POINT OF VIEW AND TENSE
There are two decisions to make at the outset of writing a piece of fiction – which tense you are going to be writing in, and from which or whose point of view is the story to be told.
Pick and choose, experiment, have fun. But the watchword here is consistency. Once you have chosen a tense and a point of view, be consistent.
Here are a few pointers on Points of View, or POV, as it is commonly known:
No separation between the character’s thoughts/feelings and the reader
Limited to the one character – the protagonist – and can only write what that character experiences.
‘I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.’
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
FIRST PERSON novels:
Great Expectations, Dickens; Jane Eyre, C.Bronte; Huckleberry Finn, Twain; Fight Club, Palahniuk
MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON
Using a succession of first person accounts
Accounts can either be about a single incident, or relating the unfolding story
A single convincing viewpoint can be difficult to pull off, multiple viewpoints even harder
This viewpoint entails the reader having to read between the lines to gauge the relationships between the characters and the unfolding story
The narrative structure of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins:
Page 1-130 – Walter Hartright
Page 131 – 165 – Vincent Gilmore
Page 166-344 – Marian Halcombe
Page 345-405 – Frederick Farlie
Page 406-411 – Esther Pinhorn
Page 412 – Alfred Goodricke/Jane Gould
Page 413-536 – Walter Hartright
Page 537-549 – Mrs Catherick
Page 550-608 – Walter Hartright
Page 609-623 – Count Fosco
Page 624-639 – Walter Hartright
MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON novels:
The Moonstone, Collins; The Woman in White, Collins; Dracula, Stoker.
FIRST PERSON PERIPHERAL
A single viewpoint, but from someone other than the protagonist.
As for FIRST PERSON, the viewpoint is limited to the consciousness of the single character’s viewpoint. Being a secondary character, it is possible he will miss much of the action
‘In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
FIRST PERSON PERIPHERAL novels:
The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey
ALL FIRST PERSON NARRATORS ARE UNRELIABLE, SO DON’T FORGET TO HAVE A BIT OF FUN WITH THEM, EH :)
THIRD PERSON LIMITED
Still limited to single character experience, as in FIRST PERSON, but picture camera following the character instead of seeing through his eyes
Narrative voice tells of experience rather than character voice.
‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun.’
Herzog by Saul Bellow
THIRD PERSON LIMITED novels:
Herzog, Bellow; The Harry Potter books, Rowling; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn
THIRD PERSON MULTIPLE
Multiple THIRD PERSON LIMITED characters
Each character must be easily distinguishable from each other
Each character must take turns – often achieved through alternate chapters or other such devices
Tricky to get balance of character space on the page right
In Acts of Faith by Erich Segal, characters have alternate chapters
In Ulysses, the characters are intertwined
In Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, characters are titled
THIRD PERSON MULTIPLE books
Acts of Faith, Segal; Ulysses, Joyce; Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Rivers
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT
The narrator is all powerful – he sees all and knows all – past, present, and future
Warning: Beware of Headhopping – jumping from one character to another too quickly, without due consideration. Calm down. Don’t let the power go to your head.
If not careful, the THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT can sound a little pompous.
Risks being impersonal
‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’
Middlemarch by George Eliot
THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT books:
Middlemarch, Eliot; Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut; Lord of the Rings, Tolkein
THIRD PERSON OBJECTIVE
A THIRD PERSON point of view that remains OUTSIDE of the character
The narrator is restricted to using only dialogue and action to tell the story
The narrator has no views on the story he is telling, or any of the characters or their actions
Can feel very much like reading a script
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
THIRD PERSON OBJECTIVE books:
Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway; The Maltese Falcon, Hammett
Once you have your point of view established, the other major decision to make at the outset of your fiction is to decide which tense will be best to tell your story. In terms of fiction, generally speaking, the two options are the past tense and the present tense. Both of these tenses can be combined with each point of view to create the first major building block for telling your story. Try different combinations. See which suits.
A useful exercise is to write your first paragraph in one tense, then try writing the exact same paragraph from a different tense. For instance, try writing something in third person then re-write the same passage in first person, or vice versa. If you are still unsure as to which point of view to use, do the same exercise using different points of view - It is always illuminating.
As always, the main thing . . . lighten up and have fun with it 😊