Tense and Point of View in Autobiographical Writing
If you are thinking about writing your autobiography, there are many aspects of preparation that you need to consider, some of which we have compiled in a previous blog post.
It is worth exploring how the use of tense and point of view can alter a narrative. Here we outline the different options, and which are best suited for autobiographical writing.
The tense used in a piece of writing indicates the period of time in which the story is happening: past, present, or future.
This is the most obvious choice for autobiographical writing, as you are writing about events that have already happened. Writing in the past tense is the most recognisable and common way to tell a story, for example: “Once upon a time, somewhere before today, there was a fantastic character, who had a great adventure, survived to tell the tale and is now eager to tell you all about it.”
It’s not just easy to write in the past tense, it is easy to read too. If the tense is ‘invisible’ to a reader, they can enjoy the bits that count, like the story and the characters you describe.
Writing a book in the present tense is a riskier choice stylistically, particularly when penning a life story, but it can be very effective when trying to convey a sense of excitement and immediacy. For example, “the car comes to a screeching halt” This is uncommon in autobiographical writing but has been successful in fictional stories.
The Hunger Games is a good example of present tense writing, allowing the writer to convey a specific intense emotion and produce a more cinematic feel.
Writing in the future tense is not common in most forms of writing as it would be difficult to pull off throughout an entire narrative. It can be used to combine with the present tense to create a sense of apprehension and describes something that is going to happen. For example, “The car will come to a screeching halt”.
Point of View
Who is telling the story? Point of view is the mode of narration for your story. This can be categorised into three viewpoints: first, second, and third person.
Though the first-person point of view restricts writing to one set of feelings, this is the primary function for memoir and autobiographical writing. This point of view gives readers access to the subject’s inner world and paints a picture of personal struggles and insight from the subject’s own perspective.
A less common point of view is second-person, in which the writer addresses an ambiguous ‘you,’ who might be themselves, the reader, a character—or all three.
This is the most common point of view in both fiction and nonfiction writing as it has a myriad of possibilities, delving into the thoughts and experiences of multiple characters portrayed by an omniscient narrator.
The majority of memoirs, autobiographies, and personal histories are written in the past tense from a first-person point of view. As you are writing about your own life story, and things that have happened in the past, these choices are more natural and suited to that context. Whatever tense and point of view are chosen, it is important to keep it consistent, or you may confuse the reader.
Avoid phrases that switch tenses mid-sentence, such as: “we were seven miles from shore. Suddenly, the sky turns dark.” Mixing tenses can be done when using direct quotations though, as in the following: “the car came to a screeching halt. ‘John is looking for you.’ he said as he rolled up the window.”
No matter what you choose, make sure that the style supports your own authentic voice and doesn't detract from it.
Documenting an entire life is a big responsibility – but you are in safe hands. Our stress-free process allows you to easily tell your story, your way, and we will guide you through to make the journey as enjoyable and rewarding as we can.
Our team of professional writers understand the approach needed for point of view and tense to match your authentic voice and perspective. This takes the hassle away so you can focus on choosing what memories and aspects of your life you feel are most important to tell your story.
For a full breakdown of our process works, please click here.