#WritingCommunity: Which POV & Tense Is Better? Third or First Person? Past or Present Tense?
Heading into the New Year, we all love the feeling of starting out fresh. Who doesn’t want a new beginning? The start of a New Year can also mean getting out of our comfort zone. For writers, the first thing that comes to my mind is tense. Are you considering writing in a different tense or POV this 2019?
Third-Person vs. First-Person
Okay, so I Googled this and found the argument rather interesting. The biggest debate is the battle between third-person and first-person. Some writing professors and professionals in the writing and publishing communities claim that the use of first-person is the mark of a first-time writer. Others refute this theory. Some say that third-person novels tend to sell more, get more book deals, and tend to be written by established authors. Regardless, you have books like Girl On A Train, that’s first-person, among many others like it, that blow the nay sayers out of the water. You can’t predict if a third-person or first-person novel, whether from a best-selling or a debut author, will sell.
The Most Challenging & Controversial POV + Tense =
The last two manuscripts I’ve written were in first-person. Guilty as charged. The first one was in first-person past-tense. My second manuscript was in first-person present-tense, hey I was trying to channel my inner Chuck Palahniuk. Why first-person present-tense? I’m sure some of you are cringing and you know why. First-person present-tense is very hard to execute. But there are some well-known authors that do it expertly.
Popular First-Person Present-Tense Novels:
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
The Silver Lining Playbook by Matthew Quick
The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus II
Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Divergent by Veronica Roth
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Needless to say, I ended up switching my most recent manuscript from first-person present-tense to first-person past. The biggest concern I had was that some of the childhood backstory was in first-person past-tense and the present scenes were in first-person present.
Ultimately, I hedged my bet by taking the safer route and made the entire manuscript the same tense (first-person past-tense.) I figured that for first-time writers hoping to become debut authors, you’re really taking a huge risk with unfavorable tenses and experimental direction. I’m not suggestion to NOT be original and write “outside of the box.” I’m just saying that be aware, you may have to get your foot in the door first. Then, you can write your “passion project.” It’s much easier for agents and publishers to reject you because they don’t like that you are writing in split tenses or fill in the blank.
The biggest issue with writing in first-person present is that it can be very limiting. Some people even describe the writing as “claustrophobic.”
Rejection Can Happen For Odd Reasons
Yes, Even Over Tense Usage
Honestly, agents and publishers can reject you over literally anything. This is why everyone continues to repeat that this “writing business” is purely subjective. You can have a character, God forbid, kill a dog in your manuscript and because the agent or editor at a publishing house is an animal activist, they’ll turn you away because they were insulted by that one scene. You didn’t mean it and it wasn’t intentional. But…people get offended and we (writers) have no control over what readers get offended by. That’s why it’s always good to have a couple of sensitivity readers on standby, just in case. At the end of the day, most writers don’t go out of their way to insult readers on purpose. The fact is, there are lots of readers that don’t just dislike first-person present-tense, but they hate it.
I worked with an editor recently who saw this last manuscript after I’d made the tense changes. Let’s just say that he was all, “Thank God,” because he’s one that can’t stand first-person present.
I rest my case.
Personally, I love the immediacy of first-person present. It tends to feel and read very cinematic. The dialogue tends to be punchy, and there is more room for dark, off-beat humor or tense, edge-of-your-seat, thriller-esque drama.
Past Tense Is More Popular
The other obvious tenses are first-person past-tense and third-person past-tense. They both tend to feel equal to me in terms of how they read. They are less limiting language, but I think the biggest difference is that the writer has much more flexibility with third-person. You have more room to introduce various characters, and you’re not just in one person’s head the entire time.
With multiple point of views, you can have two, three, or more perspectives, and they can all be written in first-person past-tense. Multiple POV storytelling allows for more flexibility in terms of storytelling. It isn’t from just one person’s view point.
When it comes to multiple POVs, three POVs tend to be the norm. Or, what I’ve seen more recently, a mix of both points of view. I think it’s easier to mix two different points of view (third and first.) It’s a little harder to mix two different tenses, in my opinion.
With novels that mix first and third-person, the main character is usually in first-person and the other two POVs are in third. The Widow by Fiona Barton does this really well, as does The 17th Suspect by James Patterson. Both authors mix third-person and first-person past-tense. Honestly, Patterson’s first-person point of view didn’t really come across like the main character. Regardless, I enjoyed the book. So, you just never know. It all comes down to whether or not the author can deliver and hook you.
The Bottom Line
Execution is primary to anything. There are even select books out there written in second-person. It’s a matter of whether or not you are able to do it well, and it all takes practice. My third manuscript and current #WIP is written in three POVs, all third-person present-tense. I’m finding third-person present-tense a nice compromise, because it has the same immediate feeling as first-person, but without the limitations. At the end of the day, choose what tense and point of view works best for you. If a specific tense and POV doesn’t feel right, don’t force it. If you force it, it will show. The most important thing as writers, is that we get better with each piece of work we choose to create. In fact, my number one goal this year is to grow as a writer and especially as a reader.
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged 2019, AmWriting, Authors, First Person, Multiple POV, Novelist, Novels, Past Tense, Present Tense, Publishing, Third Person, WIP, Work in Progress, Writers, Writing.
5 thoughts on “#WritingCommunity: Which POV & Tense Is Better? Third or First Person? Past or Present Tense?”
January 4, 2019 at 1:24 PM
This is a great post Sonyo. I believe I share your preference for first-person present tense. I like for the reader to feel like they are going through the journey and are in the moment with me. Of course, I may have to change that if a book becomes the end goal.
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January 4, 2019 at 3:30 PM
Yeah, first-person present-tense is very close and personal. It’s almost like you’re seeing everything through the eyes of the MC. When done well, in any genre, it tends to be a page-turner type of experience. I’d say stick with the POV that works best for you. 🙂
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January 4, 2019 at 8:51 PM
First-person present, when done correctly, takes me into the story and takes me out of my head and puts me right there, right then in the scene, experiencing it all. But it’s all in the execution, and I think it can take an advanced writer to pull it off.
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January 4, 2019 at 10:01 PM
Yeah, I agree with you. First-person present-tense works really well when done correctly. I hope to be advanced enough, that in the future, I eventually plan on writing a first-person present-tense MS. 🙂
November 15, 2021 at 1:51 PM
I mostly write in third person when working on my novel, but I often write in first person and even second person when writing poetry and prose. I cannot say I have a favorite tense to read a book in; I find as long as the tense fits the story, it blends with the words and creates the perfect experience.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
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