ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Books, Literature, and Writing

First person, present tense - the most powerful form of storytelling

Updated on September 2, 2008

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

Real-time

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!

Comments? Suggestions? - Let's hear what you have to say

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Nadalee I agree wholeheartedly with you and Steve with regards to the first person present tense being extremely powerful. What I lack is confidence in my ability to carry it effectively through the whole novel I'm writing as this is my first book writing attempt. I will say though, that my story just couldn't be told through any other tense. I'm going to stick with what my gut is telling me, and hopefully do so successfully!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Lucky, you certainly have some salient points. I agree that first person, present tense should only be used by a skilled writer. Also, it should only be used when the story calls for it. I keep the latter in mind when I embark on a new short story or longer piece, imagining the voice of the narrative as first or third person, present or past tense, and then going with the combination that best suits the story. My novel Godnet definitely called for third person, past tense because it best suited the genre (techno-thriller), as well as the need for multiple POVs. My latest short story, "Switch", uses first person, present tense, because it is a deeply personal account from the perspective of a detective who must face his demons as an addict. Sure, I could have done the same in past tense or third-person narrative, but when I read it aloud (which you should to see if your narrative is working), it sounded exactly as it should.

      The bottom line is to pay attention to what your story calls for, and then apply the tense and narrative that best fits it. And if it doesn't sound right, go back and change it so it does.

      Cheers,

      Steve

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I just stumbled across this, so I'm late to the debate. Writing in the first person, present tense is a very bad idea. Individually, the present tense and the first person severely shut down your options as a writer; used together, unless you're very skilled, they'll choke the story. They're claustrophobic for the reader. Yes, movies are exciting because they happen in the present, but movies are unable to show you something happening in the past, only something that is currently happening on the screen. A flashback or historical footage is understood by the audience to have happened in the past, but what you see on the screen is apparently happening now. Film is inflexible that way.

      People like writing in the present tense because it lends itself to capturing the scenes and events as they unfold in the creator's imagination. Some writers can pull it off, but most can't. There are also practical problems with what other tenses to use. It's easy to get tangled in tenses when you're forced to move out of the present tense to accommodate mentions of the past and the future.

      Movies don't have narrators. When a narrative voice introduces the story at the start of a movie or interjects once in a while in the unfolding events, it seems artificial. But written stories have narrators, whether it's the author or one or more characters, which makes the idea that "this is happening as I write it" or "this is happening as you read it" a stretch too far. The honest conceit of a novel is "I know this happened. Let me tell you about it." Past tense.

      As for first-person narratives. Again, a lot of people pull this off, but it does shut down the option of showing events from someone else's point of view, and it makes it that much harder to make all the characters fully three-dimensional. It's incredibly limiting.

      Pick one or the other, but please don't use them together, not unless you are intentionally writing a fiercly claustrophobic story, like The Hunger Games was.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      This is a great article! I'm writing a story that starts out with past tense, but as I thought about how to go about telling the rest of the story I decided I wanted to try present tense. This helped a lot, thank you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: I am personaly writing a book in first person, present tense and that is how I stumbled upon this article. I agree that it is fun to write and read, but I am reading a first person, past tense novel at the moment and loving it. I have read the Hunger Games as well and loved them. So I would like to say that I could not agree more with you, Marr.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Nadalee, I couldn't agree more. The Hunger Games is written first-person, present-tense, and it's a bestselling series-turned-major motion picture.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love first person/present tense writing. Not only is it more fun and exciting to read, it's also much more fun and exciting to WRITE! It's so immediate and powerful, like it's REALLY HAPPENING....

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I don't think it's necessarily about what is 'better' past or present tense - it really is the author that should decide as to what works best for them. Someone telling them that present tense is better is okay, but it's that persons opinion, though if it is not what the author wants or if they see the story in past tense, then it's probably best they write in which ever tense they wish to write it.

      Some will like present tense, some wont and the same goes for the past tense. However my argument would be if people become so concern with what tense a book is in, the book itself probably didn't hold their attention.

      I just finished reading Legend by Marie Lu and before that Hunger Games and both are written in present tense, told in varying degrees of a different dystopian futures. in neither one did I get caught up in which tense each book was in. Why? Both held my attention. A book could be written in morse code and if I knew morse code and it was good I would not care.

      As a screenwriter, I can say that yes present tense works well in movies, but if you notice there are a number of movies that jump back and forth and still are very effective. While a lot of authors can see the images of the novel as a movie which is great, you just need to realize that a book is not a movie.

      In a movie you are showing the words and actions from the page to the screen. in screenwriting, and one of the big errors of first-time screenwriters is too much detailed descriptions. even some veterans get a way with it, but it's always best to remember the phrase "Show don't tell" in the screenwriting world.

      In a novel, you are conveying a story, yes, with images. However since everyone's imagination and recollection is different, it's up to the author as to how much detail they want the reader to know or how much they want the reader to use their imagination.

      If you look at the Harry Potter books, not everyone sees Harry as the same actor. Books are different than films. It's okay to have the visual imagery, but if you want to write a book like a film you have to make sure you include stuff you wouldn't include in a screenplay.

