A Beginner’s Writing Guide to Point of View + Past and Present Tense

Hey y’all! Today I thought it would be super fun to do a writing tips post specifically for beginners. So we’re gonna be learning some basic skills here together – and also the most important skills! ‘Cause if you don’t get those down, you won’t progress. And that would not be good, obvi. XD

Now I do not consider myself an expert in any way. Honestly, I don’t think there is any such a thing as an expert. We’re always learning in whatever craft we do. We’re always a beginner in some areas. For example, I am a beginner in the art of plot twists. But I have been writing for a very long time (11 years). So I have practiced the basics enough to be able to write a post about them for you guys.

Sooooo… *drum roll* this post is the Beginner’s Guide to Point of View + Past and Present Tense! These are simple skills, but if you’re just starting out writing, they’re incredibly important to learn. And practice makes perfect, am I right? *groaning at clichés* No, I am not right. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes better.

Never mind that little rant. Thanks for putting up with all my craziness and not clicking out of this post. *sheepish grin*

Anyways, this post was written with beginners in mind, but I hope these tips will be useful for all of you! I know I can definitely refresh these skills once in a while. I’ve gotta keep ’em sharp!

So, how about we just begin? I hope you enjoy this post and find it helpful!

Image Credit – Desiring God

1. Point of View

So first we’ll be discussing point of view. Point of view, or POV, is basically a writer’s term for:

  • The narrator’s position in your story
  • The eyes through which your story is observed

(Think of your narrator as someone looking through an eyeglass, watching the events in your story and broadcasting their thoughts about it. Your narrator will recount the events of your novel, so we see everything through their opinions, their personality, their past experiences, etc. If you guys would like me to do a post all about narrators, just let me know in the comments below!)

There are four POV types:

  • First person
  • Second person
  • Third person limited
  • Third person omniscient

First Person

Words in First Person POV: I, we

First person is when “I” am narrating the novel. “I” am in the book. I am a main character, a direct participant, affected by each event in the novel.

It’s like when you’re having a conversation with someone. When a friend asks, “How are you?” you don’t reply, “Joy is fine.” (That would be just weird, LOL.) You reply, “I am fine.” That’s what first person POV is like.

Y’all KNEW I was gonna bring up To Kill a Mockingbird sometime in this post. Of course, my favorite book of all time is the first example that comes to mind when I think of first person POV.

So TKAM is one example of a novel told in first person POV. Here is a passage from the book to explain what I mean:

When we went home I told Jem we’d really have something to talk about at school on Monday. Jem turned on me.

“Don’t say anything about it, Scout,” he said.

“What? I certainly am. Ain’t everybody’s daddy the deadest shot in Maycomb County.”

Jem said, “I reckon if he’d wanted us to know it, he’da told us. If he was proud of it, he’da told us.”

“Maybe it just slipped his mind,” I said.

– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (page 130)

As you can see from this passage, the novel is told from first person POV. Although Scout Finch is our narrator, it does not say, “Scout said.” It says, “I said.” And instead of saying, “When they went home,” it’s “When we went home.”

The #1 rule for mastering first person POV is:

Absolutely NO hopping from one character’s head to another! This is accepted sometimes in third person POV (omniscient, which we will discuss later). But in first person, you have to stick with one character’s thoughts only. In the above passage from TKAM, we always see the conversation through Scout’s eyes. Lee does not hop from Scout’s head to her brother Jem’s head. We’re in Scout’s head only.

Alrighty, that’s a wrap for first person! Onto the next POV type:

Second Person

Words in Second Person POV: you

Second person is very rarely, if ever, used in fiction. At least I’ve never seen it. You can totally try it if you want to! But it tends to be a very difficult, awkward POV to write from. And personally, I don’t enjoy reading books in second person. I have never written a book in second person, either, and I don’t intend to. But it is a POV type, so it had to be included! And I don’t want you guys to shy away from trying out what you want to all because I personally don’t like it.

Basically, second person is when the story is addressed to “you.” It’s similar to when someone is talking to you in real life, and of course they wouldn’t ask you, “How is I doing?” They would ask you, “How are you doing?”

As I said before, I have never once seen this POV type in fiction. But it is widely used for those “Choose Your Own Path” books, if ya know what I’m talking about. My brother used to read a lot of those when he was a kid. I don’t think he has them anymore, and I don’t remember any of the titles, so I just wrote up a quickie little example for you guys:

You walk up to a wishing-fountain and peer inside. In the sparkling waters, you see about a million pennies. You’re tempted and wonder what you should do. Should you snag a few pennies and go buy yourself some bubble gum? Or should you leave people’s wishes undisturbed and go earn some honest dough?

