Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Staying In The Moment With First Person

I usually write first person present tense. It feels most natural to me and it's what I'm used to from writing screenplays. For my current WIP I made the choice to write first person past tense because I thought it better suited the way I wanted the story to unfold. What I noticed almost immediately was that some of the energy of my story was lost. The ms starts with a short piece of necessary backstory (paranormal world-building) and then moves into present day. My problem was that the "present day" stuff still sounded like it was happening in the past. It was all telling. Then I stumbled across this quote by Tami Brown over at the blueboards:

The biggest hurdle, I think, is true for all first person narratives. It's what I call "let me tell you my story" syndrome. The narrator tells the reader about what happened to them rather than jumping into the middle of the action and letting it unfold with the reader right there in the middle. You can debate showing vs. telling all day, but having plenty of showing and a minimum of telling is very important in a first person story, in my opinion. If you "tell" too much that creates a huge distance between the reader and the story- the narrator/protagonist is literally standing there, blabbing, instead to acting, and that equals boring.

It's so interesting to me to read this, because I've found it doesn't happen at all in present tense. There's just not a lot of room for sitting around ruminating on the past in present tense, because you are by definition, in the moment. I looked over my (very) rough draft and realized that I had fallen into this trap of "let me tell you a story" which was making my characters distant and the story itself, less powerful because it was being told as if it had already happened rather than as it was happening.

Here's an example of some of the changes I made (and remember please that both of these are still rough drafts!):

The "Let Me Tell You A Story" version:
I had a bad feeling as soon as Jenna said “party at Snake’s,” but I ignored it. Snake, Jenna’s latest victim, was twenty-two, and when he wasn’t busy selling drugs to the rich kids at West Haven, he worked at his uncle’s body shop.

Jenna was stoked though, so what could I do? I had just dumped my boyfriend, it wasn’t like I had other plans.

The "In The Moment" version:
Jenna shoved her phone into her back pocket and flashed me a grin. “Party at Snake’s.”

My gut said bad idea, but one look at her face told me I had no choice. Jenna had that “new guy glow”. Even the pink streak in her hair looked brighter.

I shrugged.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “It’s not like you have other plans.”

See the difference? One is a character standing in some undisclosed place, musing on events that happened, and the other is that character actively experiencing those events. I think the second version feels much more connected to both the character and has more energy than the first.

I find for me that it's important to remember that just because the character is narrating in past tense, doesn't mean that everything happened in the past.

I'll leave you with my new favorite piece of advice on tense: When it's done right, tense should be invisible.


  1. oh, I like that - it should be invisible!
    I wrote my first book in past with the advice of a writing tutor. My current one is first person present and I do feel it's more natural for me. I had some trouble with showing in my previous one! Good post.

  2. Hee hee, I recognize that quote! I'm working very hard to correct the same issue throughout my MS.

  3. Lacey, I'd actually thought about using that quote for a post before I sent it to you! I'd read it while trying to figure out what was wrong with my ms!

    I think it's really hard both to notice you're doing it, and to fix it because I think our natural inclination, when writing in past tense is to tell a story.

  4. t's kind of funny once you do notice it though. For example I had this sentence before you pointed it out to me:
    When I awoke, I was alone on the red chair, a warm fire burning in the stove.

    And after, I worked it something like this:
    I awoke alone, curled on the red chair. A warm fire burned in the stove.

    I know it still needs work, but you can see how much better it is already.

    Valerie pointed out how many times I used the word "was". Omitting words like "when" and "was" really helped me see where I was telling.

  5. I love the invisible idea - my ms is third person past tense but I struggle with that as well. I can't wait to send you guys the revised version!

  6. Ah, so true. I love first person and actually mix past and present throughout my novel. It bothers some people right at the beginning, and then, I think, it becomes invisible. Great post!

    Oh my gosh! My verification word is REWRITE!!! A message???

  7. Lol, Elana! it is a sign from the writing gods.

  8. I'm so glad you liked the post! Your book sounds interesting Elana! Mixing tenses can definitely be done right.

    In PAPER TOWNS, John Green switches from past to present for the last part of the book. I didn't even notice until I went back to re-read a scene much later.

    Too funny about REWRITE! I almost never get real words.

  9. I'm so in awe of people who write in present tense. For me it just never sounds natural - I'm a past tense kind of gal. I love the idea that tense should be invisible. Until I can make my present tense feel that way, I think I'll just stick with past. :-)

  10. Good post! I need to go back through some of my writing and make it a little more "in the moment".


  11. This is an awesome post! I love experimenting with all tense and POV. I used to do third-past, then I went into first-past, then into first-present, and I've slowly gotten into third-present. I think that each story can have different POV and tenses to go with that story. It's one of the most fun parts of writing, for me.


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