Tenses and Persons


Not long ago, a book I’d placed on hold at the library arrived for me.  It was a book I’d seen a few weeks earlier, when another patron placed it on hold.  At the time, I’d read the book flap and decided I liked the premise, so I was tickled when my turn popped up.  As soon as I was done working for the day, I curled up on the couch to enjoy a few pages.  Only to discover this:

“You walk into the hallway.  The elevator is just closing, but you press the button.  The doors open again, and you step into the empty car.” 

Yes, the book was written in second person, present tense.  I couldn’t get much past the first page.  Instead of being able to lose myself in the wonder of the story, I was being ordered around by the author with every sentence.  It felt like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with all the choices taken away.   I guess it’s more like a This Is Your Adventure Whether You Like It Or Not book.  I tried to let myself relax into the story, but I couldn’t.  After another page, I gave up, and returned the book to the library, unread. 

The tense and person you choose for your story matter.  Certain tense/person choices are more comfortable for readers than others.  If your main intention in writing your story is to have the largest number of people read it, you’ll want to present it in its best light, and this absolutely includes knowing which tense/person combination is going to work best for you. 

The most common is third person, past tense.  This is the way the vast majority of stories are written in, and the one you’ve seen most often over time.  Here’s an example, from David B Coe’s The Sorcerer’s Plague:

“She could hear the last of the thunder rumbling in the distance; she could feel it pulsing in the ground beneath her feet, as if the earth itself trembled at the storm’s fury. The forest flickered with lightning, strange, frightening shapes flashing before her and then vanishing like wraiths.  The rain had ceased long ago, but a cool wind swept among the trees, carving through her damp clothes, chilling her like death.”

Third person past tense feels normal because it has a long tradition of use behind it.  All those fairy tales you heard as a child were told in the past tense, as if events that had already happened were being recounted.  There’s a safety behind past tense – it’s already happened, so the listener/reader can be assured that the worst is behind the characters, even if we haven’t heard it yet ourselves.  Third person creates a link between reader and character, one similar to the link between actor and character.

The next most common choice is first person past tense.   First person, as anyone who’s decided to write a novel should already know, is the “I”.  “I ran”, “I screamed”, “I wanted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”  An example from Faith Hunter’s Raven Cursed:

“I rode into Asheville, NC, for all the wrong reasons, from the wrong direction, on a borrowed bike, with no weapons, ready to work for the vamps again.  It was stupid all around, but it was the gig I signed up for, and I was all about satisfying the client, keeping him safe, eliminating the danger and finishing the job. Or staking the vamp, depending on the job description.  ‘Finish the job’ had become my second mantra, right behind ‘Have stakes, will travel.'”

Again, past tense is comfortable, but there’s a little more immediacy to first person because the reader is automatically drawn into the narrator’s thoughts.  Most books written in first person will also keep to the single narrator’s thoughts, leaving the reader no more informed about what the secondary characters are thinking than the narrator herself is (although I have seen a few books that devote chapters to other characters, in third person.  It’s a bit weird to read, rarely done at all and even more rarely done well.)

Present tense has been used for narratives for years now, but it’s still a little startling for the average reader.  I think it’s because of the proximity of present tense – instead of something that’s already happened, it’s going on right now.  Who knows if the story will end happily?  We can’t see into the future, so we can’t guess if there’ll be a happy ending.  But sometimes present tense is exactly the right choice for a story that needs to move hard and fast.  A great example of first person present tense is Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim:

“I wake up on a pile of smoldering garbage and leaves in the old Hollywood Forever cemetery behind the Paramount Studio lot on Melrose, though these last details don’t come to me until later.  Right now all I know is that I’m back in the world and I’m on fire.  My mind hasn’t quite kicked in yet, but my body knows enough to roll off the burning trash and to keep rolling until I can’t feel the heat anymore.”

Some writers employ third person present tense.  This is seen less often, but done well, it can work.  Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is mostly written in this style.  “The magician’s smile vanishes.  He glances back at the desk with a frown, and the spilled tea begins seeping back up from the floor.  The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirls of steam rising into the air.”   Morgenstern also writes some of her chapters in the dreaded second person present, which I don’t actually like but which, in this particular case, works, mostly because it’s only done once every five or six chapters, so it doesn’t overwhelm the reader. 

