First or Third Person? Present or Past Tense? How Do You Decide?

5 Jun

So you’re writing a book…but your book requires some decisions. Your narrative needs structure. And there are a million options to choose from. So how do you decide a perspective and a tense? What is the best combination for your book?

Let me start out by saying that making the choice to write in first/third person or past/present tense is different for every writer (and often every book). This decision might also differ from what an author prefers to read. For that reason, I wanted to look at this discussion from two different perspectives—as a reader and as a writer—and how I decide, so that you might be able to see how you can make that decision for yourself. Of course, there are a lot more options and specifications than I’m going to get into today. Consider this the basics.

First or Third Person

As a reader…

I love both first and third person. I honestly can’t say if I favor one over the other. As long as the novel is written well, I love the story, though I probably prefer third person for multiPOV stories, only because nailing numerous (and immediately recognizable) voices in first person is basically impossible. (Which I’ll explain below.)

As a writer….

I tend to write in first person. In fact, all of my currently published novels are in first person, though they are also in multiPOV first person…which I just called “basically impossible” above. (Because it is!) Both of my published series are written this way, but none of my recent, unpublished projects are, because UGH. First-person, multiPOV is hard! Nailing a unique voice for each character while staying in the moment is a constant battle. Right now, I’m writing my first third-person book, and I’ll be honest, I think I’m in love. Why? I have an unpopular opinion about first vs. third person. Strangely, I think third person is more intimate than first. Most would argue me, and I totally get it. The average first-person book truly gets into someone’s mind and feelings. But I feel so NARCISTIC in first person (with all the I, me, we, etc.) Because of that, I tend to avoid discussing feelings on top of a first-person point of view. But in third person. Boy, in third person, I feel like I can let those emotions fly. 

Present or Past Tense

As a reader…

I HATE present tense. LOATHE it even. I know. I know. That’s been the favored tense in YA since The Hunger Games. But it drives me nuts. While many have described past tense as sounding like someone telling a story (as if it had already happened), I actually find present tense to feel this way. “I jump over the fire and land on my feet!” sounds like something your uncle shouts around a campfire while telling his college-glory stories. I just don’t like the way it sounds. Present tense makes me feel like I’m being talked at rather than coaxed along. Past tense, however, helps me disappear into the story. That being said, some of my favorite books are in present tense. Don’t get me wrong. I’d never put a book down solely because of present tense, but it will make it a little bit harder for me to enjoy at first.

As a writer….

I write in past tense. In fact, I’ve never written in present, nor do I have the desire to. (But never say never, right?)

So how do I decide what to write in?

Honestly, I don’t.

When I set out to write a book, the POV and tense happen pretty naturally. Granted, there are some exceptions. For instance, I wanted to have Noah and Sophia tell my now-unpublished book, Take Me Tomorrow, but Noah—well, to be frank—is on drugs, and he doesn’t make a lot of sense (or he makes too much sense). So, he was cut out. It turned out to be Sophia’s story anyway. And though I tend to write in first person, my current project is in third person. (It’s actually my first serious project in third person.) Why is this one in third person? I have no clue! It just sort of happened that way. But I’m glad it did. The tone suits it perfectly.

Keep in mind…

First/third person and past/present tense are not the only options out there, and, quite frankly, these are just shells of your options. In third person, for instance, you have to choose between limited third or omniscient third (all-knowing). Then again, who says you have to decide? Some books combine different types of structures to write a book. RoseBlood by Anita Howard had third-person past for her male protagonist, while her female protagonist was written in present first. That way, you could immediately understand where you were and who we were reading about without stumbling. Your book’s options are unlimited.

So how should you decide?

Listen to your gut. Even if you write an entire series in first person and then realize it needs to be in third, I say go for it! Everyone’s writing journey is different, and though there are always trends to consider, nailing your voice is more important than trying to hit constantly-moving goalposts. There are pros and cons and limitations in both perspectives, but I tend to choose perspective/tense based on what the characters tell me to do. It happens overtime. I might not even know until I’m knee-deep in outlines. It might change, too. And that’s okay! Change happens at every process. Write how the book demands to be written. Try first, attempt third, experiment with both, and you’ll eventually find that natural point where you can’t turn back, because the words are endless. But that’s just my perspective. 😉

~SAT

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28 Responses to “First or Third Person? Present or Past Tense? How Do You Decide?”