If you choose to steal the pennies, turn to page 86.

If you choose to get a job, turn to page 88.

– a very nice example written by yours truly

Yes, I know. Corny example. I just came up with it on the spot. But it shows you guys how second person POV works.

If you’re writing a “Choose Your Own Path” book, I would encourage you to use second person. If you’re writing fiction, I personally wouldn’t do it since second person isn’t very popular there. But if you really want to try a fiction novel from this unique POV, then totally go for it!

Third Person Limited

Words in Third Person Limited POV: She, he, it, they

Third person POV has two sub-types (if that’s what you call them): limited and omniscient. I’ll be talking about Third Person Limited right now.

Third Person is basically when “she/he/it” is narrating the novel. So this is like when you’re talking about someone else, and you would say, “She is a writer” or “He is a writer” or “It is a writer.” In Third Person Limited, we only see one character’s thoughts at a time. In that respect it is very similar to First Person.

Third Person Limited, like First Person, is very common in fiction. For an example of a novel told in Third Person Limited, I’m going to use a passage from Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes:

But Mary had been insistent. “Of course not, she’s younger. It’s Jahveh’s way with women that’s all. And all the more reason I should carry the water. I’m a woman now!”

“How long can I keep her?” Hannah grieved, watching her first-born disappear at the bottom of the windy hill. “How long will it be? Surely the Lord gave me the comeliest girl in Nazareth.” She turned back into the house with a proud if baffled sigh.

– Marjorie Holmes, Two from Galilee (page 1,2)

As you can see from this passage, we see everything from Hannah’s perspective. This passage is told through her thoughts. We don’t see what Mary is thinking – only what Hannah is thinking. We see Mary’s actions from her mother’s POV. The POV is limited to Hannah, basically.

So, like First Person, the #1 rule for mastering Third Person Limited POV is:

No hopping from one character’s head to another! Stick with one character’s eyes and thoughts. This is not to say you can’t have multiple narrators in Third Person Limited. Not all of Two from Galilee is told from Hannah’s perspective. The novel is also told from Joseph’s perspective, Mary’s perspective, etc. But Holmes always makes it clear when she’s switching narrators, and once she switches to another narrator, she keeps the story limited to that narrator’s perspective.

To make it clear to the reader that you’re switching narrators (if your novel has multiple), you can simply include a space between paragraphs. Example:

This section is from Tom’s perspective.

– insert space

This section is from Emily’s perspective.

– an example by yours truly

I hope that made sense.

You can also include a symbol between paragraphs to indicate you’re switching narrators. Example:

This section is from Tom’s perspective.

* * *

This section is from Emily’s perspective.

– another example by yours truly

Or you could make the switch when you enter a new chapter. For example, Chapter 10 is from Tom’s perspective, and Chapter 11 is from Emily’s.

Alrighty, now for our last POV type – Third Person Omniscient!

Third Person Omniscient

Words in Third Person Omniscient POV: She, he, it, they

Third Person Omniscient follows the same format as Third Person Limited, except for this one crucial difference: While Third Person Limited is told through only one narrator’s perspective at a time, Third Person Omniscient is characterized by an all-knowing narrator.

So, basically your narrator in Third Person Omniscient is a little like Santa Claus. (“He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” LOL.) Or just a person with mind-reading abilities. An omniscient narrator knows everything. They know the thoughts of every character. For this reason, omniscient narrators are usually not characters directly involved in the story.

The example that immediately comes to my mind is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. In The Book Thief, Death is the narrator. Now, Death is not a character directly involved in the story. He’s just… Death, you know. The spirit that catches up people when they breathe their last and carries them off.

Death, the narrator of The Book Thief, is omniscient – all-knowing. He knows the thoughts of every character, not only the thoughts of Liesel, our protagonist. He can see what each character is thinking, and so recounts the events of the novel accordingly. Actually, the novel switches between a first person and a third person omniscient, which can work too. Your narrator can express their thoughts/feelings as well as those of other characters. (Death speaks of himself in the first person, but about the book’s characters in third person omniscient.) Here’s a passage from The Book Thief as an example:

She could no longer walk.

From a distance, people observed. Such a thing was easier from far away.

