Tense and Viewpoint

Tense and author viewpoint are inter-related so I'll address them at the same time. Now, it should be noted that even published authors screw this up, and whole books can be written on the subject, so this is not exhaustive.


Tense means time. Past, present and future. "I am" is present tense. "I was" is past tense. "I will be" is future tense. Most people write in the first and second, unless they're very brave, exceedingly stupid, extremely good, or being a literary snob.

Now, author viewpoint.

Author Viewpoint means who's talking. "I am" is first person. "You are" is second person. "He is" is third person.

Most people write in first or third person.

The most common usage of the written word currently is first or third person, past tense.

It doesn't really matter which you choose. Just make sure you are consistent with it.

Character Viewpoint
Ah, but who's viewpoint are we in?
Just to make matters a bit on the confusing side, the same word (viewpoint) is used for which character's head you are in when you are writing. It can also be called "point of view". So, if you see VP or POV, this is what is being referred to.

When you are in a character's VP, or close VP, you are only seeing what happens as the character sees it. You must use character VP if you write in first person, and may do so when in third. Close third person will affect the voice, and style, of the prose. What it forces the author to do is to take on the voice of the character, and butt out. This is fun, because you get to know your characters, and you can see if they're truly coming alive.

When you are in author, or omniscient VP, then you see everything. You must write in third person to use this VP.

Author VP is most often used accidentally by amateurs, but it is also used effectively by professionals, and was almost always used in past novels. Dickens is omniscient. So is Tolkien. However, it is a distant VP that can make it hard for a reader to get to know a character. It can also be a by-product of an author who is a control freak and needs to talk louder than their characters.

Omniscient, especially when badly done, can also lead to what I call "head hopping." There is nothing wrong with changing character VP, but every time you do the reader has to adjust their own head and they can be thrown out of the story. So obviously, the less you do this, the better it is for the reader. Even in omniscient VP, refrain from changing from one character's VP to another in the same paragraph or sentence, eg:

"Do you have to do that?" he asked, annoyed. She drove him nuts. If it weren't for the fact she was smokin' hot, he wouldn't put up with her at all.

She glowered, hating his attitude.

In the first para, we're in his VP. In the second, we're in hers.

Rewriting the above para in her VP only:

"Do you have to do that?" he demanded.

He looked annoyed, she thought. Obviously, she was driving him nuts. Frankly, his attitude gave her the irrates. If she bothered him so much, why did he hang around?

And, just for fun, back in his VP:

"Do you have to do that?" he asked, annoyed. She drove him nuts. If it weren't for the fact she was smokin' hot, he wouldn't put up with her at all.

And there she was, giving him a filthy look, again. What the hell was her problem?

You can see, the proper use of VP gives the writer a better use of conflict and misunderstanding, always a Good Thing for stories.

To put it another way, Omniscient is watching everything that happens from the outside, facing the character, while close first or third gets you right inside the character's head.

Talking about me? Keep it coming, babe
In the Reno's Story sample earlier, I've written in third person, past tense, close character VP (Reno's). At no time have I popped into Cloud's head, and at no time have I used authorial interjection to explain what's going on with him: I only have Reno's take on what Cloud is doing, saying and thinking, which may or may not be wrong.

In close personal third person VP, Reno can't know, at that point in the story, what happened to Aerith (what Cloud sees as his Big Mistake), even if I do. Reno sure can see Cloud's pain though, setting up conflicts between the characters, as well as intrigue in the reader's mind (anyone who doesn't know the story would be left to wonder, as Reno is, what mistake Cloud made, and can find out later with Reno).

If you use omniscient VP, there's nothing left for the reader to find out because you're already telling them everything. So, why would they read on?


This is a matter of stylistic choice, and anyone who reads my work will know that I am not averse to it. However, the use of constant swearing actually weakens your work rather than the other way around. It simply shows that the writer lacks in vocabulary and imagination. It can become a lazy habit, and a crutch. Pick your places to use it. Swearing is actually much more effective if not overused, because the swear word gains more power and notice if it is only used once or twice in the whole fucking story.

Next - Sim Direction

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