  1. Thomas Edmund June 5, 2017 at 12:16 am #

    Great post – I think you and I are the same. Present tense is just a pain in the ass (in my humble opinion.)

    Possibly 3rd person seems more intimate because in a way it makes a character more real, sure technically 1st person is right in the character’s head, but 3rd person is usually in their head, and all around them!

    Have you read The Poisonwood Bible? One of the better examples of multiple 1st person done well (other than your books of course 😀

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 12:27 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! The more I write in third person (even limited third person) the more I love it. I find it more freeing than first person currently (but that could be because I’ve written in first person for so long). It’s always good to experiment with new tools. I have not read The Poisonwood Bible, but I will have to check it out! Thank you for the suggestion. 😀 And thank you for reading and commenting.
      ~SAT

  2. Charles Yallowitz June 5, 2017 at 5:46 am #

    I write present tense third person, which is always a tough thing to admit to because people react to present tense as if you just set their house on fire. Honestly, I didn’t even know this was a problem until I released my first book in 2013 and got a wave of complaints. Considering most of what we read is past tense, it isn’t surprising that people can’t get behind present tense. Our ears and minds find it disconcerting unless we get ourselves used to it somehow. It does seem like present tense first person is very much a story being told though.

    As for why I chose it . . . because I didn’t know it was an issue. In high school, I had a problem with switching tenses in paragraphs and sentences. In 11th grade, a teacher finally sat me down during lunch and went over it with me. She told me to pick one a stick to it. So, I picked the present tense because it felt the more urgent. To me, it felt like I was drawing a reader in to an event as it takes place instead of them sitting on the sidelines to watch the ghosts of the past. I kept writing this way through high school and college with nobody saying it was a mistake or even telling me that it was unpopular. So, that’s how my writer mind works now. I default to present tense because it’s where I’m most comfortable and I’m having the images in my head as I write, so it kind of makes sense.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 11:02 am #

      Maybe it depends on the genre and age category, too? Because present tense is actually really popular in YA. 🙂 I don’t think writing in present tense is a bad thing. (Just not for me.) I’m actually really excited to read about an author who enjoys present tense! Thank you for sharing!
      ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz June 5, 2017 at 11:15 am #

        I wonder why YA does it so often. I know with fantasy, there’s this unwritten guideline that you’re writing about events that have already unfolded. Think it stems from Lord of the Rings going with that style. So, you really don’t find it often in my genre.

        One really odd thing is that humans listen in present tense, but reading in it seems to be an issue. My friends listened to ‘The Hunger Games’ audio book and had no problem with the tense. Then they went for my first book, which wasn’t audio. My friend who has known me since high school had no problem since he’s read my style for years. His wife, who had no exposure to my present tense style, had trouble getting through it. This is why I think us reading mostly, if not entirely, past tense books in school causes our reading instincts to lock into that style. Present tense ends up feeling ‘off’.

      • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

        You know, I honestly don’t know. I want to say it’s because books like The Hunger Games were in first person present, and because they sold so well, the publishers started demanding more of it – but I honestly have no clue why YA loves present tense so much. And I love that you brought up audio books! I never thought about that, but that would probably cause a totally different experience.
        ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz June 5, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

        First person and I don’t have a good relationship. So it is a little rough when I’m told that’s the only way to do present tense. Hunger Games might just be the reason too. One thing gets big and people want more like it. Audio books are getting bigger over the last two years. I think they might be giving eBooks a run for their money.

      • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

        You know, I’m trying to think of a present tense third person book, and you’re right, nothing comes to mind. But don’t let that stop you! If that’s how your book demands to be written, I say swim against the stream. You might start a new trend. 😀
        And I wish I could like audio books, but I actually have a really hard time retaining information audio-ly. I have to read everything. But I listen to podcasts every now and then, which I suppose is the same thing. 😛
        ~SAT

      • Charles Yallowitz June 5, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

        At the very least I get to stand out. 😁 I have the same problem with audio books. I get distracted with only sound too, so I’d be doing something else.

      • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

        Exactly! I think it’s great you stand out! I almost always get distracted when listening to something, so I only read novels. If I spent more time in my car though, I would probably try audio books again.
        ~SAT

  3. authorangelachristinaarcher June 5, 2017 at 6:13 am #

    LOL! I’m the same way as a reader with present tense. In fact, while I’d love to read The Hunger Games, I can’t do it. I try. I start reading and about 5 pages in, I just want to throw it across the room. Divergent is also present tense, but she doesn’t have as many “I say” in it, so it’s easier to get through.

    I write in first person, past tense. I know I need to branch out to third, but I just haven’t taken the leap yet. As a reader, I enjoy both, but I do favor first.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 11:03 am #

      This is my first time branching out to third, and it’s hard! When I’m so used to writing one way, it’s definitely a challenge to start something new. I still love my first person, past tense. 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting!
      ~SAT

  4. debyfredericks June 5, 2017 at 8:55 am #

    I usually go for third person, past tense. I guess I feel like the other techniques draw attention to themselves instead of the story.

    Still, my muse occasionally surprises me with something in first person. Present tense would only work for me if the story was very, very short. I don’t think I could sustain it over the length of a novel.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 11:04 am #

      It’s funny you say that – Now I remembered that some of my short stories for Bad Bloods are in present tense, but they are extremely short. That’s the only time I think I wrote that way. Thank you for sharing your experience!
      ~SAT

  5. Don Massenzio June 5, 2017 at 11:50 am #

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  6. L.E. Hunt June 5, 2017 at 12:38 pm #

    That’s my problem with first present–it feels narcissistic. Some writers can pull it off (I’ve read two books where 1st present really worked), but not many. I think present tense is more for poetry than fiction. If you have a book that has a poetic feel, it could work, but I think suspense/thriller writers should stick with past. The poetic feel of present tense draws attention away from the heavy plot. Just my opinion 🙂 Loved the post!

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

      It does! It’s still fun to read and write in, but there is a delicate line that you have to balance in regards to narcissism that you don’t really have to worry about as much in third person. And I love what you said about poetry! I studied poetry in college (and, of course, still read a ton of it), and I think it’s interesting to think about the differences between prose and poetry. Thank you for reading and commenting!
      ~SAT

      • L.E. Hunt June 5, 2017 at 3:48 pm #

        My pleasure! I enjoyed the read!

  7. jascribbles (Read and Crochet) June 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    As a reader I like first or third person POV – actually any pov
    I HATE present tense. In fact, I will sometimes pass on a book if it is present tense. Sounds rough, but …

    Happy writing!!

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 3:31 pm #

      I honestly thought I was alone in dreading present tense before this post! Thank you for commenting. 😀
      ~SAT

      • jascribbles (Read and Crochet) June 5, 2017 at 3:54 pm #

        I shouldn’t be so harsh – but it’s just weird to me. How can I be holding an entire book, a full story, that’s happening right now??? So strange. Ha ha

      • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

        HAHA! Right??? That’s exactly how it makes me feel.
        ~SAT

  8. Elise @ The Book Forums June 5, 2017 at 3:59 pm #

    As a reader, I don’t have a preference. As long as the author has a unique writing style that makes me want to keep reading, I’m happy. But when it comes to writing, I much prefer first. This is probably because I have more experience writing in first (I should probably branch out a bit XD); I’m just more comfortable with it. When it comes to tense, I’m really bad with keeping it consistent. Tense isn’t really something I notice while reading, so that probably explains why I have a hard time with it while writing.

    • Shannon A Thompson June 5, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

      Tense is difficult! I wouldn’t worry so much about it while drafting. You can always edit it later. 🙂
      ~SAT

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. See You Later, September! | Shannon A Thompson - September 4, 2017

    […] First or Third Person. Present or Past Tense. How Do You Decide?: A guide to options, decisions, and how I choose a path. […]

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