Today marks the start of another month and more reminiscing about what we were doing in quarantine this time last year. Early lock-down kind of feels like a fever dream at this point, but I am so happy to report that as of this week your Three Houses Press team members are in the swing of the vaccination process and are so looking forward to returning to normalcy (and hopefully a Taylor Swift concert, as a treat).
With spring on the horizon and society inching its way closer to a new normal, we thought it a good time to focus on some writing basics. Let’s discuss your options for tense and perspective, shall we?
Ok, so time to nerd out a little and put my English degree to good use. We have a few options when it comes to tense: past, present, and future. These are then further broken up into simple, perfect, and continuous. So, for example–
Past Simple: He wrote Past Perfect: He had written
Present Simple: He writes Present Perfect: He has written
Future Simple: He will write Future Perfect: He will have written
Past Continuous: He was writing
Present Continuous: He is writing
Future Continuous: He will be writing
Fiction is most often written using the past simple tense, but depending on what you are writing, you may find a different tense will work better for you. Writing in the present tense can feel more natural to some people, and it has a sense of immediacy as you experience the events at the same time as the protagonist does.
Don’t feel locked down to just one tense though, as Ursula K. Leguin once wrote, “Using only one tense is like having a whole set of oil paints and using only pink.” While Leguin certainly has a point, please be aware of your tense choices as you make them, and be careful not to confuse your narrative. When a paragraph suddenly switches to past tense from present with no obvious reason as to why, it tends to make readers upset.
If you’re having trouble picking which tense makes the most sense for you and your novel, try writing out the same paragraph in several different tenses. It may surprise you which tense really makes your novel feel the most polished.
Like tense, with perspective you have a few options to work with. We have first person, second person, and third person.
- First person: written from the protagonists point of view, so it feels very personal. The advantage to this is that a reader immediately feels connected to the protagonist, as they are being let into their own private world. However, it can be limiting as in real life you can’t know what others around the protagonist are really thinking and feeling.
Example: I am highly allergic to strawberries, and it has been a problem throughout my whole life.
- Second person: The reader is being addressed. This is an unusual way to write a novel, but it has been done–I recommend reading a few to see if this is something you’d like to explore. A few recs: The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, and The Diver’s Clothes Lay Empty by Vendela Vida.
Example: You are highly allergic to strawberries, and it has been a problem throughout your whole life.
- Third person: The reader is told the story from a third party outsider’s perspective, like a narrator. Third person is probably the most commonly used perspective, because although it isn’t quite as in depth as a first person narrative, it can still get all necessary information and emotions across to the reader.
There are two different kinds of third person, either omniscient or limited. In an omniscient person narrative, the narrator knows all about all characters involved. In a limited third person narrative, the reader has less insight into the minds of those around the protagonist.
Example: Emily is highly allergic to strawberries, and it has been a problem throughout her whole life.
You can mix things up with perspective in ways that are fun and advantageous to your plot. I am partial to romance novels that switch perspectives between the couple each chapter, because it allows me to know the couple so much more.
You can also write each chapter in a different person’s perspective, like George R.R. Martin does in the A Game of Thrones* series. Stephen King’s novel Christine switches between first and third person, allowing you to be connected to the protagonist, but also be made aware of details you would not otherwise be if you were only in that person’s head.
In Breaking Dawn, the last of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer switches to Jacob’s point of view instead of Bella’s at a particularly crucial point in the novel–while I find his perspective to be astoundingly annoying, I concede that it is a useful tool both in understanding his character a bit more and in prolonging suspense.
So that’s our beginners reference guide for tense and perspective, I do hope it is helpful in working out some of the crucial decisions that writers have to make. If you’ve read a novel with a particularly creative tense or perspective choice, please comment below!
*tune in for next month’s Three Houses, One Podcast….we may have much to say about Mr. Martin’s most famous creation.