Second person past and present tense are the choices made least often by writers.  They are quirky choices, mostly because of that commanding feel. Remember how I compared it to a Choose Your Own Adventure?  At least those books are more along the lines of a game.  Second person works well for nonfiction how-to books, but not so much for a novel.  I had trouble finding an example, since I don’t own any books written this way, and very few authors use it, but I located Charles Stross’ Halting State:

“You file the email as you leave the coffee shop.  Bob trails after you.  The destination shows up, as a twirling diamond just visible over the buildings on the far side of the road as you get into the car.”

It’s difficult to fall into a story when the writer is constantly telling the reader what he or she is doing.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it if that’s the way you believe your story must be told.  

And as much as I may like or dislike one choice or the other, that’s the real truth – it’s up to you.  If your story is best served with a traditional style, or if that’s merely the way you like the best, then that’s the choice for you.  If you’re a renegade who likes to live a little on the edge, you might want to attempt one of the less common styles.  Just be certain that the way you’re presenting your story is the best way for the story you want to tell.



20 comments to Tenses and Persons

  • Misty, thank you for this… I’ve stalled on several stories because the either the tense or “person” felt right when I started, but felt more and more wrong the further I got into them… Ah, the joys of editing and rewriting as means to restart.

    It all comes down to a stylistic choice, or an intended bigger-picture result from the author – like you said: “if that’s the way you believe your story must be told.” Stross uses 2nd person for both Halting State and last year’s Rule 34, but in both cases the overarching narrator, i think, (spoiler) is an AI of sorts.

    I agree that a good 2nd person novel is a hard thing to pull off, only slightly easier at a short story level. My one attempt (so far) invloved a split story that uses 2nd to follow “you” as an observer at a specific event and 3rd to follow the protagonist outside and around the event – weaving two stories together but the 2nd sections play off of the pieces written in 3rd.

  • I tend to have problems reading 1st person POV. The only exception is if I can really identify with the protag, then I can see myself in that role. I have a story which I am going to attempt to write 1st person, but we will see.

    2nd person POV is right out. There is no way I cuold read a story in that. Sorry.

    Overall, 3rd person is my favorite and most comfortable.

  • Second person, especially second in present tense, always feels like a literary stunt to me — probably because the first story I ever read in second person was a New Yorker short story. (I didn’t read CYOA as a kid – obviously, I had a stunted childhood.)

    I’m about to start writing a new novel that will be present tense – I am almost 100% certain it’ll be first person. I’m seeing a *lot* of YA written in present tense these days, more than other genres…

  • Megan B.

    I’ve seen second person done well in a flash fiction. It was a fast, emotional story that made it easy to forget about the POV. It also told the reader how they felt, so it didn’t just sound like a set of commands. As I read it, I pictured a character, rather than seeing myself in the story. With that said, it probably would have worked just as well, or better, in third person.

    I wonder if part of the problem with second person is the fact that it often expects you to plug in your own thoughts and feelings. So it just feels empty. The story I just mentioned overcomes that by giving “you” inner thoughts and feelings. That sounds like it would be even worse, because who is the writer to tell you how you feel? But I thought it worked better because it added the depth we are used to getting in 1st and 3rd.

  • Early on in my career, I wrote a book in first person and the editor hated it. I was requested to rewrite the entire novel in third person. It sounds easy. It wasn’t. It was the hardest line-by-line I ever did. Turned out that editor-lady was right. It was much better in third. POV and tense matter in ways that reach deep down inside us, into our pasts and our culture and our spiritual selves. Plus, it keeps us from throwing books across the room in dusgust.

  • I’ve written a few things in first person, and have found that when that when it doesn’t work, it REALLY doesn’t work, and when it does, it is more effective than any other voice. It has to be right for the story and the main character and it really is, for me at least, an all or nothing proposition. Third person is far safer. I have written exactly one story in present tense, and I had a very, very good reason for doing it. An editor read the story, liked it, but wondered about the tense. She actually emailed me to ask my why I had done it, and when I gave her my reason, she bought the story on the spot. Our choices of tense and POV can’t be gimmicks; they have to be legitimate artistic choices. If they are, they will work. If they’re not, readers (and editors) will see right through them.

  • My WILL books are in first person, and I like the way the book becomes so character-centric since everything is mediated by that voice, that perspective. But that’s not my go to method, and I’m most at home with limited third person past tense (doubly limited because I do very little head hoping, and lean towards telling the whole story from a single character’s POV as in DARWEN). Thanks for raising this, Misty.

