Point of View and Tense: The Right Combination

by Dominic Preziosi

Every fiction writer knows that point of view is critical to telling a story the most effective way possible. Every writer also knows the importance of using the appropriate tense. But do they know how getting the two to work in tandem can transform a merely adequate story into something transcendent—or simply ready for print?

It was something I discovered while at work on a recently published short story. Only after experimenting with a number of POV/tense combinations—and overcoming my own personal bias against what I generally consider a crutch—did I arrive at a solution: first-person POV, present tense.

It wasn’t easy to accept what I’d been resisting throughout the time spent working on the story. Because of my (perhaps irrational) distaste for what I’d come to see as the sneaking pervasiveness of memoir-like style in fiction, I was hesitant to welcome what was presenting itself as the only possible choice. Why, I thought, do I have to adopt what I’d been dismissing as a desperate device of last resort to tell my story?

Because, I finally said to myself, it’s a story worth telling. And it required the sense of immediacy, the vivid description, and the potent personalized accounting that only the combined use of first-person POV and present tense could provide.

Here’s why: The story is based on my memories of New York City in the days following September 11. Having witnessed first-hand the events and their aftermath, I’d set about taking notes, recording the observations I made in long walks around lower Manhattan through the fall of 2001. My only motive was to write it down, thinking it might be something to pass to my children many years hence.

But a few years later, discovering what I’d written, I felt the need to turn it into something. The long strings of staccato sentences—all in present tense—pulled me back to those days and evenings I’d spent wandering the city. I knew, however, that if I wanted to use it for a story, I’d have some serious work to do.

First of all, the enormity of the tragedy tended to make attempts at depicting it in fiction seem futile and misguided, or, worse, presumptuous and insensitive. Much better writers than I were trying to get it all into words, without necessarily meeting the standards they or their audiences expected of them. I knew I’d have to come at the topic a different way, perhaps addressing it indirectly and imbuing it with the same kind of unreality I felt in re-reading my notes.

Second, I knew I’d need to capture the sense of immediacy that was evident in those notes. I wanted the images and impressions to come alive, to be right out there for a reader to experience and feel, just the way I had.

The first challenge more or less solved itself. Just as I began to plan out the story, I learned that a priest I’d known years before had gone blind in one eye. I began to imagine him wandering the city, his bad eye covered by a black patch. I knew then the setup of my story: A man and a woman meet up after the disaster, disoriented and disconnected, and walk the ash-covered streets; they’re joined by a one-eyed priest, who functions as an intrusive, possibly diabolic presence. At no time are the actual events of the day mentioned; there is only the “aftermath”—which is what the story eventually came to be called.

Finding a solution for the second issue was more difficult. For whatever reason, I began by writing the story in the third person. Perhaps that’s because it’s the way I write most of my stories. It’s as if by referring to characters as “he” or “she,” I can control them more easily. At the same time, I was using the simple past tense to tell the story. Again, it was a function of habit—it’s just my default tense, the one I tend to write in. So even though I had my notes right in front of me, I was choosing to overlook the very thing that gave them their potency: the immediacy the present tense can confer.

Consequently, my first several drafts were so disappointing, I contemplated abandoning the piece. Passages like the following—distant, lifeless—suggested to me the story could simply not be told effectively:

When they caught up to Samantha, she was standing before a lighted window. Behind it, Steven saw there was a restaurant worker peeling carrots. A mound of them was at his side; he finished one, tossed it into a large plastic crate, then pulled another off the bright orange heap. Life goes on, Steven wanted to say, but then he thought better of it. The restaurant worker was framed in the window, a square-cut hole in the façade of the run-down annex to the main restaurant next door—itself empty save for well-dressed wait staff wearing vacant stares.

“Still have to eat,” Samantha said. Steven realized it was a better way of expressing the thought he had just had.

Yet I wasn’t ready to put it aside. I knew that rewriting a story from a different point of view could help a writer, if only by yielding another version of the story to work with. But I also knew, from unpleasant experience, just how difficult and time-consuming it could be. Starting essentially from scratch is the last thing a writer wants to do, especially if there’s no guarantee of improvement. Yet start from scratch I did, and I could see that by switching to first person, things were already getting better. Mainly, the narrator could now speak for himself, and thus convey his observations and emotions much more personally—and with a lot more potency.

Better, but still not right. I knew I’d have to confront my aversion to combining first-person POV with the present tense. Just look at your own notes, I finally said to myself. Finally, I relented, and the story turned into what I wanted it to be—the evidence appearing right in the opening lines:

In the aftermath of everything, we meet up with the one-eyed priest.

Out of the smoldering ruins he appears—a long-legged cleric with angular features and a short haircut, far more Church of England than Roman Catholic, as my mother used to point out: Regular squash games had kept him fit all those years of my youth, and now, two decades later, he seems to have lost neither step nor sinew, judging from the way he strides toward us. The glow of the pile gives him a diabolic appearance—something the sleek black eye-patch does little to dispel—and I wonder what amalgam of fate and circumstance has made him materialize here and now, of all places and times.

“Welcome to the apocalypse,” he says.
First-person POV and the present tense: It turned out to be just the combination this story called for.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.