Verb tenses in fiction writing are confusing, at least they were for me. Hence, why I’m writing this post. I’m hoping I can help, and not confuse you more 🙂
Let’s sidestep for a moment…
Before you begin your novel you first need to choose the right POV.
First person: “I/we ran for our lives.” This viewpoint is extremely limited. You can only narrate what ONE character experiences. Just like I can’t possibly know what you’re thinking now, neither can your POV First Person character. But this viewpoint allows you to really delve into that character. Crack them wide open and show your reader their every fear, worry, concern, flaw. It’s a chance for readers to connect with them on so many levels– whether it’s hate or love it doesn’t matter as long as you hook them. They’ll keep turning the pages to see what happens because they know them so well. They become an old friend, which is wonderful.
Don’t we all want our readers to love our characters as much as we do? Personally, I think this viewpoint is a great way to accomplish this.
Note: You’re allowed to switch POVs to Third Person Limited in a new scene– and only in a new scene. This is difficult. It’s easiest to only do it when you want to show your antagonist’s POV as well as your protagonist’s POV (your first person viewpoint character). Otherwise, I’d leave it alone until you get a few novels under your belt 🙂
I once heard someone refer to POVs like camera lenses– great analogy. In First Person you can only experience what your POV character sees, feels, touches, hears, smells, and nothing more.
Many great novels were written in this POV.
Second person: “You ran for your life.” Not the best voice for a novel, right? Although, you can use it sparingly and get away with it when speaking directly to your audience. Very sparingly, like every 50-100 pages. But don’t be surprised when an editor wants it changed or deleted from your MS.
Third person limited: “He/she/they ran for his/her/their life/lives.” This is a very popular viewpoint, and some say one of the easiest to write. In Third Person the viewpoint character can see, feel, hear, smell, touch only what he/she experiences directly. You CAN switch to another’s POV, but ONLY in a new scene. There must be a clear break before you jump into someone else’s head. You CANNOT switch POVs in the middle of a scene. Otherwise you are writing in Omniscient. I’ve actually had long conversations about this with one of my followers, who I now consider a writing buddy.
Many great novels were written in this POV, too.
Third person omniscient: Same example as above only you can get the heads of anyone. This viewpoint is by far the easiest to write. It can be freeing, but also jarring for some readers if not done correctly. However, I’m finding more and more agents/editors/publishers that don’t like this POV from emerging writers. So if I were you, I’d stick with Limited or First Person, or you may find yourself having to re-write your entire novel. Yikes!
I just read a story about that this morning, actually. Someone wrote something like 390 pages in this POV and sent it direct to a publisher, who liked the story but wanted it re-written in limited. If not, he wasn’t going to publish it. How’s that for a nightmare?
I usually write in first person. I think it gives thrillers a better sense of urgency. I also like to read them in first person, so that probably has influenced me, too. Lately, though, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing an entire novel in Third Limited. I use it for my antagonist and detective POVs, but not for my MC. But I can’t do it now because I’m working on MAD RUSH, the sequel to TIMBER POINT. And, in my opinion, when someone enjoys your first book you shouldn’t change POV in the sequel. It’s not fair. They expect it in the same voice, I think. I know I do.
I’d only switch my POV when I write my next novel. Unless, of course, TIMBER POINT ends up being a trilogy or a series. But I’ll let a publisher tell me that. Shawny is such a wonderfully complex character I could write her forever. What a nice thought…
Where was I? Right. Verb tenses. Sorry, I got lost in my head for a moment– daydreaming of a long career writing Shawny Daniels novels. I can visualize all the book covers…
Okay, I’m back. Verb tenses, here we go…
Verb tenses are tricky. I know they were for me, anyway. Let’s break it down and see if I can clear up any confusion you may have.
There’s a plain of existence where your narrator lives. That’s called the present, looking back on past events.
Then, there’s simple past. Which is where your characters live. Simple past is where all the main action happens and the major events occur. Here, you would write said, walked, ran, stumbled, hustled, careened, etc…
Drum roll please…
Pluperfect. Its a cool sounding term, right? Pluperfect is when the action has happened before simple past. Where your character is talking about something that’s already occurred.
By the time I arrived at the movie, he had already eaten all the popcorn.
I’d just stashed the documents and gotten out of there when the lights suddenly turned on. Had I known I had such little time I probably wouldn’t have taken the risk.
Whether to use pluperfect or simple past is very confusing.
The easiest way to remember is this: If your character is discussing something that’s already occurred– pluperfect. If your character is narrating the action or story that’s happening– simple past.
Your narrator’s past is your character’s present, so in dialogue you must shift to present tense.
“Christopher’s taking me to the movies tonight,” said Nadine. “I’m like, so psyched!”
Of course, there is an exception to everything in English, just to make things more confusing.
The only reason I didn’t attend the party was because they’d said it was black tie.
The only reason I didn’t attend the party was because they said it was black tie.
Both examples are perfectly acceptable. The first written as pluperfect and the second as simple past.
And then there’s the example where your narrator, or POV character, is talking about something that still holds true.
I love that man. Your character is talking about someone she loved, and still does.
If you wrote it this way: I loved that man. Your reader might think he’s now dead, therefore, you’d write is as present tense.
Are you as confused as that dog yet? You are not alone!
Remember this, when creating your story let it flow naturally. Don’t worry about verb tenses. Most of them should come instinctively. When editing, however, you need to make sure you’ve got your verb tenses correct.
Don’t let it just flow with your POV, though, or you could have a mess of work ahead of you.
Did I miss anything? What’s your writing routine? Do you edit as you go and concentrate on verb tenses, or do you just let it flow and worry about it later?
What POV is your favorite to write in? Why? Would you dare switch? Or are you too comfortable to take the challenge?
Enjoy the rest of your weekend.