  • Unicorn

    Thank you for the interesting post, Misty. I dislike present tense, perhaps only because I’ve read very few stories written that way; it tends to jar me out of the book.
    On the other hand, I find short stories in second person absolutely fascinating. They’re something new. Reading the short story “How to Talk to Your Mother: Notes” by Lorrie Moore for a literature assignment, I found the second-person, present-tense format the most interesting element of the story.
    That said, I won’t try to pull off a second-person story for quite some time. For now, I’m happiest in third person, past tense, but I am experimenting with first person – I like the intimacy of it and agree with David that done well it is the most effective voice.
    Something else I tried when writing a short story was writing in third person, past tense, but never mentioning my POV character by name. Other characters call him by his name in dialogue, but the rest of the time, it’s “he”. I was trying to achieve a slightly more intimate style without going into first-person. Not having revised it a lot or sent it to beta readers yet, I can’t say if it worked, but it was interesting to write.

  • Have you guys seen anything that switches pov thoughout the book? I don’t mean a third person POV that is first in Sally’s then in Jimmy’s pov. (I write in multiple pov). I mean, like one character is third person and then it switches and another characters is in first person?

    Anyway, I think second person done right can be cool (and there are a few excellent examples) but overall, I can’t see sustaining it for a whole novel. I can’t see writing it and I don’t know that I could read it. I will also add that one place I’ve seen 2nd person (present or past) is in porn (or possibly erotica). That, honestly, creeps me out. “I touch you…” EW! NO! Don’t touch me!

    I’m about to foray into my first first-person pov attempt! I’m excited. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interesting comments from everybody on this topic, and thank you, Misty, for the writing examples of each of these cases done *well*.

    I’ve recently switched the short story I’m working on over to present tense. I can’t say I’ve got an iron-clad reason for it, like David, but most of the passages felt like they were better-designed for present tense.

    Strangely, both this story and my novel WIP started out in 1st person, but I switched them over to third because that’s what I’m most comfortable reading and it allows more room for description (and more comfortable transition between multiple characters for my novel). I *would* say I’ve had very little interest in finishing a project in 1st person, but very recently I’ve had an idea for a character who’s largely mute and whose story seems like it would lend itself well to 1st person. My main worry with that is that the result would come off as more YA than I would prefer, because the bulk of 1st person stuff I’ve read lately has either been YA or UF…

  • Cookie74

    There is another POV that I’ve only seen once–First person plural. “We did this. We did that.” The book is called And Then We Came to the End, I think. It’s a little weird because you never know who is the person saying “We”. It’s an invisible narrator. What I mean is, the narrator is not a character in the book, it’s just a collective “We”. Interesting, though, and not as jarring as a second person narrative.

  • A. R. Gideon

    @pea faerie I haven’t really seen a book that consistently switches pov. However I use different pov in a few parts of my WIP. It’s mostly in third person, but there are a few parts that I’ve written in first person. For example, about 3/4’s of the way through the book, the sister of the main character (who is a seer) is telling her brother about a sending she had. I devote a chapter to the sending, and she tells it in first person.

  • A. R. Gideon

    I’ve been working on a short story, and I’ve been having some trouble because of the person. The story is written as a journal of one of the characters, and so is in first person. I’ve written in first person before, but what is making it hard is the fact that its a journal. I’ve been having to think, “now, if I were on the Appalachian Trail, and something like that was hunting me, how would I write about it in a journal. Would I be writing about how I felt? would I be trying to document it as proof?” I’ve finally settled on him writing to basically stay sane and not give in to despair. what’s been really giving me trouble is that through the story they start running out of supplies and exhaustion and hunger are making him slowly lose coherency. It’s been a lot of fun though, and it’s definitely a learning experience.

  • sagablessed

    My first quartet is written on third person, with focus on the prime character at the time.
    My other two books will be written in first person. My next two will mix the two.

  • If your main intention in writing your story is to have the largest number of people read it, you’ll want to present it in its best light, and this absolutely includes knowing which tense/person combination is going to work best for you.