      In addition, it's not necessarily easier or harder to adapt a novel in one tense vs the other. Granted the present tense could make our job slightly easier, but in past and even in present tense we as screenwriters must decided what stays and what is left out, just as you must do in transitions in your novel, story, etc.

      I quite enjoyed Legend and Hunger Games. Both were equally entertaining, though I've read other novels that are in past tense that were just as engaging and held my attention.

      I used to think that you could do more with third person than with first person or any other writing style - I have found that for me at least this is not one bit true. I feel it takes you out of the story and I always felt that something was missing, that that person telling the story is exactly that third person in the story.

      So I believe that while the voice of any person in the book in reality is the author writing the book, they should be able to suspend themselves and as the character they have created and in the appropriate time frame. If it takes place in the 1700s or 2100s they should speak accordingly. Sure they're are the authors idea and if they are fantasy/science fiction or any fiction there is leeway of course, because you can make lots of stuff up, especially if it's in a different world.

      Good article, just know that everyone is different and for me it's really up to the author to decide in what context, writing style they employee and regardless of the one they choose it would quite rare uncommon if they pleased everyone. If the story is engaging and entertaining, the writing tense should should not be a primary concern. :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Johnny,

      Johnny, This is a common misconception. First person present tense isn't literally happening in real time, but it's being narrated later as if it's happening in real time. Equally, the author is not the actual character , in spite of the story being told in first person (unless it's autobiographical) hence it isn't the author who's being threatened.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      If Joe is really pointing his gun at you AT THIS MOMENT, you should be too scared to talk about it. Besides, Joe might freak out when he sees you talking to yourself describing the situation, and will probably shoot you faster.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      second person, present tense: "You have a gun pointed at you by Joe. You're scared out of your mind."

      versus the first person: "Joe's pointing his gun at me. I'm scared out of my mind."

      both pretty powerful :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Hello again, Steve.

      By strange coincidence I was running one of my novel writers' self-editing groups when these messages came through - after so long!

      We happened to discuss v.p. tense and first and third person(amongst other subjects).

      I've moved on to the third book using the same characters, but still in first person, present tense. Consequently, I disagree with Jake, who states that it doesn't work for anyone, since it 'works' for me. However, I certainly accept that it has several weaknesses, some of which he pointed out; but, then, whichever 'person' is used, it will have its strengths and weaknesses, limitations and freedoms. Therefore, I don't think first person, present tense, should be discarded out of hand since I believe that all methods should be available to the writer.

    • Steve Pantazis profile image
      Author

      Steve Pantazis 6 years ago

      @ralpham: Thanks, Ralph!

    • profile image

      ralpham 6 years ago

      Great post Steve.

      Ralph

    • profile image

      ralpham 6 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi Michael, thanks for your comment on Steve's post. I've just started my second novel FP,PT. I have been getting a bit frustrated with all the 'Is'.

      You have really helped.

      Ralph

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I recommend John Rickard's crime thrillers and I have read four novels in the first person present tense.

      Winter's End is the first. Buy second hand from abebooks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      It doesn't work for you, and it doesn't work for anyone else either. You need to thoroughly reconsider this linear advice. Your first example:

      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.

      Number 3 is not the strongest. None of the examples is particularly strong, but number 3 is an example of how present tense can fail by creating unnecessary distance, and forcing the knowledge that one is reading a conveyed story, rather than one that is actively occurring. Number 3 is how someone would tell you about currently occurring events over the phone, and that sort of distance is catastrophic to an action oriented story. The action âis pointingâ is passive, so it hardly matters if it is present tense, as the reader is removed from the situation. Present tense will not magically make your scene gripping, and when done poorly itâs extremely evident.

      The correction âJoe points his gun at me,â is active and could work. However, the second sentence is explicit stating. You use film references, and the sentence âIâm scared out of my mind,â is the equivalent of a character stopping mid-scene, turning to the audience and informing them of his fear level.

      Two excellent, and very different, first person novels are Fitzgeraldâs The Great Gatsby and Kobo Abeâs The Box Man. When considering what tense they were written in, I literally had to go back and check, though Iâve read both more than once. Fitzgeraldâs novel is past/perfect, while Abeâs work is present tense, with mixed digressions. It occurs that any excellent writer will write whatever the hell they want, however they hell they want to, and do it in such a way that verb tense is the last thing on your mind.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Fight Club. The Time Traveler's Wife. House of Sand and Fog.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Fight Club; Time Traveller's Wife; High Fidelity;House of Sand and Fog.

      Those are the few I could find in about ten seconds of looking.

      If your gripe is that said books may not have been written in the last ten years, I'd say that's an irrelevant gripe and your hangup is all about whatever fad is the norm in publishing houses up until this particular month.