Hans Hubermann sat with her.

He placed his hand on hers, as she fell back to the hard ground.

He allowed her screams to fill the street.

Much later, Hans walked with her, with painstaking care, through her front gate, and into the house. And no matter how many times I try to see it differently, I can’t pull it off….

– Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (page 505)

As you can see, the omniscient narrator knows the thoughts of the grieving woman. He knows the thoughts of the bystanders, and of Hans Hubermann. And he also tells us his own thoughts.

So to pull off Third Person Omniscient, your narrator must have access to the thoughts, feelings, actions, and emotions of all characters, not only himself.

And that’s a wrap for our point of view discussion!

2. Past and Present Tense

The next skill we’ll be discussing is past and present tense. Which should you use for your novel? What do they mean?

Let’s start!

What are past and present tense?

Past tense is when a novel is narrated in a tone that tells the reader these events already happened.

It’s like when you’re telling someone about something that happened to you last year while you were playing softball. You would say, “As I pitched the softball, the batter swung and missed!”

But what if you’re broadcasting a softball game live (while the events are actually happening before your eyes)? You would say, “As I pitch the softball, the batter swings and misses!” That’s present tense. Present tense is when a novel is narrated in a tone that tells the reader these events are happening now, before their eyes.

So think of Past Tense like you’re telling someone a story that happened to you last year. And think of Present Tense like you’re broadcasting a live event.

Here’s an example of a novel told in Past Tense. It’s from To Kill a Mockingbird, of course!

Atticus was reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. He drew out an envelope, then reached into his vest pocket and unclipped his fountain pen. He moved leisurely, and had turned so that he was in full view of the jury. He unscrewed the fountain-pen cap and placed it gently on his table. He shook the pen a little, then handed it with the envelope to the witness. “Would you write your name for us?” he asked. “Clearly now, so the jury can see you do it.”

– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (page 237)

You can see from this passage that the narration is in Past Tense. Here are a few words and phrases that clue us into the fact that these events already happened:

  • “was reaching”
  • “had turned”
  • “placed”
  • “asked”

Now for an example of a novel told in Present Tense! I’m using Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez as my example.

“Why don’t you get rid of them?” I ask.

“Remember,” he says, “los amigos mejores son libros.”

This means that books are your best friends. In addition to quoting poetry, Dad likes to say dichos, Spanish proverbs.

– Diana Lopez, Confetti Girl (page 4)

You can see from this passage that the narration is in Present Tense. Here are a few words and phrases that clue us into the fact that these events are happening now:

  • “ask”
  • “says”
  • “means”
  • “likes”

I should also add that all the Present Tense novels I’ve seen are also written in First Person POV. I can definitely see why, because trying to tell a Third Person novel in Present Tense seems like it would be awkward and difficult to pull off. Well, it might be easier with Third Person Omniscient than with Third Person Limited.

Both Past and Present Tense are great choices for a fiction novel! You should use whichever one you feel more comfortable with. The only thing I would advise is, if you’re writing a Third Person novel, probably choosing past tense would prove easier for you. But otherwise, just use whatever rocks your boat! I enjoy writing and reading in both Past and Present Tense.

So, that’s it for today!

I really hope y’all enjoyed this post and that the tips were helpful for you! This was super fun for me to write. Thanks for joining me today! There will be another epic post out this Friday. (It’s gonna be AWESOME, so don’t miss it!)

Don’t forget to say hi in the comments. Feel free to tell me any thoughts you have or any tips I didn’t mention. And I wanna hear how everyone’s doing! How’s your writing going, or just life in general? Can’t wait to hear from ya!

You know the drill – eat, pray, write, repeat!

Joy

By Joy Caroline

I’m Joy Caroline, a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian who’s proud to be a daughter of the King! I am a teen writer with a passion for all things Jesus. I write Biblical fiction because my greatest desire is to help teens, including myself, to realize Bible figures were people with feelings just like ours. When I’m not writing, you’ll find me either reading or eating. I LOVE books, especially Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Marjorie Holmes’ Two from Galilee trilogy. And as for food, I’ll eat practically anything as long as it’s dessert! My motto is Eat, Pray, Write, Repeat! Hope to see you around!

23 comments

  1. These are some great tips, Joy! It’s kind of a timely post because recently I’ve started writing a short story with second person POV, and it’s been pretty interesting and challenging exploring such a little-used technique. I think it takes a very specific story to be in second person, while in contrast to the other POVs it doesn’t really matter too much. I think you’re right that it can be very awkward if used improperly, but I also think that it is one POV that could surprise people by discovering that they actually like it.

