The Writer’s Stance: Point of View and Tense Options

Fiction and nonfiction writers often simply fall into a point of view (POV)—the narrator’s stance—on an intuitive whim, adopting either first-person (the I-position), second-person (addressing a ‘you’); or third-person (the all-knowing off-stage persona.) But at some point in the drafting stage it can be illuminating to test an alternate POV, to see if another approach might better serve your story.  Review your options:

Will you tell the story from the first-person perspective, relating experiences as if they happened to you? Or will it be a third-person account of someone else’s life?

First person restricts the piece to one set of feelings, and limits the action to that character. This POV, with its immediacy and intensity, gives readers access to the protagonist’s inner world. It’s common in fiction for young adults; and in memoir and autobiography first person gives credence to a portrait of personal struggles and insight.

But memoir is not always confined to first person. Flora Thompson wrote her enduring classic Lark Rise to Candleford in third person. It’s a good fit for this backward glance into a forgotten time among England’s rural poor. Thompson addresses readers as the insightful adult narrator, with the perspective of a half-century’s remove. By showing us herself, as a slightly fictionalized character, she gives us someone to identify with. However, had Thompson’s intent been to delve into the impact of her father’s alcoholism a first person narrator would have been better able to share inner feelings and growth.

Third-person is the most common POV in both fiction and nonfiction. It has myriad possibilities, from the omniscient narrator who portrays the thoughts and experiences of multiple characters (ala Victorian novels), to an off-stage chronicler who closely follows just one person. The narrator might be almost invisible—the objective reporter—or an active presence who sometimes speaks directly, as in Lark Rise to Candleford.

A less common POV is second-person, in which the writer addresses an ambiguous ‘you,’ who might be herself, the reader, a character—or all three. A friend used this POV to advantage in short lyrical prose about nature. Longer work in second-person, however, is difficult to sustain, risking reader confusion. “Second person is one of the more complex points of view, and it is rarely used,” says Alice LaPlante in her writing compendium The Making of a Story.

A related issue to POV is tense options. Past tense is the most common choice, written from a slight—or distant—remove. “The eighties brought a succession of hot summers and,” wrote Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford, “day after day, as harvest time approached, the children at the end house would wake to the dewy, pearly pink of a fine summer dawn and the swizzh, swizzh of the early morning breeze…” Thompson’s word choice, underlined here, tells us these things happened in the past.

Kenneth Oppel makes present tense (a less common form) look easy in Boundless, a novel for young adults.  “Above his heart’s roar, he hears the slow, rhythmic thumping of cars moving along the rails,” wrote Oppel. “It’s leaving without him!” Like the second-person POV, present tense requires mastery to sustain but Kirkus Review lauded Oppel for this tense, which lifts the novel above the sometimes stuffy tone of history-based writing. Oppel himself, however, says he chose present tense to give the narrative immediacy. “When you start writing about something in the present tense, right away you’re just in the skin of the characters, and you’re seeing through their eyes—you feel like it’s happening,” says Oppel.

So: go ahead and follow your intuition about the best writerly stance to adopt—then study and experiment to see if it’s the best fit. Writing—even for a short blog like this—demands  a huge investment of time, so give it your best effort to ensure the piece fulfills its potential.

POV Writing Exercise

Write your obituary from three different positions.

  • As if a local newspaper reporter is writing an obituary that sums up your life and accomplishments, from the objective third person position. “She graduated from….”

  • As if in a note you’ve left behind for family, with your life’s highlights.

  • In second-person, as if your sister has written the obituary for the local newspaper, addressing you as if you were still alive.