First person, present tense - the most powerful form of storytelling
First person, present tense is the way to go in fiction
Consider the following:
1. Joe pointed his gun at Billy. Billy was scared out of his mind.
2. Joe pointed his gun at me. I was scared out of my mind.
3. Joe's pointing his gun at me. I'm scared out of my mind.
Which line feels the most real, the most intense? The third. Why? Because it's happening right now. That's the argument for first person, present tense in fiction, and what this lens is about.
Why first person, present tense is better
There’s a reason why we go to the movies: to be entertained. Sometimes, we want to be scared. What’s more heart wrenching than seeing the killer creep toward his victim? You want to shout, “Turn around, he’s right behind you!” Why does a scene like this elicit such emotion? It’s because you’re keeping pace with the characters, witnessing events in real-time. The same goes for comedy. You’re laughing because something the actor said was funny. Your reaction again is in real-time.
If this approach works so well in the movies, why not translate it to paper? The screenwriters do. Their scripts are in the present, not the past. Just imagine if a movie was one long flashback. It wouldn’t have the same impact with a car chase, because in the back of your mind you’d be thinking, “Well, the guy is still alive, so why does it seem like he might die in a car crash?” Exactly my point. If you’re reading a line from a book where it starts off as “he jumped off the cliff” or “I jumped off the cliff,” it’s not the same as “I jump off the cliff.” If you’re jumping off the cliff real-time as a reader, you’re probably feeling all the sensations the jumper in the story is feeling, right down to the “oh God, please don’t let me die!” thought.
First person, present tense: twice the power
Let’s say you’re given the same three novels written in three formats: third person, past tense; first person, past tense; first person, present tense. Which one would you prefer? Many people are more comfortable with third person, past tense. After all, we grew up with it in school. In third person, the point of view (POV) in the story can change from the protagonist to the antagonist and back again. If you’re in one person’s head, you still see the world through her eyes, but it’s more personal. If you combine first person with present tense, you get all the human interaction first person brings to the table with the immediacy present tense provides. I consider that a winning duo.
Putting it to the test
In my new novel, Pardon the Mess, you get to experience all the ups and downs Bill Horner faces as he tries to juggle a tenuous relationship while decoding a mystery that puts him and his friends in peril. First person, present tense works in this story. Consider the following passage where Bill is driving on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles:
I look up and notice a sea of brake lights in my lane. Oh, crap! I slam the brakes, skidding to within a couple feet of the delivery truck in front of me. I’m safe, but the guy behind me in the beat-the-hell-up black Escalade isn’t. It’s like watching one of those slow-motion scenes, the kind where you know what’s going to happen next, but are powerless to prevent. Mr. Escalade veers to the right. There isn’t enough room. A shudder rocks my vehicle, followed by a clunk and the sound of falling pieces. My assailant doesn’t stop. Instead, he swerves between motorists and vanishes into the traffic ahead.
How’s that for an adrenaline rush? Do you feel like you’re in the car with Bill, as helpless as he is? That’s what I’m trying to evoke in the reader: that “I just went on a rollercoaster feeling.”
Try it yourself
Don’t take my word for it; try it yourself. I challenge you to take an emotionally-charged passage or section of action in a story written in third person, past tense and convert it twofold: first, to first person, then to present tense. After you do that, read all three variations. How do they sound? Which version is the most gripping? Then pay attention to the dialog, if you have any. You’ll notice that it doesn’t change tense: “Joe, hand me the spear gun,” he said is the same as Joe, hand me the spear gun,” I say from a dialog perspective. If dialog is present tense, why not make the rest of the story the same? Why do you think many readers skip through lines of narrative but never skip the dialog? I’m not going to answer that one, but I’ll let you ponder it as you do your exercise.
Fresh and furious
There are cases when third person is more appropriate than first because a writer might switch POV for effect. Choosing first or third person as a storytelling method is up to you. But in today’s competitive marketplace, it’s important to distinguish yourself from the masses. Your story ideas must be fresh, your characters deep and imperfect, and way of telling your story evocative for the reader. I tried first person, present tense as an experiment, a way to challenge myself to do something different. Then I discovered that it actually worked. I shared the chapters from Pardon the Mess with my writing group and they fell in love with the way everything flowed together real-time.
So, my friend, if it can work for me, it can work for you. Give it a try. Then let me know how it turned out.
Do you have any tips you'd like to share? What about the content of this lens: do you have any suggestions? Let's hear it!