My introductory fiction students excelled at identifying the point of view in the stories we read—first person has “I” or “we,” second person has “you,” and so on. Identifying simple verb tenses—past, present, and future—also came easily to the students. However, when it came time to write their own stories, many of the first drafts my students submitted had irregular or inconsistent points of view and tenses. I saw the shifts stemming from something deeper than typos or inattention to details; I saw the shifts as indications that my students hadn’t quite decided how they wanted to tell their stories.
As a result, I developed a tool to help students consider the subtle effects of point of view and tense. “It’s like a menu!” a student once exclaimed, and ever since I’ve called the tool the “Point of View Menu.”
To introduce the menu, I first review the common indicators of each point of view with my students, then turn to identifying why as writers we might choose a particular point of view. To guide our discussions, I suggest we look at the relationship between the characters and the readers each point of view offers. While we recognize there are no absolutes, we develop some generalizations to gain a comprehensive perspective.
First person gets the reader up close and personal to a character—that is, the reader can see into a character’s mind.
Second person offers some space between the reader and the characters, but because of its inviting nature, readers can still get close the story and sometimes see into a character’s mind.
Third person offers some distance between the reader and the characters, because readers hear thoughts secondhand through narration.
Then we look at verb tenses, keeping it simple by focusing only on past, present, and future. We review common indicators of each, and again we turn the conversation to ask the question of why writers would choose to work with each tense.
In past tense, the events have already occurred. The time between the events and the telling of the story, then, allows for reflection on the events.
Present tense lends itself to reactions in the moment. My students offer suggestions of action films with fight sequences sliced into a punch, then a kick, then a slam—they feel as if they are experiencing the events in real time.
Future tense leans into the unknown and predicts what will come. It can also allow the writer to leap through time.
Once they have gained a sense of what point of view and tense offer separately, my next challenge to my students is to examine how they work together.
I grid point of view and tense and their purposes alongside each other, creating the backbone of our “menu.” In groups, my students fill in the resulting boxes where each point of view and tense meets. As the boxes fill, my students visualize the outcomes of possible narrative choices. A first person story written in past tense offers reflections up close and personal with the speaker. A third person story written in future tense offers predictions with some distance from the minds of the main characters.
First: up close and personal
Reflection up close and personal
Reaction up close and personal
Prediction up close and personal
Second: some space
Reflection with some space
Reaction with some space
Prediction with some space
Reflection with distance
Reaction with distance
Prediction with distance
The menu then becomes a touchstone tool in our discussions of class readings and in workshops. We discuss where the stories we’ve read belong in the menu. Students quickly realize stories, especially second and third person stories, might fit in multiple spaces. We also spend time exploring how and why writers employ several combinations, looking to stories such as Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Whitegirl, Browngirl, Blackgirl, or Halfie” and Jennifer Egan’s “Safari” for guidance.
The point of view menu makes clear to students the subtle differences among storytelling options. As a result, students grow confident in identifying how writers employ these choices in stories, and students are empowered to make thoughtful narrative choices in the stories they write.