March 18, 2024



One of the most important choices that a writer makes when they start a story is the “point-of-view”, or POV, that will be used.

Most stories are told in a 3rd person POV and usually in the past tense. These include stories that start with “Once upon a time”, where the story is told by a narrator of some sort, usually well after the events that have occurred. Such tales are characterized by the frequent use of third-person pronouns (he, she, they, etc.). The 3rd person POV enables the storyteller to control the storyline, but it also tends to enable or even encourage ‘infodumps’ and interruptions from an ‘all-knowing’ narrator.

The use of the present tense in 3rd person POVs would be common in things like screenplays and movie scripts, where the action that is being described is currently going on in real-time.  For example, a sentence might say “The character approaches the door and then opens it. Peeking inside, they examine the interior and notice a solitary figure inside.” The use of the present tense is more immersive and ties the reader more closely to the main character than if it were told in the past tense.

However, to promote an even more immersive experience for the reader, one can tell the story in the 1st person, where a character personally relates the story from a purely personal perspective. Such stories are dominated by the words ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’. This particular style, though, is much harder to write.

If the past tense is used with the 1st person POV, the narrator becomes the main character who recounts their experience. On the other hand, if the present tense is used, the opportunity for a narrator’s perspective is lost. Only the character’s perspective would be available to the reader. But a 1st person POV can make extensive use of ‘internal dialogue’ where the character thinks or talks to himself. Their awareness of what is happening in the story, though, is limited to their personal experience, what they see, what they hear, and what they think. This can be very effective to build and maintain a mysterious environment because the author can limit what the protagonist (and therefore what the reader) knows.

I have used this in several of my stories, but I find it difficult to sustain it because I keep wanting to switch to past tense to assume a narrator’s perspective. In either case, it is very important that a consistent tense and POV be maintained.

A second-person POV is very rarely used in fiction writing. This style is common in directions, instructions, DIY, or self-help books, where the writer instructs or explains what must or should be done. Such prose is usually dominated by the words you, your, and yours. The verbs tend to be imperative or directive in form. For instance, “You attach the wire and then solder it as described earlier. Then you take the assembled component and place it in the chassis.”

But here is another example from Jay McInerney’s , “Bright Lights, Big City.

“Eventually you ascend the stairs to the street. You think of Plato’s pilgrims climbing out of the cave, from the shadow world of appearances toward things as they really are, and you wonder if it is possible to change in this life.

If you, as the writer, can pull it off, this POV creates instant, complete empathy between the reader and the protagonist. It makes every thought and action their own and evokes emotional responses from their gut.

If you aren’t successful, though, reading in this POV and the frequent use of the pronoun “you” can prove to be a highly annoying experience for your audience.

The selection of which point of view should be used in a story depends on several factors:

  • the personal style of the writer;
  • the mood that the writer wants to promote;
  • the number of characters;
  • the degree of immersion the writer wants to establish or maintain;
  • and the writer’s experience with the particular style.

It is often helpful if new writers experiment with these different styles. As an exercise, take a short story and write it two different ways, first in a 3rd person POV, and then again in the 1st person.

Note how one styles might seem easier or harder than the other. Feel how the texture, pace, and degree of immersion changes between the two versions. You can do the same thing by experimenting with the tense of the story, as well. Notice how more limited the writer’s options are with present tense than if past tense is used. With the present tense the narrator’s perspective can be completely lost.

Ultimately each writer needs to choose what POV and tense best fits the tale that they want delivered to the reader.  

Just ask yourself. Do you want to tell about a hero or adventure that occurred long ago and far away? Or do you want to witness the adventure as it develops and occurs?  Or would you want your reader to become that character and experience what they think, feel, and experience first-hand?

Personally I have found that 1st person past tense helps me provide a steady focus for my stories. I can introduce consistent internal dialogue without having to interrupt with the voice of an omniscient narrator.

However, in the end, whatever POV you select depends upon your preference and personal ‘perspective’.