Knowing When to Use Each Tense and Perspective

When starting a story it can be difficult to decide what tense and persepective to use, and as a reader it can be very confusing if you pick up a book and find it’s not in the sort of style you expected, so I thought I’d talk a bit more about what to use, when and what all the different terms actually mean.

Tense

Books are usually written in two tenses. Predominantly past tense (there will often be a smattering of present tense parts of sentences, usually attached to a past tense action with a comma somewhere in the middle) or present tense. Future tense is something I’ve never seen used as a predominant style and I’m actually not sure if that would work anyway so we’ll ignore that as an option.

Past tense is my favourite and probably the easiest. Here’s an example sentence:

She pulled back the organza sleeves that covered her wrists and most of her hands and showed him the black rose tattoo on the soft inside.

Everything is described as if it happened and isn’t happening any longer. This is pretty much how most standard novels are written. It’s comfortable and not too driven, but it has a few limitations. Here’s the same sentence again in present tense:

She pulls back the organza sleeves covering her wrists and most of her hands and shows him the black rose tattoo on the soft inside.

As you can see it’s not entirely natural sounding, but it can lend a sort of immediacy to a book and drive it forward. As far as I am aware, the example just given of present tense isn’t one commonly used because it’s also in the third person perspective.

Perspective

There are three perspectives to choose from, third person (where events are narrated by someone outside even if limited to a single characters perspective), second person, and first person.

Third person is the most common perspective to use, along with past tense. The first example sentence is both of these and it’s the style I usually write. It’s what most of us are used to reading and I find it the easiest to write. On top of that there are some readers who refuse to read anything not in this style.

Second person is probably the least common, and I’ve only seen it used in the pick your own adventure type stories, with the subject being you. Here’s a present tense example:

You pull back the organza sleeves covering your wrists and most of your hands and show him the black rose tattoo on the soft inside.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen second person in past tense, mostly because it’s useful to give the sense of urgency to make a decision at the end of each chunk of narrative.

Finally there’s first person, which combined with present tense as well, makes a popular choice of style for a lot of young adult novels. The Hunger Games is written in first person, as is Fifty Shades (also present tense) so they seem to be getting much more popular in the main stream as well. In this style the main character is talking about himself or herself in a sort of diary like way. Here’s an example (again present tense):

I pull back the organza sleeves covering my wrists and most of my hands and show him the black rose tattoo on the soft inside.

Occasionally first person might use past tense but it’s less common. Just so it’s a complete picture of all the types you could use, here’s the example.

I pulled back the organza sleeves that covered my wrists and most of my hands and showed him the black rose tattoo on the soft inside.

In terms of which style I’d recommend people use, it entirely depends on what you want to write. As I mentioned earlier the pick your own adventure type story uses second person present the entire time (I’ve got one blogged here), and I’d recommend anyone who tries to write that format of book to use that style as well. For those who write for the young adult or new adult audiences (especially paranormal stories) it’s very common to use first person present, but it can also work very well for those punchy stories from strange perspectives where you really want the reader to engage in the mindset of the main character and get into their head. If you’re a relatively new author and you read a lot of first person present you will probably find this format easiest as well, although it’s not easy to get right. For everything else, mostly because that’s what those genres expect and because it’s easiest to get right, use third person past.

There are some writers who mix. Having chapters from one character in first person with other characters in third person, and also having the book mainly in present so flashbacks can be in the past. These are all good reasons to switch things up a bit, just be careful not to switch in the wrong places and confuse your readers.

Personally my favourite is third person past, probably because I grew up with it, but I also quite like second person present. I don’t enjoy first person, but I can see why people do. What’s your favourite to read and write? And what style puts you off books?

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