Writing in First Person, Present Tense? Think Again

September 20, 2011 § 29 Comments

I must admit I wasn’t aware of the growing trend in fiction of authors writing stories and novels in the present tense until I read David Jauss’ chapter “Remembrance of Things Present” in his volume On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2011).

If you’ve written something in first person present tense or are in the process of doing so, I strongly recommend you read this chapter. Jauss reviews the origins of present tense writing, suggests why it’s become popular and details seven advantages and 10 disadvantages of using this format. In my humble opinion, the disadvantages win hands down. Yet, Jauss believes it can be done well if the writer is aware of the pitfalls.

In truth, very few writers manage present tense without falling prey to more than one of the negatives. Oddly, I happen to be in the middle of a political thriller that is written in present tense. I was having trouble committing myself to finish the book; now, after reading Jauss, I understand why. Without mentioning the name of the book or the author, I’ll give some examples of the problems in the novel I’ll call “Florida Thriller”.

One pitfall of writing in present tense is that authors tend to get caught up in the minutia of daily life. In “Florida Thriller,” the protagonist keeps up a steady stream of information about what he’s doing almost minute by minute. He tells us each time he pours himself a cup of coffee or takes a shower. He tells us whenever his girl friend takes a shower and he tells us what he has to eat seemingly for every meal.

That the author recognizes that he’s doing this and is concerned about the impact it may be having on the reader is revealed half way through the book: “I made a pot of coffee (yes, I know I drink too much coffee) and took a cup into my office, where I sat down and reread the notes.” When an author suspects he’s boring his readers, he’s always right.

First person present tense also creates problems of the pace of the story. Writing about the minutia of daily life bogs the story down and distracts the reader from the plot. It takes so long for the story to unfold that the reader is tempted to put down the Kindle and turn on the TV.

Another problem that first person authors face is the difficulty in providing the depth of perspective on events and situations that one gets from the narrator in a third person story. So, in “Florida Thriller,” the author is forced to make the protagonist a walking encyclopedia. He has to be an expert on so many things because there’s no third person narrator to provide the necessary background. Then when the protagonist doesn’t know something, the author is forced to introduce new characters just to provide the missing information. The new characters play no role in the story, but the protagonist needs them to provide key information. This slows down the flow of the story and burdens the reader with keeping track of extraneous characters.

I suspect that authors who are attracted to this format are often writing about their own lives as they wish they had turned out and therefore they can’t resist making their main characters into super-human heroes. Because they identify with their protagonist and are thus intimately interested in what their main character eats, how s/he dresses, h/h love life, etc., they don’t see the disadvantage of drowning the reader in those details. Further, super-hero characters suck tension out of the story since we have no doubt that the hero will figure everything out in the end. In sum, I don’t think present tense authors are thinking enough about the impact that format has on the reader. They’ve chosen a format that is inherently narcissistic. This is my story, the author is saying. Read about me. Admire me; aren’t I terrific!

In sum, if you want to write in present tense first person at least take the time to read Jauss’ essay to learn what some of the difficulties this format presents as well as make sure the supposed advantages are essential to your story.

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§ 29 Responses to Writing in First Person, Present Tense? Think Again

  • Alvaro says:

    Narrative focus is a problem for many authors writing in past tense, too.

    Your last point about superhero characters has absolutely nothing to do with present tense. You claim you “suspect” people who write in first person are doing this, with no evidence to support your suspicion.

    Very unconvincing post.

    • 37editor says:

      Alvaro. Thank you for your comments. I did say I suspected a connection exists between first person narratives and superhero protagonists drawing from an admittedly limited number of examples. My mind remains open to the possibility that I am wrong….

    • Aden says:

      Oy. Generalities. Sounds like a whole lotta crap to me. I just finished a 110K word novel in first-person, present-tense, shifting between 5 characters and including 1st person, past-tense flash backs.