    1. Wow, that is so interesting you’re writing a piece of fiction in second person! I have never read anything like that before, but I totally commend you for trying it out! I’m sure that would be very challenging since it’s used so rarely, but it would also boost your writing skills at the same time. And yeah, who knows? Writing rules are meant to be broken, otherwise we couldn’t call it creativity!

      1. Haha thanks! I have read a story or two with second person (when I was younger I loved the American Girl InnerStarU books, which were Choose-You-Own-Adventure and second person POV), but this is probably my first time writing in it, and I’ve already learned a lot haha! Yes, that is a good point! I think second person is something that people could easily discover and love–but I think it also definitely depends on preference. 😉

        1. Oh, really? I used to love American Girl books when I was little – I had forgotten about those! Actually, now I’m thinking I would really like to read something from second person POV for the first time in forever. (*Disney vibes*😂) Your short story is gonna be great!

        2. I hope you don’t mind me jumping in here, but I use to love the American Girl InnerStarU books too!!!!!!! And the InnerStarU website thing caused me to start my own website. I just didn’t know at the time that it would end up being a blog.😂

  2. Awesome post, Joy Caroline!!!!! I’ve been wanting to wanting to understand more the different POVs and this post was soooo helpful!!! I normally write in first person but it would be neat to try other POVs. A post on narrators would be cool too!
    My writing is going great. This morning I got an idea for the chapter I was working on last night. How’s your writing coming along?

    1. Thank you, Katherine! I’m glad I could help. I think everyone has different POVs they prefer writing from, which is fine if that’s what you’re comfortable with. But it never hurts to expand our horizons!
      My writing is going pretty good, although I’m getting impatient with outlining and want to start actually writing again.

      1. Ooof, I know what that feels like. Hang in there. You can do it!!!!! Goooo, Joy Caroline!!!!!!! *waving pom poms* I hope you’ll be able to write soon. Here’s a suggestion though: if you want you could pause on the outline, write what you do know, and then go back and finish the outline. It’s only a suggestion though, do whatever works best for you.

  3. Oooh, cool post!!! I bet you didn’t know this (cause it’s pretty deep in the archives) but this kind of stuff about POV and verb tense was actually one of the first writing tip posts I did!! Noow, lemme see if I can remember everything I wanted to say. XD You may find this interesting but there’s a book out there (not one I’d read personally and all) that actually has a small part in second person POV!! When it’s the villain’s point of view, the author writes it in second person so the reader wouldn’t be able to guess who was talking!!!! And I’ve actually read a few books that use third person present tense. When not done right, though, it’s pretty awkward to read. GREAT POST!!!!! Eagerly waiting the next one! (Well, I mean, eagerly waiting when I can get to the next ones I’m behind on. 😂)

    1. Cool! Nope, I didn’t know that.
      That sounds like such an interesting style to write from. I agree, third person present can be really awkward if not done right, so if you’re using that POV you gotta be careful.
      And I’ve been meaning to tell you I’m literally soooooo sorry that I’m so behind on Into the Lamp! I had another AP Hist. essay due today, and I’m in over my head with other homework. The little free time I have, I try to cram in all the writing I can. I just wanted to let you know it’s definitely not because I don’t wanna read it or am just ignoring it. I promise I will read again as soon as I possibly can! 💗

      1. Yeah, I normally just stick with first person past tense POV! It’s the easiest for me to write with and I’ve been able to really hone in on my skill with it!! Aww, girl, it’s literally OKAY!! I’m seriously not upset one bit!!! I TOTALLY understand that life happens, and you just focus on your priorities first!! Besides, I want you to read it for enjoyment. If you start stressing, thinking you’ve gotta get it finished by this date, you won’t enjoy reading it as much, it’ll be more of a chore and I don’t want that!!!! So, you’re not allowed to worry about how you’ve not read it in a while!! I’m serious on this one!! 😉 Love you!!! <33

        1. That’s a great POV. (I mean, TKAM is written in it. 😂) I write third person past tense mostly, but for The Anointed I decided on first person present tense and have really been enjoying something new. It also works better for a kid cause you can get deep into their thoughts.
          Aww, thank you! I WILL read it soon, but in the meantime, thank you so much for understanding. Love you and your writing too, Issa!!

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