First Person, Present Tense. Is it the Devil in Disguise?

The First-Person, Present Tense Devil

I sit in my misery for some considerable time. Time enough for the shadows in the office to lengthen. Quitting time is right around the corner. The flyer sits on my desk in front of me, ready for my assessment. It sucks. That’s my assessment. It’s a huge waste of time and money. I hope Belshaw got a laugh out of it, running me across the factory for some bogus errand. As if on cue, I hear the PA system crackle into life.  Almost before the crackle-hiss dies away, I’m out of my seat and pulling the door open. “Don’t say it!” I yell to no one in particular, then as the PA sounds my name, I lean over the edge of the walkway and shout to the women below. “Don’t you fucking say anything!” I point my finger and run it over their upturned faces. At that moment, if the machines were not running, you could have heard a pin drop. I hold their gaze for several seconds before marching off along the walkway. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to hear the silence behind me. It is as if my lottery numbers have all come up. My heart skips a beat and I have to restrain myself from whistling as I walk. Those women probably only respond to being spoken to like that. They probably have husbands at home that shout ‘cook my dinner,’ and ‘clean the kitchen.’ It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them got a smack too. If that’s what they understand, then perhaps that’s how I’ll have to treat them.

So I’ve been looking back on an old story as a way of a break from the slog of Parklife. I quite like the above story (although I think it may be a bit cliche, but that’s another discussion), but I thought I would give it a shot in the arm and try rewriting in first-person, Present Tense perspective.

Being as this blog is primarily for new authors, a lot of what I’ve found out is probably old news to some of you, and you may be saying to yourself ‘has he only just come to this party?’ Well, the short answer is yes, I’ve just come to the first person party, but for you folks, I have another quest for you, so read on.

What is First-Person Perspective (Point of View)?

First person is you. You are writing as if you are telling the story. A bit like a diary entry, perhaps. For example, In third-person, I could write a sentence like:

Jack had always hated his sister. He walked to the window and opened it. He threw a shoe at Mandy, who was sitting in the garden below. She looked up at him. She had always suspected he was vindictive.

Here, we see the story through the eyes of two characters, Jack and Mandy. We know what each of them thinks, and it is told using the names of the characters, or by ‘he’ and ‘she’, never ‘I’. There are a couple of other third person variants, but I won’t confuse you here.

On the other hand, first person is written using ‘I’, as in ‘I did this,’ ‘I accidentally summoned a demon.’ The reader is following the story through the character’s eyes. If the character cocks it all up, we won’t know, because we only know what the character knows. For example:

I picked up my shoe and ran to the window. I could see Mandy sitting in the garden below. Pulling back the shoe I threw it down towards her. I laughed as it struck her on the head.

In this example, we have a similar scene (albeit with a boy throwing shoes at his sister) except this time the reader is in the head of the boy, and any thoughts and feelings that Mandy has about him are hidden to us (although I suspect that if she is having shoes thrown at her, we can probably sumise what she feels).

This, I would describe as First-Person, Past Tense. It’s similar to the 3rd person example, in that it is like telling a story. Recounting what happened. This, I think, is the more popular way of telling a first person account, and is certainly one I’d recommend to new writers, or first-person virgins like myself. It feels more familiar.

However, there is another flavour of first-person narration. One that’s fraught with peril and is waiting to drag down unwary authors at every turn, and that is:

First-Person, Present Tense

This, to me, seems to be the most exciting and fun, but also the most perilous of story-telling mechanisms. Exciting and fun because it puts you in the moment with the character. You experience things as they do. It’s perilous, because keeping a handle on what tense you are in from moment to moment can be tricky.

How Does it Work?

In present tense, you are experiencing the action in the exact same moment as the character. Let’s look at my shoe-throwing example:

I Pick up the shoe and walk to the window. Mandy is down there. I can see her doing something childish with the daisies. I throw the shoe towards her. I laugh as it bounces off her head.

Okay, so now I’m the idiot throwing a shoe. The reader is the idiot throwing the shoe. I’m not being told that it happened, I’m actually doing it right now.

The pitfalls are, as mentioned earlier, that I mess up the tenses:

I throw the shoe towards her. I laughed as it bounces off her head.

Present tense ‘Throw’ and ‘bounces,’ past tense ‘laughed.’ Sounds a bit weird. In a much longer piece you can increase the chances for such conflict exponentially. Trust me, I’ve done it. And what’s worse, at least for me, is that sometimes, the sentences can even sound right, so I’m not certain if they need changing or not:

I throw the shoe towards her. I laughed as it bounced off her head.

Two different tenses, but the more I say it, the more okay it seems. See what I’m saying? Many opportunities for disaster.

Why is it Good?

I realised that I like telling my story this way because I can really get inside the head of my character. I can play with all the musings that go on in their head. I can vary my sentence structure and still leave it making sense (at least to me):

I snatch up the bottle. I’m bloody well going to do it, aren’t I? Just one will be okay, won’t it? Yes it will, so I take a long pull straight from the bottle, which burns my throat as it goes down. That flyer didn’t need looking at. Belshaw wanted to embarrass me. Another drink. God damnit! I was only going to have the one. If someone smells this on my breath… Outside I can hear ‘Narn-see, Narn-see.” I take another drink. Shit.

Here, my character is talking to herself, arguing with herself. Hopefully that paragraph tells you something about the character’s struggles, even if you don’t know the whole story. Love it (that was me expressing my thought in this moment. Awesome!).

So What’s the Quest You Spoke About?

(Just noticed that I switch from ‘I’ in the body of this post to ‘You’ in the headings. Does that make sense?)

One thing I’ve noticed that I struggle with, is ‘filter words.’ These are words that distance you from the character. In the opening paragraph you will see that I have highlighted and struck off an example:

As if on cue, I hear the PA system crackle into life.

What we’re doing here, is watching my character hear something, rather than telling what she hears. What about this:

As if on cue, the PA system crackles into life.

Better, I think. Stronger.

My question to you: Those of you more experienced than I, can you spot any hidden filler words in my opening paragraph that need to be gone? Does the passage make sense, and is it all in the right tense?

So, is first-person present tense the devil?

8 thoughts on “First Person, Present Tense. Is it the Devil in Disguise?

  1. Although I enjoy writing stories in present tense, it can be tricky. I think about story telling more in the past tense rather than in the present. Present tense is more like tweeting or sharing thoughts in a diary.
    As with all stories they’re told each their own way. Its up to us as writers to understand our character’s POV. When are they telling the story and who are they telling the story to? As you mentioned, watch out for filter words. Filter words can mess things up! Thanks for the discussion Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoy writing in first person, usually past tense. The reader can get inside their head. You can tell the reader what the character is thinking when you write in third person, but then it is best to stick to one character at time, don’t head hop. The big disadvantage with first person is that you can’t tell the reader what is going on with other characters elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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