      First person present tense is a lot of work–a lot of work–but can be done and can be a lot of fun. Pay attention to environment, remember stimuli is processed in sporadic chunks and rarely in Gestalten choke-fulls and most of the time not in the moment. Just like in past tense, only include details that move the story along. The reader doesn’t need the specifics of smoking a cigarette unless it’s a post-coital reflection or the butt will be extinguished in someone’s eye later on.

      FPPT works best for storylines where the characters are in situations that require instinct or action–not reflection. Reflection can take place, but data-dumps lose readers like a blog based on spectation rather than experience.

      But most importantly–ignore other people’s opinions and just write it. The key thing to keep in mind is that if it slows down your own reading, edit it–if it still bores you afterwards, remove it and put is aside. Return to it later, re-work it and re-insert. Or don’t.

      Cheers!

      ~AJL

  • Ron Donaghe says:

    The main problem I see with writing in the first-person present tense is the tendency that such storytellers have to get involved after they become unconscious or dead.

    I just finished editing a novel where, at the end, the narrator is in a coma, and yet the narration continues from that comatose narrator’s point of view. It’s an existential logic that defies the “I had an experience and this is what happened” part of narrating a story. We have to assume that the first-person narrator is sitting somewhere telling her story after it is over.

  • Annie says:

    My question is, if you are writing in first person past tense, can you/should you switch to first person present tense when discussing ideals, values, attributes that have not changed. For example, my protaganist is telling the story in past tense, but has segued into a brief discussion of her religious beliefs. Since she still holds those beliefs, does she discuss it in present tense? “I believe in a higher power” or “I believed in a higher power”?

    thank you

    • 37editor says:

      If she’s talking about her beliefs at that time, she would use past tense. The reason is her beliefs today might not be the same time.

    • Ron says:

      For Annie,

      We all speak in the present tense about our beliefs and even what we’re doing at the time, when we are engaged in dialog. And I think that’s what your question shows:

      “What are you doing?”
      “I’m polishing my shoes.”

      These are of course spoken in the present tense, but if the narrator is first person and narrating this, he/she could write it this way.

      “What are you doing?” I asked, as I looked down at my son and the mess he had made.

      “I’m polishing my shoes,” he said.

      We still retain the past tense, even though what is spoken in dialog is present tense.

      Ron

      • Ray Burton says:

        Your example to Annie is very helpful. Thank you! That just busted me out of a pickle. (How exactly I got in there is a secret. Pickles are tricky.)

  • Annie says:

    Thank you!

  • R. Foreman says:

    Thanks. Working on a complicated story in its own right – twisted plot, surprise, education, story inside a story, a runaway theme and characters you’ve probably have met and now have the opportunity to know. It’s important to me to introduce this collection of misfits to you in a language and a voice that intrigues, piques and stirs you to wait until the last few pages to find out what happens and to thank me that the introduction, albeit in depth, is still slight and on paper.

    Have spent days thinking of the right voice for delivery and introduction, even put it on the to do list of things to research. After all has been said and done, and after reading this post, I’ve decided to let the complications unfold in my own voice rather than the surprise of what may occur from writing in the present.

  • Q says:

    I find the heavy consideration of tense a bit disconcerting. I mean, I do understand it is important, since this is the most evident and long-lasting device your product is going to have, after all. However, I feel that a writer shouldn’t worry so much at being a writer as much as they should focus on being a storyteller. Yes, again, the tense is important to how the story is being told. But, what I’m trying to say that if you have a story that needs to be told, the writer should instinctively already know what voice and tense the story should be in for the plot to unfold naturally (or as they envisioned it, even if that means unnaturally). I never go into writing trying to figure it out like a puzzle. What tense? Why? My audience? My success? That stuff never occurs to me. I guess this isn’t very credible, because I’m just one person. Although I actually don’t like First Person-Present Tense, that’s not because of the tense itself, but because I’ve read a lot more poorly written pieces than I have that did it well. But! The times that I have read something that used it successfully, boy, was it a ride! If you are concerned about being a writer to be a published author, then I guess you could consider what could make your book more successful. However, anyone who is writing for literary achievement, I have a feeling that they will instinctively gravitate to the tense that compliments the story telling.

