Chapters
4. Scenes
5. Paragraphs
6. Sentences

1. Paragraph: first-line indents

An indent is an unobtrusive short space typically positioned to the left of the first word of the first sentence, in a new paragraph within the same scene or chapter. The size of this short space will be determined by the designer or increasingly an e/book formatter that will either adhere to a typographic specification or simply implement best practice. It is standard in fiction to have first-line indents placed at the onset of each new paragraph but not the first paragraph of a chapter or scene, which should be set full-out to the left-hand margin with no paragraph indentation.

The indentation at the start of a new paragraph makes it easy for readers to distinguish the progression of the writer’s thoughts and helps them mentally absorb the smaller blocks of text one at a time. Writers can structure the length of their paragraphs how they please. However, I recommend keeping the length of the paragraph equal to how long a reader’s attention span would likely be sustained. All paragraphs should have a different focus or meaning, from the preceding and subsequent paragraphs. If you have sentences that don’t move onto a new topic, but add to the point of the paragraph, I recommend connecting them to strengthen it. That’s not to say that every sentence will add something of value to a paragraph, as in some cases cutting out unnecessary or repetitive constructions may be advised.

First paragraph of a new chapter or scene is set full-out to the left-hand margin, as in this sentence.
New paragraph is indented, at an acceptable size, as in this sentence.

2. New paragraph for new character dialogue

When another person is speaking in a conversation, it is standard convention to start a new paragraph to indicate to the reader that the person speaking is not the same person as the original speaker.

Original speaker: ‘Isn’t it a nice day today?’
New speaker: ‘Yes, the flowers are in bloom.’

This also helps differentiate who is speaking at any given moment in time, which can get confusing if the same person speaks again after they have already spoken. In this case, do not add an ending quotation mark after the first sentence spoken, as indicated below. This tells the reader that the same person is still speaking. Only add the ending quotation mark after the original speaker has finished speaking and somebody else speaks or the narrative continues.

Original speaker: ‘I hate being at his beck and call all day.
Original speaker: ‘He doesn’t even appreciate the work I do.’

3. Scene breaks to separate periods of time, character point of view, or change in circumstances of an event

Chapters can sometimes reach great lengths, where events occur at different times and from the point of view of different characters. Without an effective break or distinction between these point of views or different times, the reader has to mentally digest a jumble of unorganised information concerning exactly what main event is happening, who it is being perceived by, and when it is occurring. When the reader returns to reading your story they could be lost.

Using scene breaks is a helpful way to organise the structure of your chapter so that it is clear, logical, and easy-to-follow for readers. But just how do you decide where to start a scene break in your chapter? It requires judgement, your editor’s or your own, and perhaps even friends can help you.

Time

I like to add my scene breaks in when it is apparent that a period of time has passed from one set of paragraphs to another. Indeed, a scene may be considered to be a set of paragraphs following on smoothly from one to the next.

Point of view

Has the character whose point of view is important in a particular scene changed? Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third-person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs). There should be a good reason for a change in point of view, for example perhaps you’re trying to show the reader something new or interesting in your scene and you need another character’s perspective, or maybe you simply have more than one main character and their combined point of views are used to build the overall scene.

Events

Are you now focusing on a different, yet related, event or set of circumstances in your chapter? Consider adding a scene break to separate your events. Too many events in a short space of time can be overwhelming, so it’s important to provide the necessary breaks. It can also help you focus on what is important in your scenes and chapters.