Playing with Writing - Voice, Tense, and Point of View

The voice, tense, and point of view that you use in your writing has a huge impact on the experience of the reader. Even with the same plot, setting, and characters it can seem to be a different story. I am going to play with these in one small scene.


First, we have to come up with a scene. Just an intention and an obstacle should work.

A man is trying to catch a trolley, but it starts moving away from him.

Now we have to write this for the first time in some tense, voice and point of view. In English there are 16 tenses, around 6 different points of view, and at least half a dozen different types of voices you can use.

I am not going to worry about whether this is simple, continuous, perfect, or perfect continuous tense for now, and I am going to ignore the future-in-the-past tense. This leaves us with the past, present, and future distinctions.

Voice and point of view are highly intertwined. This can be true with tense as well, but a little less so. You can use a characters voice, stream of consciousness, an unreliable voice, epistolary voice (i.e. letters), what would be an observers voice, and something like a deities voice. I think adding context helps with these. In my blog posts I use a fairly conversational voice, as if we were sitting together and I was monologuing to you.

Point of view is extremely important because if it isn't clear then it can be very confusing when you read it. To a large extent it also determines the reading experience, who you identify with. Most people think of it as first person, second person, and third person, but third person is a little more complex. The third person point of view can be more objective and just describe what is happening in the physical world, or it can be more subjective and also describe thoughts and feelings. Another axis that the third person perspective can move along is from a more omniscient to a more limited point of view.

Basically, there is a ridiculous amount of stuff that you can think about concerning voice, tense, and point of view. The high level of complexity and importance is why I need to practice with it. Let's see how it goes if I write this short scene in third person distant limited in the past tense, which would usually imply an observers voice.

Wendel had thought that he left the house with enough time, but about half way to the trolley he realized that it was going to be close. He had started walking faster, and when he rounded the corner there were still people getting on. He was only a few strides away when the trolley began to move. He broke into a jog hoping to catch it, grab a rail and jump on. His laptop bag began bouncing against his side. He unslung it from his shoulder and began to run, but the trolley had started up the hill and he wasn't going to catch it now. "Why hadn't he left earlier?"

That seems okay. Let's see what happens when I try to do third person objective in past.

Wendel was walking along the street. He began walking faster and rounded a corner. There was a trolley with people getting on. When Wendel was a few strides from the trolley it began to move. He started to jog and his laptop bag was bouncing against his side. He took the bag off his shoulder and began to run. The trolley started up a hill and he stopped.

I had to write that twice because I slipped into the present tense pretty quickly. I think third person objective would sound better in the present tense.

Wendel is walking along the street. He begins walking faster and rounds a corner. There is a trolley with people getting on. Wendel is a few strides away from the trolley and it begins to move. He starts jogging and his laptop bag is bouncing against his side. He takes the bag off and begins to run. The trolley starts up a hill and he stops.

I like that a lot better. Let's get kind of wild and try second person past.

You had thought that you left the house with enough time, but about half way to the trolley you realized that it was going to be close. You had started walking faster, and when you rounded the corner there were still people getting on. You were only a few strides away when the trolley began to move. You broke into a jog hoping to catch it, grab a rail and jump on. Your laptop bag began bouncing against your side. You unslung it from your shoulder and began to run, but the trolley started up the hill and you weren't going to catch it now. "Why hadn't you left earlier?"

That is odd. This is very much like a choose your own adventure story. If someone was relaying this information to you though, they wouldn't know the through process. So, maybe, second should be objective.

You were walking along the street. You began walking faster and rounded a corner. There was a trolley with people getting on. You were a few strides away from the trolley when it began to move. You started jogging and your laptop bag began bouncing against your side. You took the bag off and began to run. The trolley started up a hill and you stopped.

That at least sounds more like the description of someone following you. Let's see what first person past is like.

I had thought that I left the house with enough time, but about half way to the trolley I realized that it was going to be close. I had started walking faster, and when I rounded the corner there were still people getting on. I was only a few strides away when the trolley began to move. I broke into a jog hoping to catch it, grab a rail and jump on. My laptop bag began bouncing against my side. I unslung it from my shoulder and began to run, but the trolley started up the hill and I wasn't going to catch it now. Why hadn't I left earlier?

That seems good. First person is pretty popular in novels. I wonder if you can do objective in first person, I have never heard of it.

I was walking along the street. I began walking faster and rounded a corner. There was a trolley with people getting on. I was a few strides away from the trolley when it began to move. I started jogging and my laptop bag began bouncing against my side. I took the bag off and began to run. The trolley started up a hill and I stopped.

That seems to work just fine. The list of possibilities is getting ridiculous. Apparently no one writes in some of these, but they are possible. It seems to me that the subjective/objective and omniscient/limited spectrums can apply to first and second person as well as third person. This means that points of view include: third person distant, third person close, third person objective, third person omniscient, third person universal, first person subjective, first person objective, first person omniscient, second person subjective, second person objective, and second person omniscient. Maybe there are more. Can third person close objective be a thing? Seems like it to me. Even if you just take the first list and combine it with the three basic tenses you have 33 different styles. If you combine it with the 16 different tenses you have 176 different styles. Combine this with things like epistolary voice, or using different characters perspectives and you have hundreds of different styles that you can write in. It is complex and confusing, no wonder that a lot of people just say that there are three tenses and four different points of view. That is only 12 style options and basically no one uses second person, so it is really only 9 different style options. Then, some of them are basically never used, such as almost all of future. Now there are 6 options. That is much easier to choose from. Some of the applicable contexts for the larger set of styles is very limited. I believe something as crazy as second person objective future will work, let's see.

You will be walking along the street. You will begin walking faster and round a corner. There will be a trolley with people getting on. When you are a few strides away from the trolley it will begin to move. You will start jogging and your laptop bag will be bouncing against your side. You will take the bag off your shoulder and begin to run. The trolley will start up a hill and you will stop.

I think that's pretty cool, and it can be useful in limited contexts. I will have to play with these some more in the future. I think it is interesting to explore these other avenues that are not usually utilized. An entire novel in some of these styles would probably seem odd, but I think most, maybe all, of them will work for short stories. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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