In my previous blog post, I mentioned that writing from a First Person Perspective can be a problematic writing style. This isn’t a popular statement. The First Person POV has gained quite a bit of attention in the last twenty years, a lot of it centered around the popularity of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I myself have read many wonderful novels written using this style, but in general, I think it should be avoided. Like all of the problematic styles I listed in my previous post however, there are advantages and disadvantages. In this case there are several more disadvantages than advantages for new and experienced writers alike, but I’ll do my best to create an objective list to ruffle as few feathers as possible.
1) Easier to be Inside the Head of a Character. The Hunger Games is a great example of this. If someone were to try and put all of Katniss's thoughts into something written from a past perspective, it would probably be rather annoying to read. In present however, there is an easy chronological order. Take for instance, the scene on the platform, just as she is brought up through the tube at the beginning of the games – we as the readers are fully conscious that every thought she has takes place as the seconds are counting down, and it only intensifies the action. In present, especially first person present, thoughts feel more like active story points.
2) Intense Action During the Action Scenes. When stuff is really happening, present is just a joy to write in! Sentences like “He stands over me, hands at my throat, keeping the air from passing into my lungs” are crisp, powerful and just delightful. “He stood over John with his hands at his throat, keeping the air from passing into his lungs” simply doesn’t have the same fire. There is another layer of separation. We’re seeing John and his attacker through another screen.
3) Characters Are Easier to Relate to. This might not always be the case, but I’ve personally found good present tense work to be easy to relate to. Your heart thumps along with the character because the prose takes you step by step through action.
1) Naturally Leans Toward Shorter Chapter Length and Lots of Line Spaces. Chapter breaks and line spaces are some of the only ways to veer away from things like meals and going to sleep – things that will be mind-numbingly dull in any POV. In present, it’s tough to say things like “The next day, I’m sitting with my friend Bob planning how we’re going to win the archery competition” or whatever, because if it truly is present, you have to remain in the present moment, and “The next day” implies a broader perspective than a character might have if he/she is looking on events for the first time. So instead, you do a line space and say “My friend Bob and I talk about various ways to win the competition. It’s only a day away now, and we’re running out of ideas.” Note how I wove in the time that has passed in a way that might follow the actual flow of the conversation. This brings us to the next disadvantage.
2) Constricting. Okay, going back to our previous example. Say you wound up trying to solve “the next day” problem by doing a line space before the previous action, but instead of what I said, you wind up saying something like, “Now I’m with my friend Bob, planning how we’re going to win the archery competition.” Do you see how the “Now” is a little tough to justify if someone were really living moments event by event, because it’s always in the now, so having to specify it implies a kind of time skip. Counteracting issues like these may become second nature after a while, but writing a novel is hard enough as it is, and you really don’t need to be adding more things to do! Which brings us to the next disadvantage.
3) Tough First Drafts. When you’re forced to keep certain things in mind to write in the present tense, the entire school of writing in which one writes a shoddy first draft and then comes back and edits it to perfection is lost. You HAVE to make sure your story makes sense in present or else the editing will be so intense you may never want to write again. I’m serious. This said, I tend to do very tight first drafts myself so it wouldn’t bother me as much as some. Which one are you? Do you like to freewrite and then edit later? If so, maybe a first person past is what you’re looking for?
4) Significantly Less Narrational Leeway. This one is important. Let’s create a hypothetical example to show the real issue here. Let’s just say that your character owns a pot that she’s had for fifteen years. She uses the pot nearly every day for making soup for lunch. In this particular story, it is of vital importance to describe the appearance of this pot, as it has a family crest carved into the bottom, which (as your hero will find out later) gives the object the ability to grant three wishes… Okay, this example is absurd, but hear me out. How, if she has used this pot every single day, can you get off describing it in first person present? “I take out my pot, the one with the family crest scratched into the bottom, and start cooking…” But isn’t that forced narration? Present is the same as being in the mind of the person, and why would the person, who has no reason to describe the pot, describe it? To try and make this work in this story, you would be forced to have her drop the pot to reveal its backside, have somebody else mention it at some point in the story and have her reply “Oh, that? I thought that was just a family crest!” or something tacky and obvious to get it out. It makes you either A) spend a LONG time making the current story work, or B) change the story somewhat. While option B isn’t necessarily a problem, you might be surprised by how many times you will find yourself changing story elements in FP-present. There’s a trick that I do where, no matter how hard it is to write, the way I imagine it is the way it needs to be written in the story. That way, it holds my real feelings and people are less prone to discover writing tactics. This directly conflicts with the idea of changing something because it might work better with the flow of a novel! On a less dramatic note, FP-Present also limits the amount of time you can spend on the descriptions that actually do work.
I’m reminded of a story I heard not too long ago. In it, people enter a woman’s house, and as they enter, what they are seeing (beautiful lamps and decadent upholstery) is described. How would this description vary in FP-Present? The author couldn’t say anything about the way the furniture was arranged or on the intricate patterns of the lamps. There is no “stop button” between action points where description can fit. It must be bare-bones. Eg. “I look around the room and see lamps on an oak dresser – exceedingly expensive lamps – and think ‘Wow… this woman is a snob!’” I picked one thing to focus on, added one thought, and it’s time to move on. Why? Because time flows when characters observe and think. Sadly, those are the only times in present where any description can come out.
5) Almost Impossible to Switch Between Characters/How Can Your Main Character Ever Get Knocked Unconscious? … How can he or she die? If the narrative follows your character, you run into a few issues. If you switch characters and continue to write in the present, you will confuse your readers to no end. As much of a literary nerd as I am, I cannot think of a single book that switches characters in present! There are lots that switch in first person, As I lay Dying being one of them, but not in FP-Present. Another issue is that, if something happens to your character (a car accident, a brutal mugging et cetera…), the second he/she gets knocked out, you are practically forced, unless you open up your bag of tricks, to end a chapter or do a line space. On top of that, the reader knows also that the next sentences after your character loses consciousness will be your character waking up, and it’s always boring to know what’s going to happen. What’s more, if your character dies, that’s the end of the book. There can be no pondering sentences about the meaning of his/her lives. A quick comment, maybe, is all you get.
Here's an example:
“The faces around me begin to swirl together, smeared like with the sun like a kindergartener’s finger painting. ‘Is this it?’ I ask them, but they are a blob now, a single orange blob, a color swatch that has taken the place of my friends. Yes. This is it, I think… I’ve always hated the color orange…”
Powerful? Yes. But you might find that, by the time you reach this point, you still have more to say. You want to tie in that idea you had about how, when her brother died at a young age, she had always wondered what it was like to die. You’ll find in this case, if you try to add even a sentence about herself wondering if this is what her brother felt when she dies, it’s simply too late.
6) Agents and Publishers Hate the Present Tense. There are several Agents that won’t accept work written in the present tense. Why? Because it’s harder to write a masterful work in the present tense, and most writers aren’t good enough to make it work. That said, most will accept it, but when it comes to finding representation, especially if you’re not yet an established writer, you want as few things as possible counting against you as possible.
Throw caution to the wind and write a 500-1000 word story in First Person Present! Send your completed assignment to my email through the contact tab on the website and I'll edit it for free!