Tenses and Persons, Oh My!

When you start writing a book, you have some decisions to make. Not least of these decisions is how you're going to tell the story. And by that I mean ...

  • First, second, or third person?
  • Past or present tense?

Choosing the right tense and person can make or break a book. But don't worry -- here's a no-nonsense guide to figuring out what's right for your book.


("I did this, I do that")

First person is generally more engaging to a reader, because they are actually inside a character's head rather than watching from the sidelines. Be warned, though -- it doesn't work for every book! First person might not be for you if  the reader needs to know things that the main character doesn't know (first person is a very limited viewpoint). Also, if your main character is very mysterious, first person is probably not the best choice either. If you don't always want the reader to know what your character is thinking, first person is probably too familiar (Take the Artemis Fowl books, for example. If you always knew what Artemis was thinking, they wouldn't be nearly so interesting).


("You did this, you do that")

Second person is hardly ever used except in gamebooks (like my e-gamebook, The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor). Ordering the reader around is never a good way to make them enjoy themselves, so a gamebook, where the reader makes the decisions anyway, is really the only feasible place to use second person.


("He did this, she does that")

There are actually two kinds of third person: limited and omniscient.

Third person limited is when you only follow the thoughts and actions of one character. It's basically first person, but slightly more liberating, since you're not tightly bound to only one character's viewpoint. If you want to follow only your main character, but you feel that first person is too intimate, then third person limited is for you.

Third person omniscient is when you have completely free reign to be inside everybody's head (or nobody's head, if you prefer). If you have lots of different characters, and you want to follow them all, third person omniscient is probably your best bet.


Whether to use past tense or present tense is also a difficult choice for many writers (there's also future tense, but it's so silly that nobody bothers to use it). There isn't really any hard-and-fast rule about which to use. My advice is to just start writing the book to figure out which tense to use. If you try to write in, say, present tense, and it works, then great! If you find yourself slipping back into past tense, however, then go with that.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what's right for your book. Remember, whatever you do, write the book that works. Don't write in a certain way, or from a certain viewpoint, or in a certain tense, just because everybody else is doing it.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing some useful tips Ellie Firestone. Really i loved to read this whole post and its seems like an informative post i ever seen. I think I knew the all answers here in this article. In a tense manner