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Should You Write in First Person, Present Tense?

baby in mirror

Contrary to popular belief, there are not all that many books written in first person, present tense. The overwhelming majority of books are written in third person past tense, but first/present appears to be receiving some serious light (and not always in a positive way). Recent novels written in that perspective have gained in popularity over the years. Books like Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey and the Hunger Games, first/present has really risen as a viable option and no longer simply a rarity. But, should you write your novel this way? Is it easier or harder to write in first person, present tense? Does first person, present tense move the reader closer to the main character?

All good questions... so let's answer some of them!

I am

What is writing in first person, present tense? To answer that, we have to break up the wording and address first person, first. To write in first person, is to write as if you the author, or the main character is speaking directly to the reader or themselves. It's similar to when you're telling a story to someone about an incident that happened to you just a few minutes ago. When we tell these stories, attempting to relate what occurred, we use, I.

"So, I was walking down 5th avenue, and saw this dude taking a crap on the sidewalk... in broad daylight!"

As you can see, when the character is telling a story where they themselves are explaining what they are experiencing, they are speaking about themselves using 'I'. I was, I am, I feel, I see, etc. The listener is being addressed directly by the person relaying the story. Therefore, if you're writing in first person, the writer or main character is telling the story themselves.

Present tense means the incident was currently happening in the now. It doesn't mean it just happened a minute ago, or even five seconds ago.

"It's such a hot day out here. All of these people, bumping into me and getting in my... what is that? Wait, is that guy... oh my god, he's defecating on the sidewalk!"

In the above example, the character is telling us what's happening as if we were standing next to them experiencing the incident right along with them. There's an absence of past tense verbs being used. This is what people mean when they're talking about using present tense in their stories.

In simple terms, first person, present tense is telling a story as if it's currently happening and the narrator is speaking directly to the reader or themselves. There are also variations pertaining to an omniscient or limited narration, but those are all within first/present.

When do you use first person present tense? Whenever you want, of course. But, if you're going to use it, know that it is in and of itself a limiting framework. The writer will have to be aware of the imagined time. So, long moments of reflection should only be done when there's an opportunity for a long period of no activity. These moments tend to be rare as life moves with or without the narrator. There are ways around this, as in both of my novels I wanted a moment for the character to basically zone out. In Fallen Sun, the main character has her supporting characters ask is she was even listening to them. In my first novel, Sectors, a similar situation happened and I had to write in that the main character actually missed some of the conversation happening around him. It's not easy to pull this off, so those moments had to be far and few between.

Is it harder to write first person, present tense?

Honestly, first person present tense isn't harder to write, just not as intuitive as third person past tense. Even after writing two books in that format, my editor still had to check me a few times when I accidentally broke the narration by slipping into third/past. Aside from the tense slips, there are some major restrictions. The chief one being that unless you're an omniscient narrator, the actions of other characters will be missed as well as motivations and secret plots. You can't write that the antagonist is secretly planning to sabotage a bridge and kill thousands during a manufactured traffic jam at rush hour. You can't write it because if the narrator knows this, she/he is either with the antagonist or secretly working on the villain's plan with them. The narrator can only know what they're exposed to during the course of the story. So again, only an omniscient narrator would know such a plan. But, since time is passing as normal, if the narrator is omniscient, it would have to miss something in one place to be aware of something happening in a different location. Doing all of this astral travel can be disorienting with the reader without a way to transition the story from one place to next.

If at any time, the story appears to stop, you've failed to maintain the illusion and threaten to kick the reader out of the hypnosis you've cultivated.

Does first person present tense bring the reader closer to the characters?

Honestly, I'd have to say... it depends. You can achieve the same amount of 'closeness' and urgency in whatever perspective you decide to write in. If you go with first/present, the reader gets to experience the protagonist directly, not only through narrator's recollection. But again, this is highly dependent on the writer. Writing is a discipline that greatly reflects the artist and the those that are engaging the artwork. As of right now, I'm more inclined to believe that first person, present tense is no better than third person, past tense in regards to actual reader engagement. Third/past hasn't been the top method of writing for no good reason.

All of the perspectives are powerful in the hands of a dedicated practitioner. So get out there and write with your heart, whatever perspective you've decide. There are no wrong ways to do your art, just ways that aren't as effective as others.

Find what's effective for you, and the only way to do that, is the write.

Many blessings! And remember, NO EXCUSES. JUST WRITE.

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