The use of tenses and narrative viewpoints

For reasons I am going to explain, today we take a dive into tenses and narrative viewpoints.

I recently asked in our Facebook group for topic ideas to write about. One of the requests was for an article about tenses and narrative viewpoints. It was also the easiest of the topic requests to write about without much preparation time. Which is why I tackled it first.

Narrative tenses

There are three possible tenses to use in writing. The chances are you will only want to use the first one. The other two are – to say the least – somewhat esoteric.

Past tense

You are writing about things that have already happened. “I had a cold show” and “I was hungry from missing breakfast” are both things that are in the past.

Past tense is by far the most forgiving and easy to use of the three. Almost all fiction uses past tense.

One thing you can do sometimes is “cheat” with a present tense sentence “Jack breezes past me”. This must be a stylistic choice that both you and the reader understand to be implied as a past event. If you have something like that on purpose, good. If it slipped in there on its own, change that to “Jack breezed past me” and remain consistent.

Present tense

Things are happening right now. “I am having a cold shower” and “I am hungry from missing breakfast” are both in the present tense. They are what is happening right now.

My advice is to stay well clear of this one. It is very hard to do well and easy to get lost or confused as a reader or writer. It works well enough for a stream of consciousness type of writing. Even so, it should be something you very deliberately pick for a specific narrative reason. If you are in doubt, this is not the tense for you.

The only book I have read that uses this tense is “I Am the Cheese” by American writer Robert Cormier.

Future tense

Things that have not happened yet. “I will have a cold show later” and “I will be hungry from my missed breakfast” are things yet to happen.

If you thought present tense was difficult to write in, this future tense lark is even harder. I have not read any books or shorts written this way. Possibly because future tense does not offer much that past tense offers for less effort.

Future tense exists but I strongly recommend that you pretend it does not.

Narrative viewpoints

There are four viewpoint types although, with the last one, things get a bit tricky. It might be fair to say that there are four-ish.

First person

First person is when the narrator is the character through whom we experience the story. They relay to us what they see, think, do, and feel.

“I took a cold shower” and “I was hungry from my missed lunch” are first person statements.

When writing in the first person, you have two things to keep in mind.

The narrator might be unreliable

Although the narrator is recounting the story of what they lived through, they might or might not be entirely honest with you.

Agatha Christie does this well in a Hercule Poirot book – I forget which – where the narrator is both the sidekick and the guilty party. This is something they obscure from you without – technically – telling a lie.

The use of an unreliable narrator can add great depth to a story if done well.

The narrator cannot know what anyone else is thinking

A mistake some people make when using the first person is to tell the reader what other characters think or know. Unless your character is established as a psychic, they cannot possibly know these things.

Second person

This is when you are the character. “You had a cold shower this morning” and “You were hungry from missing breakfast” are second person form.

Outside of choose your own adventure books, this is the hardest point of view to pull off. I recommend against using the second person unless you really, really want to. That said, here is an example of the second person in play.

Third Person

This is where we start to hit the “ish” because there are two-ish types of the third person form.

“Adam took a cold show” and “Julie was hungry having missed breakfast” are third person. The narrator is telling you a story about other people but is not in the story themselves.

And yes, in theory, an unreliable third person narrator is entirely possible. However lets learn to walk before we try running.

Third Person Limited

This is a form of third-person where the narrator has limited insight. They may or may not know the inner thoughts of the point of view character (that’s the person who we are following in that scene) but if they do know that much, that is all they know.

Like the first person, the narrator has no idea what the other characters are thinking. Nor do they know what is happening elsewhere. They are, as the name suggests, limited in their knowledge. Which means you can hide things from the reader by choosing a character that does not know or fails to notice.

This is the recommended approach for new writers using the third person form. How limited the narrator is in the story is up to you. I recommend none or one point of view character who’s inner thoughts we are privy to.

Third Person omniscient.

In this form the narrator is god-like. They know everything. They can tell you what every character is thinking and feeling and they know what is happening everywhere. This narrator is one from whom nothing is hidden.

The downside is that it is hard to write in the third Person omniscient without hitting cliche and cheesy writing.

Furthermore, it is too easy to go “head-hopping”. Which means to move from one person’s thoughts to another. This rarely ends with a satisfying story. It can be done but, outside of comedy, I’m not aware of any serious work that pulls off head-hopping.


Most writing teachers recommend that you stick to the first-person past tense or the third-person limited past tense. Until you are confident in your craft it may be best to pretend all other combinations don’t exist.

Just in case, I’ve not done a very good job of explaining third and first, here is author Brandon Sanderson explaining them to a class.

Brandon Sanderson on third-person vs first

Over to you

Do you agree with my conclusions?

Which form do you prefer to write in?

Can you name any good examples of the stranger combinations? Say, second person future – how would that even work?

Give us your thoughts in the comments below.

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