    Speaking from personal experience, I think FPP can be used to great effect in short-form stories. But I’m not saying just because I know/predict that what I’m writing will be short that I’ll immediately consider FPP. Shorter pieces do provide a more suitable setting for FPP than something longer, where the pitfalls of FPP are more likely to occur. And, I hope that I am not giving you the impression that I stray away from FPP, either. In fact, I use it quite frequently. I can’t say I don’t have a draft of anything (serious) I’ve written that has a FPP version. Although, I use this more of a tool to get deeper into my story’s characters. I think it’s a great device for writers to write a whole story, a chapter, a passage, in a different character’s / narrator’s (minor or major) POV. It really surfaces some details you could of missed – it is THEIR stories, after all.

    I really do think that the minute details of the day can make a FPP read laborious, I think this can also be a pro. FPP is a very intimate and engaging POV! Marry this fact with a story that has a gripping vice on the main character, this can really entice and mesmerize the reader. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the film Memento, by Christopher Nolan, but if it was adapted into a book, I think FFP would be the natural way to go. Even though the protagonist is fixated on the dullest details of the day, they are vastly important to him, which the reader will pick up on when the premise (the attention to memory, mostly) becomes more evident. I think it could become borderline intoxicating to witness that story in the tense – how the information is present and the plot progresses.

    Anyways… You could write a story about the boy who gets the girl (or not quite), or a story about the caged spirit breaking free and touring the world – Whether you’re are just hoping to be a successful author, or the next influential literary figure – it all boils down to the story. If we really want to call ourselves a writer, whether we want to fall in the former or latter, I can’t stress how much more important it is to be connected to the story than it is to “logically” guide your pencil. All tenses have their pros and cons, but the story is the final judge of that, and trying to decide about the tense as a writer and not a storyteller will keep you from listening to what your story is telling you.

    At least, that’s how I see it. Maybe I’m just crazy and misguided.

    • Ron Donaghe says:

      First person, past tense is logical, effective, and quite common. But first person, present tense has to be the most existentially illogical of any narrative voice. It only works when it occurs in dialogue “I’m polishing my shoes.” It indicates a present and ongoing action. Keep in mind that the actual moment of present tense is imperceptible in real life. Have you ever been in a car accident? There’s the moment before the accident and the moment after the accident, but it’s virtually impossible for the conscious mind to experience the actual moment of impact. As soon as you are aware that you have been hit, it’s already in the past.

  • Chris says:

    I agree with Q that the focus should be on the story. My friends who read but don’t write are usually very little help with this kind of thing because they never even notice 1st, 2nd, 3rd, limited, unlimited, past, present, POV’s. They just read and enjoy the story. That is because all the work is done on the front end so that they DON’T notice it. The author takes whatever story and crafts it in as unassuming a manner as his/her talents allow. If it works, it gets agented, edited, and published. By the time it gets to the reader’s eyes it has passed all the tests for not sticking out like a sore thumb. Of course there are good and bad reads that get published, but in the scheme of things, most “just readers” don’t realize the labor and process that goes into presenting them something “they can read” without distraction.

    This being said, my WIP, is a fun, quirky story about a young woman flying by the seat of her pants as she transitions in life from serious corporate exec to overwhelmed entrepreneur. She is telling the story through diary entries, prose, emails and texts that she gets from the ridiculous people in her life. She is ‘me’ in many ways, through occupation and personality and inspiration. (I’m male by the way so I’m really out of my comfort zone in creating a female lead character…my wife laughs and says, “You do know that we’re complicated, don’t you?”) So, it seems natural to me to narrate the story as I would if I was telling it to someone in my own life. Look at how I’m explaining this WIP to you all now…in FPP! Its how I talk, write, and people are often entertained by my oral storytelling. I’ve written other manuscripts and would never consider FPP for them. I feel like this should definitely be FP and I think with the other devices (diary, emails and texts) it will work as FPPresent. Any thoughts?