      Stop worrying about what other people do. You don't have all the answers.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Your response to my contribution to your lens (I've never heard of that term before) is much appreciated, Steve. I recommend you try multiple v.p. characters, especially if you're writing mystery/thriller adventure type books. The different perspectives are refreshing and keeping secrets/telling lies etc is so much more interesting to write, since you've got to remember who said what to whom. The other advantage, to both the writer and the reader, is that you have to be absolutely sure that you have your characters motives worked out. Each one has to act and speak 'in character'. The third great advantage is you can vary the narrative voice, since narrative voice and character voice are one and the same. I've dispensed with chapters and just have the character's name as a sub-heading to break things up. Incidentally, that was an interesting cry from the heart by Concerned. I hope he has the chance to read some good first person stuff, he might re-think his position. I hope so because he'll miss out on a good writing experience.

      Best wishes with you publishing efforts.

      MJ

    • Steve Pantazis profile image
      Author

      Steve Pantazis 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Michael, I'm glad you enjoy writing first person, present tense. Writing from the viewpoint of different characters can be challenging, but keeping it going with 4 POV characters is quite an orchestration.

      Thank you for your edit recommendation...appreciate it.

      I wish you the best in your writing and publishing endeavors.

      Steve

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Hi Steve,

      I also have discovered the joys of writing first person, present tense. I did this when I attempted a nanowrimo (writing a novel in a month). I've now completed two and had a great time doing them. You're right about the immediacy of the writing; also, I found the plotting, although challenging, was much more interesting without an overview. Seeing things only through the eyes of the m.c. is so much more realistic. I did, however, have four p.o.v. characters, which required careful choreography. First person is a bit like devising a literary crossword puzzle. It gets a bad press in some lit circles, though, which is undeserved and is possibly based on the critic reading poor examples. I hope you don't mind my suggesting one thing that you might find helpful. In your extract you open with: 'I look up and notice a sea of brake lights in my lane.' I found that I could dispense with all such phrases as 'I looked up', 'I was horrified to see'. 'I noticed' etc. Because you're already in the head of the pov character, the reader assumes that he/she 'looked up', 'noticed' etc and that any horror will be assumed by the character's immediate response and/or dialogue. If you were simply to write 'There's a sea of brake lights in my lane' you don't lose anything from the line, apart from superfluous words. I agree with you entirely, every writer should try first person at some stage in his/her career, even if only for a short story. Best of luck with publication. MJ

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      @anonymous: You need to read more.

      There are several bestselling novels written in recent times...and in fact a half dozen of them have been published by major publishing houses in the last three years.

      I'm not going to list them, go broaden your own horizons.

      I will point out that the modern crime noir genre is credited as being started by Ted Lewis..author of Jack's Return Home (filmed twice as Get Carter). He wrote other novels also. In first person present tense.

      Agents will choose to represent a good story. Publishers will publish good stories.

      POV generally has little to do with it.

      The only reason one doesn't see more FP Present novels is because few author's can manage to or enjoy writing in that tense.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      In April 2009 I published "Evergreen: A Space-Time Odyssey" through Llumina Press. It is written in the third person (omniscient) present tense. it seems that only older "professional" readers (literary agents, for example) of fiction who are raised on the traditional present tense model point to the awkwardness my work, but do enjoy the book's concept and storyline. All of my reviews from parents and younger readers are overwhelmingly positive. Please read my work and decide for yourself. For a free copy of this first novel in my trilogy on ebook, please email me at asziner@worldofevergreen.com and type in SEND EG.

      Thank you!

      A.S. Ziner (www.worldofevergreen.com)

    • Steve Pantazis profile image
      Author

      Steve Pantazis 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Wow, negative! I guess everyone's entitled to their opinion. Mine is that first-person, present-tense, when used correctly, can give readers a fresh alternative to the conventional first or third-person past-tense narrative. It's true that present tense is not popular, and it's true that agents shun the style. But I'm going to stick to my guns on this one. It's not destructive criticism. If someone disagrees, then fine-use the conventional writing style. If someone wants to try something different and challenge the status quo, then I applaud their effort.

      Anyway, have a Happy New Year. I wish you the best in 2010.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Go to the bookstore and find even one novel written this century in 1st POV present tense. You'll instead find all the 1st POV's in past tense. And your novel you claim is proof of its success -- is that merely self-published/e-published, or from a respected traditional publishing house? I thought so. Stop giving destructive advice that will earn agent rejects! Do your homework before blathering incompetent advice.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      C.J., I appreciate your well-wishing on the contest entries. I've submitted dozens of stories, and will continue to do so until I get some publishing credentials under my belt. I then plan on using the credential references in my query letter to agents.

      As for what you're saying regarding the use of first-person narrative in present tense, I think editors will be more interested in the story, plot and character movement rather than how the story is told (first person, third person omniscient, etc). None of the agents I've queried have responded negatively to my narrative choice, nor has anyone on FanStory.com (a peer review site for writers) or my critique group.

      Keep me posted on your progress.

      Steve

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Thanks for the in-depth piece on first person present tense. My book is done in this style and I'm finding it's hard for editors to "get" it. My fans, like yours, certainly do!

      Good luck in your work and I wish you the best on your latest contest entries!

      C.J.