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Tense and Perspective: Grammatical Person

One of the most common ways to challenge your writing is to switch it up when it comes to tense and perspective. If you're in the indie-author community, you might've had to do this with an anthology you signed up for. Or maybe you just want to try something different. This post is lengthy, but it will help you sort through the options and some basic rules for staying on track.

Grammatical person is the relationship between the speaker or storyteller to the characters in your book. It is separate from tense, but what it has in common is that it is imperative they both are consistent throughout your manuscript. Switching them up partway through will likely result in your manuscript either being returned to you by your editor (should you want to try to fix it yourself) or it costing you more than you anticipated in editing fees.

 

There are many variations of grammatical person, so let's start with tense.

Tense: Past and Present

There are three main tenses in English: past, present, and future. When we're writing, we're telling a story, which doesn't tend to happen in future tense. It would probably read kind of silly, to be honest. So we're going to stick with past or present tense.

When writing in past tense, choose verbs that match the way you tell a story that happened yesterday. You'll just skip the "so yesterday..." part of the story. Imagine you're recapping a story to a friend.

She walked out the front door, careful of any neighbors outside. She still had her pajamas on and only needed to get the trash can to the street before the collector came. Once done, she quickly tiptoed to behind her car, as though the lack of her footsteps would make a difference, and bolted inside.

Alternatively, if you prefer present tense, your verbs tell a story as it happens. Think of it as though you're narrating what you are watching and don't know what will happen next.

She walks out the front door, careful of any neighbors outside. She still has her pajamas on and only needs to get the trash can to the street before the collector comes. Once done, she quickly tiptoes to behind her car, as though the lack of her footsteps will make a difference, and bolts inside.

POV (Point of View) and Perspective

Many readers and writers alike have a preference for the grammatical person of a story. My point is that you aren't going to do yourself (or your book) any favors by trying to please everyone. The content itself—the setting, the plot, the characters—should give you a good idea of which POV (point of view) will be most beneficial. If you aren't given specific parameters (like for an anthology or specific writing submission), you can also look up your reader base and see what they like reading. Look at best-selling books in your genre and see how they're written, compare reviews, etc.

There are three major types of narrative: first person, second person, and third person. It largely boils down to the pronouns you use (he/she or you or I/me), but perspective comes into play as well.

First person writing is being the main character. The story is told from their perspective, through their eyes. The pronouns I, me, us are going to structure your sentences. The advantage of working with first person is we get a lot more in depth when it comes to feelings and intuition from your main character. Some say it's easier to relate to them, that first person gives us a deeper connection with who we are following. To stay in first person though, and perhaps this is a disadvantage similar to third person limited (below), is that anything happening in the background must stay in the background. For example, if someone is sneaking up on our character, we won't know about it until they show themselves. 

Second person writing takes a special kind of effort to do well. It's kind of like telling the reader how to be the main character. It's also jarring and unusual to read. Making the reader the narrator so that they endure the plot themselves is an interesting route to take, but they might spend most of their efforts trying to process the narrative, which will distract from your story. It's generally a good idea to minimize writing that distracts readers from experiencing the content, which is tricky in second person.

Third person writing is telling a story from either over someone's shoulder (limited) or from a bird's eye view (omniscient). There shouldn't be any I, me, or you in the narrative parts of your book (outside of dialogue), so he/she and him/her and they/them are the pronouns that will structure your sentencing. Third person has a little more versatility, particularly if you want to challenge yourself a little more. It allows you to open the narrative to an omniscient POV as well as narrate back and forth between a limited number of characters.

Limited narration indicates we are following one person at a time. We generally see this in romance novels, where the author rotates back and forth from each of the two main characters. During one chapter we'll follow one, and during the next, we'll follow their partner; then it's back and forth until the story finishes. The advantage of third person limited is it gives us a glimpse into the characters' habits and thoughts and feelings similar to first person, but we get the feeling we're there watching it rather than doing it. It's a good idea to limit the number of characters we follow to prevent inundating the reader.

 

Omniscient narration is told from a bird's eye view or a neutral party who is not a character in your book. This way we get to see what is happening from everyone's visual perspective, but we get less of the thoughts and intimate personal details we'd get from a limited POV. Omniscient is tricky because it's easy to slip into a character, and you must ensure each character is on their own line rather than bunched up into each other's paragraphs.


See It in Action

Regardless of what you choose (or what instructions you've been given), the most important thing to remember is to remain consistent throughout your manuscript. To help you visualize the difference, here is a short scene rewritten to suit different types of grammatical person.

 

First person, Loni's POV:

I wipe my hands on my apron, wondering why he's home early today. Dinner won't be ready for half an hour, but if I turn up the heat just a hair, maybe at least the casserole will finish a little sooner.

 

The coat closet door closes, and Dan pops his head into the kitchen to smile at me on his way to the bathroom, his usual route when he gets home.  "Honey, I'm home," he says.

 

"Hey, hon, how was your day?" I ask, taking lettuce and tomato from the fridge. 

 

Second person, Loni's POV:

You wipe your hands on your apron, wondering why he's home early today. Dinner won 't be ready for half an hour, but if you turn up the heat just a hair, maybe at least the casserole will finish a little sooner.

 

The coat closet door closes, and Dan pops his head into the kitchen to smile at you on his way to the bathroom, his usual route when he gets home. "Honey, I'm home," he says.

 

"Hey, hon, how was your day?" you ask, taking lettuce and tomato from the fridge.

 

 

Third person, Loni's POV:

Loni wipes her hands on her apron, wondering why her husband is home early today. Dinner won't be ready for half an hour, but if she turns up the heat just a hair, maybe at least the casserole will finish a little sooner.

 

The coat closet door closes, and Dan pops his head into the kitchen to smile at her on his way to the bathroom, his usual route when he gets home. "Honey, I'm home," he says.

 

"Hey, hon, how was your day?" she asks, taking lettuce and tomato from the fridge. 

(Notice we only read what is happening from Loni's perspective. We don't see Dan's thoughts or intentions, but we do hear the closet door close.)

 

Third person, Dan's POV:

Dan removes his coat once he gets in the house, the smell of his favorite chicken casserole making him smile. Loni must be in the kitchen. He hoped to surprise her by coming home early, but it appears she wanted to surprise him too.

 

He closes the coat closet door to further announce his arrival and makes his way to the bathroom, popping his head into the kitchen to smile at his gorgeous wife on the way. "Honey, I'm home," he says, happy to wind down from his hectic afternoon.

 

"Hey, hon, how was your day?" Loni asks, taking lettuce and tomato from the fridge.

(Notice we don't see what Loni is doing or thinking about while in the kitchen because Dan can't see her yet.)

 

Third person, omniscient:

Loni wipes her hands on her apron, wondering why her husband is home early today. Dinner won't be ready for half an hour, but if she turns up the heat a little, maybe at least the casserole will finish a little sooner.

 

Dan closes the coat closet door to further announce his arrival and makes his way to the bathroom, popping his head into the kitchen to smile at his gorgeous wife on his way. "Honey, I'm home," he says, happy to wind down from his hectic afternoon.

 

"Hey, hon, how was your day?" Loni asks, taking lettuce and tomato from the fridge.

(Notice we get perspective from both characters rather than only one, but each character starts a new paragraph.)