    • Ron Donaghe says:

      Yes, journal entries as a kind of frame for presenting a story are logical in first person, but also in present tense? No.

      Dear Diary,
      I have a good time at the party. People move around me as I try to get to the punch bowl. I drive home frustrated, open the door to my house. I go to bed and go to sleep, dream, and awaken to a fresh new day.

      Does any of such a present tense entry make real sense? Now cast it in first person past tense and it does make sense.

      • douglasesper says:

        If I could get to the damn punch bowl this would be a much cooler party, but I’m surrounded by clueless freshman clinging to my coat tails at every turn.
        Why the hell am I here anyways? Molly won’t be happy to see me, that is for sure.
        Pushing aside one last meathead wearing my jersey number, I reach the keg and hear the terrifying sound of foam informing me I’m too late.
        That’s it. Fuck this party and fuck Molly if she can’t take a joke. I’m getting out of here.
        I give my motorcycle a little extra gas as I peel out and head for home.
        Sure, I am alone and, worse, I am sober, but even Molly can’t escape me in my dreams.

      • Ron Donaghe says:

        For Douglaseper,
        the example you give about a journal entry is that it’s not strictly written in first person present tense, but more often in conditional tense…If…, which is different than present tense, and the only main place where it’s in present tense is again illogical, where he is presently at the keg and is “outta here” in the present and in the very next paragraph (still in the present he is on his motorcycle. If it is the PRESENT moment, he simply cannot be at the keg and on his motorcycle at the same time, and that is what the present tense implies. There’s no way to move from one present moment to the next present moment and still be in the present.

      • hi,
        with a journal entry or with internal dialogue a person doesn’t normally account/narrate every second of their lives, so it isn’t uncommon to “jump ahead” or skip over present moments of time unimportant/irrelevant to the story. perhaps, you would be more comfortable if there was a focus on transitioning between the jumps…i could easily add a sentence describing the main character walking to his bike or thoughts he has as he does the action, but again, then you get bogged down into a second by second description rather than moving the story along.
        doug

  • Lania Taylor says:

    I have a couple of questions about writing in first person…Im working on a novel. I started off writing in first person (present tense) but once I start going back in the past…do I switch to( past tense)….my second question…when Im writing in first person…how do I describe an event if I wasn’t present? Do I go by what one of my characters viewed…since she/ he was present.

    • 37editor says:

      Good questions. You are finding out why first person is so hard to pull off effectively. When writing about the past you can retain first person if your protagonist was there, but of course you need to use past tense. “I saw him lift the tip off the table.” If you weren’t there, then someone else has to report what happened. “Mary said she saw the man take the tip off the table” or “‘I saw the man take the tip,’ Mary said.”

  • Chris says:

    I think it all depends on the protagonist narrator. It works if he/she is rich and provoking and entertaining. It doesn’t otherwise. I would not have read past the 3rd page of Confessions of a Shopaholic had Becky Bloomwood, that superficial, narcissistic, clueless bitch, not been telling the story as it happened. As a result, I cared only about what her next thoughtless move would be and then yearned to discover how low she would go in defense of it. When you are following along with a character like this, the “minutia” is great because you can’t wait to see what nonsense she’ll come up with next.

    I think humor works better in the FPP because humor is that one thing we all relate to. If we find ourselves laughing, its because we feel the same way and wish we could say it aloud. Fantasy/Adventure, for example, does not seem to work so much in FPP because as posted, it comes across as self-serving:

    I stand up before my people and bellow, “I Writergod, King of the fourth world, hereby decree that all worlds shall be free from the icy clutches of the ruthless Agentor. No man’s work shall be oppressed in this world or any other ever again!” I swoop my cape around like an inverted tornado and disappear behind the alter. These people love me, they need me. They cherish my existence. I must rid the world of evil once and for all…

    Ok, a bit thick, but I know you know what I mean.

