Notes on Craft (4): POV & Tense


Point of view

In a novel, you have a grand choice in choosing a point of view, or several points of view, or even no points of view (which will default in the reader to the view by the name of the author on the book). For me, this is sometimes easy, sometimes hard.  You can  have a third-person omniscient narrator, who knows everything and tells some things, or you can have partially omniscient, which I’ve done in a couple of novels, who is inside he heads of selected main characters—I did this happily with my novel The Spirit of the Place, being in the heads of only the two people who fell in love, and out of love, and then…(read the book)!


Present or past (I don’t do future, although future fantasy and sci fi is a big seller).

Two examples:

1.) At the Heart of the Universe

POV:  Set in China, I knew that it would be centered around the experience of four main characters: the Chinese birth mom, Xiao Lu, and the three adopted parents, Clio, Pep and their daughter Katie.  It was clear that the POV would be me the writer, telling the story, but we would be in each of those four heads.  Warning: this is quite difficult to do—if you want lessons, read Tolstoy, who was the expert (in War and Peace, he’s even inside the head of a dog).  Some writers including Faulkner make it easy, sometimes (As I lay Dying) having separate chapters when each person talks or thinks.  

The hard one is when you have all four of these people in a scene—which I do a lot in this novel—and have to make the narrator’s voice and each individual voice transition clearly and easily. I probably could not have done this until I’d written my six previous novels—and experimented a lot.  But, getting it wrong, and then revising until its right, is fun. Nobody ever gets it right the first time.  Tolstoy revised War and Peace seven times!

TENSE: This is a matter of feel.  I fiddled with past, and it didn’t seem to work.  I tried present tense, and it did.  Sometimes, depending on what you’re writing, present tense does not seem as immediate as past—which is strange.  In this case, when I tried present. it totally worked—everything came alive. But for a long novel, to do present tense, and in the heads of major characters is a challenging job.

So let’s look at what, for many writers, including me, was the least challenging job for POV and Tense, and why a lot of first novels are written in this mode:

author and his typewriter

Nobody gets it right the first time!

2.) The House of God

POV:  Since it was my novelization of my year of medical internship, one iteration from real, it had to be an “I” narrative.

TENSE:  It starts in present tense, from France after the year ends. The rest is in the past tense, except coming back to the present tense in France, to end.


Like all the things I’ve written so far, you just have to live with what you’re writing, holding your vision no matter what—hunger, thirst, fever, sweat– from time to time if you notice her (for me it’s a her) YOUR CRITIC sitting on your shoulder telling you this is shit, and you better not let go of your day job, and you take your dominant hand and smash her in the face and she explodes in gaseous cloud and is gone— until POV and TENSE and all the rest of your vision, that day at least, becomes clear.


Follow Samuel Shem on Goodreads and Facebook

And please join us @ the book launch for At the Heart of the Universe:

Samuel Shem in conversation with Adam Pertman, Adoption Nationand with Katie Surrey-Bergman and Janet Surrey. At Soho Playhouse, 14 Vandam Street, NYC. November 14, Monday at from 7 to 8:45.  Free.



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