Changing Your Manuscript’s Tense and Point of View

A writer makes many decisions when it comes to approaching a manuscript. We have to decide on our characters, our plot, our setting, our descriptions… all that content jazz. We also have to decide several storytelling issues. Is this story going to be told in past tense or present tense? Will it be told in first or in third person? If it’s going to be in third person, will it be third person limited or third person omniscient*? Which character’s POV** will tell the story? Will I have one POV or multiple POV’s?

And on and on. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t take up brain surgery instead.

Believe it or not, though, almost every choice I’ve ever made about a manuscript has been wrong at some point. That’s totally okay. It’s a huge pain in the butt and you wonder if you are just the densest person on the planet when you realize your error, but there’s only one thing you can do: change it. (There’s also Secret Option B: eat a sheet pan of tiramisu.)

In terms of difficulty, here are the above changes, ordered by degree of difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  1. Tense
  2. First to third or third to first
  3. Third person limited to third person omniscient or vice versa
  4. One POV to multiple POV’s or vice versa

There are tons of changes a writer makes to a manuscript, of course, but the above four are the big “universal” changes that are likely to affect the entire thing. I’ve repeatedly, REPEATEDLY, made the first two changes to several manuscripts. In fact, with one manuscript, I went from first to third and then back again to first, like a total dunderhead.

If ever you’re faced with one of these huge changes, take heart. The only way to do it is to put your head down and power through. Besides, every single time you read through your work, it gets stronger. You’ll notice a sentence that sounds off, you’ll see that some new thread could easily be woven into the story here, here and here.

Also, there’s a great psychological effect to making these huge, whole-MS changes… you’ll get comfortable with ripping it apart and making it messy for a little while. After that, you’ll be more willing to do bigger revisions, if it comes to that, which it most likely will, and you’ll handle them with more aplomb! And doesn’t everyone want more aplombfulness in their lives? =)

* In case you’re wondering. Third person limited is narrated in the third person (he ran down the hallway, etc.) but it follows one character (most likely the main character) the closest. It can also see into that character’s thoughts and feelings but not anybody else’s. Third person omniscient, which is more difficult to pull off successfully, follows many people, can access all of their thoughts and feelings, and gives them equal weight.

** POV stands for “point of view.” Every time you follow someone’s thoughts or feelings, as in, say, the third person limited example above, you are in their POV. A book can primarily follow one person or have multiple POV’s (usually broken up into sections or new chapters, as in THE LUXE series by Anna Godbersen), and this term applies to books written in both first and third person.

4 Replies to “Changing Your Manuscript’s Tense and Point of View”

  1. I just discovered your blog and, as I saw somebody else comment, it does sometimes give me the feeling you’re looking over my shoulder as I work, write and make mistakes.

    This particular post, however, hits closest to home. I read it as I was halfway through switching my current manuscript from first to third person and it kept me from feeling crazy for doing so. It also gave me the courage to go BACK to first person when I just couldn’t get the right feeling from the third person approach (so I’m a dunderhead; at least I’m not alone!).

    Thanks for all your insight / advice!

  2. Thank you! Thank you for letting me know I’m not the only dunderhead out there switching POVs like outfits when getting ready for a first date.

    I have switched from third-omniscient, to first, back to third – but third-limited. And I completely agree that once you’ve blown up the manuscript once or twice, it does free you from it in an odd sort of way. You get used to letting go. Now (hopefully) I won’t be crushed if I’m asked for a bigger revision.

    Great blog!

  3. Whew! I was feeling like a complete dunderhead until I read this…now I’m off to change up from first person to third person limited. I can already hear the improvements in my head, now to just get them written down.

    Awesome post….thank you so much!

  4. This is, in fact, the $64,000 question. Tense: I never, ever have a clue. POV: If I have a really strong voice in one of the characters, it’s first person. Otherwise, 3rd Omniscient. I tried three characters, three limiteds once and wrapped myself into a pretzel.

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