  • i may be late to the party, but here are my two cents…i wrote a novel in cpp because part of the plot revolved around sports and i wanted to immediacy of being on the field of play as it happened rather than looking back in remembrance…only time will tell if it was the right choice, but at the very least it was a challenge for myself to change from my usual third person pov.

    doug esper

  • Thomas says:

    I’m just finishing my second novel in first person present tense and the way that I sidestepped a lot of the inherent limitations of FPP’s POV, is to switch to third person POV for background information and window dressing outside of the eye of the protagonist. Ideally the switch should be made with a new chapter. If a change in chapter isn’t warranted then it is possible to use a break signaling the reader. It is a very difficult way to approach a story but I believe that it places the reader in the here and now and can be far more exciting and suspenseful.

    You are constantly finding new and creative ways to keep the story moving to keep the reader from being bogged down in play-by-play minutia. The character must be colorful and often critical of his own decisions while highlighting his own flaws to avoid coming off as self-serving. Third person POV can offer more glowing accounts of the protagonist which most readers will identify with because the relationships in the characters come to life in a third dimensional sense when you look at yourself far differently than others see you, for better or for worse, at the risk of sounding cliché, these relationships can literally take on a life of their own. In the same way FPP can increase suspense. It can also increase other genres or situations of humor and depths of relationships in sadness and fulfillment.

  • [...] of the comments to this post by Peter G. Pollak make interesting points. Ron Donaghe [...]

  • Indy says:

    Being a new writer on a creative writing degree, I am aware of the way in which lecturers nowadays seem to seek out the stories written by students in Fist Person. They like the imidiacy and the drama. I’m trying to write my disertation piece and how lovely, I get to write the opening chapters of a novel.
    I’ve started to write it in first person past tense, but wow it was hard not to stray to the present. i did in fact, put in some present imidiate thoughts and it worked. Now, switching to another perspective, I’m finding it’s not working. The writing is not flowing at all. I read an article by Philip Pulman where he said:

    ‘I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses…
    Put it on something steady to stop that incessant jiggling about. Say what happened, and let the reader know when it happened and what caused it and what the consequences were, and tell me where the characters were and who else was present – and while you’re at it, I’d like to know what they looked like and whether it was raining.’

    I do agree, there are so many pitfalls with writing in the FPP, but what about Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘Time Traveller’s wife’. Here Audrey avoided the problems by jumping about in almost present tense diary entries.
    I am planning to use a similar method of story telling for my own.

    Any comments?

    • 37editor says:

      If you read my original post which was a review of the essay by David Jauss in “On Writing Fiction,” the point he makes is that First Person perspective has gotten very popular, when in the past it was avoided because it is difficult to pull off successfully. If you can pull it off, more power to you.

  • I was searching for tips on the advantages and disadvantages of writing in the present tense (the disadvantages interest me the most) and came upon this blog, but I didn’t find the post that useful.

    Didn’t anyone else notice (I only read some parts of the comments) that the part quoted from the book is not actually in the present tense, but good old past tense? That confused me so much that I couldn’t get the rest of the text. Actually, the limitations cited seem more related to the difference between first and third person than to the difference between present and past tense.

    Just saying.

  • “I made a pot of coffee (yes, I know I drink too much coffee) and took a cup into my office, where I sat down and reread the notes.” When an author suspects he’s boring his readers, he’s always right.

    FYI. The above is not present tense. It is past tense.

  • I am doing an odd experiment where, in my novel, I switch between 3rd person past tense and first person present tense. The first person present tense section deals with an otherworldly after-death experience. It is a very dark, unnerving chapter, and I hope that by using this very odd tense, I can better convey that feeling to the reader.

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