A discussion cropped up in the CSFG novel writing group just recently on the topic of point of view and tense (ie, past, present, future) in prose. A question was asked about a decision to write in third person point of view and present tense, for the sake of greater immediacy in the storytelling while also handling several characters’ points of view.
The dominant convention in modern English language prose fiction is to write in third person point of view (him, her) and past tense. First person point of view (I, me) is relatively common, present tense probably slightly less so. Second person (you) tends to exist only in choose-your-own-adventures and occasional literary quirks. Future tense is virtually unseen.
All of the possible combinations of point of view and tense are (at least in principle) legitimate options. However, decisions to deviate from the dominant convention should always be based on the needs of the story at hand – for example, if the story needs an unreliable narrator, you’d choose to tell it in first person or, if you need to disguise whether the protagonist lives or dies at the end, you might opt for present tense, and so on.
There’s a trap here, though, which is that, for the writer, first person point of view and present tense can both seem like they give a story a greater sense of “immediacy” – like the events are happening right here and now, and you’re right in the thick of it. Sure they do, when you’re writing it, but that might not be the case for someone else reading the story.
I think there’s a number of factors that determine the immediacy or immersiveness of storytelling, including good characterisation, well-paced plotting, convincing attention to detail and solid world-building. Overlaying all of these, though, is the invisibility of the storytelling – that is, the writer’s capacity to enable the reader to forget that they’re reading, a story. Point of view and tense are important aspects of that, but only insofar as the writer is able to make these, too, invisible to the reader.
All else being equal, a well executed third person point of view most easily becomes invisible to a reader, partly because it’s the dominant convention, but also because we’re accustomed to seeing other people from the outside and deriving their thoughts and feelings from their physical and verbal cues. Third person point of view readily immerses the reader in the story and puts them right there in the thick of the action as an observer. It lets us see the protagonist and follow alongside them while they interact with their world.
First person narrative is common enough that choosing it is not a big deal, it can really be treated as a secondary convention for point of view. But it can still fool you when you’re writing it, so it is something to be conscious of. I think first person does carry a greater risk of distancing the reader from the story – of being less immediate than third person. Maybe that’s because we’re not used to being intimately inside someone else’s head and seeing through their eyes. I think, too, it’s because it tells the reader “this story is about me, not you”. You, the reader, are being recounted an anecdote, rather than witnessing it yourself (as in third person), and that puts a space between you and the events of the story. First person can and does work perfectly well, but it maybe has to be executed just a little bit better to draw in the reader.
Second person is much more risky, because we’re not used to being walked around like a puppet – or told that we’re the ones in the firing line – and, mostly, we don’t like it.
Tense is similar, but the reasoning relates more exclusively to our literary conventions. Past tense is the dominant convention, it’s what we’re most accustomed to. So past tense most easily becomes invisible to the reader. Present tense is less familiar and so, rather than being more immediate because it’s happening right now, it’s more likely to disrupt the reader’s immersion in a story. Because we’re less accustomed to seeing present tense grammatical consructions in stories than we are past tense, they’re more likely to catch our attention and, therefore, more likely to push us out of the story. The dominance of past tense is just a literary convention, but probably not an arbitrary one – perhaps because history is told in past tense, whereas jokes are told in present tense. Both past and present tense can work, it’s just that you have to work harder with one than the other. As to future tense, well, unless your character has a very loose temporal grip, why would you even go there?
Conventions exist because they work. Which doesn’t mean they can’t and don’t change. They can be disrupted, even if it’s at the writer’s own peril – peril is, after all, the writer’s accomplice, adversary and friend (Terry Bisson) and writing is all about showing off (Tim Powers). But you need to be conscious of the potential downsides of stepping outside the conventions, and you should have a narrative reason for doing so. And if what you want in your story is immediacy then, whichever choice you make, you, as the storyteller, need to be shooting for invisibility, not showiness.