    I’ve already said it here (and at the MW Betas), so apologies for repeating myself, but my WIP was written in first person, present tense. I got attached to that because it’s how I first started writing it. But editing it became a chore because it would make my head swim, and although wonderful beta readers like Sarah tried to tell me that the tense wasn’t working for them, it took a beta-reader friend telling me bluntly that reading it was like “watching everything through a veil”. I’ve since switched it to first-person past. Not only does it feel much more clear, but the voice has become stronger, and much more me. Reclaiming ownership of that voice feels right.

  • Hey Laura – I’m glad those critiques helped!

    I admit, I don’t generally like present tense, especially in novels. It makes each sentence seem like a declaration separate from the next one because each sentence is a new moment, a new now. I’ve seen it work most effectively in short stories where the broken, choppy effect is being used by the author because it fits the mood of the story or the personality of the POV character.

    The other disadvantage of present tense is that it’s more grammatically limiting than past tense. Most present tense writing that I’ve read sticks to the simple present and doesn’t use the present progressive. (I walk. I run. I hunger. vs I am walking. I am running. etc) Aside from making every sentence a definitive declaration, this means that expressing events relative to each other in time becomes difficult. The past tense in novels can be used to create the effect of Past – Done and Over or Past – Ongoing, or Past – Prelude to another Event (simple past, past progressive or imperfect, and pluperfect.) The past tense even allows writers to express the subjunctive more easily in English so that the POV character can more easily express reflection on past events. (If I had known Coby was drinking again, I would have packed my taser.) Try to convey the same info in only the present tense and it gets long and awkward, slows down the action and requires verbs of perception, which are usually distancing for the reader. (I realize Coby is drinking again as soon as I see the Jameson bottles all over the floor. I wish I had my taser with me.)

  • Mindy, it always feels like a stunt to me, too. As Jeff said, Stross used it in some of his books, but he used it for a good reason, and I’m told the reveal as to why is worth the read. But I just haven’t had to patience to get all the way through the book to that reveal.

    AJ, I used the limited POV myself in Mad Kestrel, although third instead of first. At the time, I thought it would be easier to tell the story in one character’s head. It turned out to be a little harder than I expected (I kept wanting to spend a chapter in McAvery’s head instead!), but I’m still glad I chose it.

    Pea_faerie, I mentioned Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus, in which she changes from third/present to second/present every few chapters. The only other book that pops into my head is Alexey Pehov’s Shadow Prowler, but the tense jumps are, I think, more the fault of lazy translation than actual intent.

    My personal favorite, to read and to write, is third/past, but first/past is dead on its heels. I don’t usually like present unless the author has managed to be extraordinary, like Richard Kadrey. But as I said, it all depends on how you want to tell your story. I can be persuaded!

  • Third/past and third/past/limited are my comfort zones for writing. I’ve done a few short stories in 1st/past, but so far I’m finding the limitation to that single POV difficult in longer works. I have to admire Faith and Catie for being so good at it! In reading, I enjoy both first and third/past tense. Just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy and was a bit put off at the start by the present tense, but soon enough I fell into the story and honestly, didn’t even notice the tense.

    For Pea: I can’t remember the specific stories/books/authors, but the best use I’ve seen of switching from first to third or vice versa are those tales where the narrator is also a character. Whether in the “My name is Nathan, and I’m here to tell you dragons are real. Let me tell you about them…” storyteller going into 3rd, or the ~Nathan nodded. “Yep. I was there.” He nodded again and began to tell his tale.~ and the story he tells is in 1st.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve read some incredibly well-done first person books. Carol Berg, for example, is very good at it. I have a short story in progress that uses first person, because that’s how the character’s voice first came to me. Other times, when I get stuck on a story, I write a few paragraphs on the side in first person, as an exercise. If I end up with something good that I want to use in the story, though, I go back and rewrite it in third person- and yes, that really is tricky! I’ve only read a few stories in first person present tense, and frankly I think it works better for short stories than novels.

  • Yay for choose your own adventure and the Fighting Fantasy series. Anyone else remember Warlock of Firetop Mountain?

    I have a feeling I’d like to write a first person novel. I’m hesitant because the stories I come up with seem to involve several points of view to be told with all the action and nuance to be revealed. I’ve written a couple of short stories in first person and I enjoy the freedom it provides to explore the inner conflict of the character. A great example, I think, is Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy.

    Anyone see examples of first person but multiple characters? Maybe a collection of journals from different people to tell the one story?