Thursday, August 14, 2008


I was watching 'Frasier' the other night. At one point he advises a man who is contemplating writing his biography to use the present tense, that it added a sense of urgency.

Like the advice that Frasier gives out on his show, I think this gem stank. Maybe I am being unfair, I have a particular antipathy to the use of present tense, particularly when combined with a first person narrative.

I will now rant about this pet peeve of mine.

I think using the first person is generally done out of laziness. It saves the author having to describe the MC, or indeed anything at all as we can be shown through the MC's eyes instead of having to interpret descriptions. It is much easier to write but what does it add to the story? Usually when I read first person I hear the author's voice rather than the characters - and so often this ruins a perfectly good story where, for the example, the teenage boy/girl sounds like a middle-aged woman. I also think it takes from the story because we know the MC is going to survive (unless the author cheats).

Present tense - what does that add? Again I think this is done out of pure laziness, and I find it both irritating and boring. Irritating because it makes no sense - you can't tell a story in present tense because every action is immediately in the past. And what does it add? Does it truly make the story any more believable? Or urgent??? I find these stories boring because generally the less talented writers use this format (and if you can prove me wrong, please do so!)

First person present tense - arrgh what a combination! I shall say no more.

Seriously, I can think of few occasions when first person is used well. Wilkie Collins 'The Moonstone' is a brilliant exception where the first person narratives are done perfectly and each character is so diverse. I think first person narrative works well for Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas tales but I don't think I'd like to see him use it in his other books. Don't get me wrong - I have enjoyed many stories which have been told in first person (eg 'Rebecca' by D. DuMaurier, 'Laughing Gas' by PG Wodehouse) but I think I'd have preferred them written in the third person. (Quick aside: I understand writers like to experiment with different styles, so first person is not always written out of laziness!).

I can think of nothing written in the present tense that I could rate as a good read.

Please let me know of any books written in either/both first person and present tense that are good!


Inkpot said...

Ah, a very passionate speech indeed! I think Frasier speaks nothing but rubbish, so don't pay attention to his advice - especially on writing or mental health. I agree with you to an extent. Beginner writers love first person because they think it is easier than 3rd but it is actually much harder. Richard Matheson is great at pulling off compelling first person, as do the books you mention. I think there is a case to be made for first person present tense where your character dies at the end and if your story is told in real time. I haven't read a book in fppt though so can't give any recommendations.

Valinora Troy said...

Thanks for your comment, inkpot.

I must clarify - I meant that while it is easier to write in first person, it's much harder to do well. And yes, Richard Matheson does it excellently - the first person is required really to convey the frustration and and anger and isolation of his characters.
I'm not sure it's possible to tell a story in real time, cos it's past immediately. it seems to me to be more of a style issue - eg "I enter through the blue door" is present tense yet the sense to me is already past tense (if you know what I mean?)
FPPT is quite popular in short stories, but isn't D. Shan written in present tense?

Inkpot said...

Does D Shan write in present tense? I should correct what I said earlier to I haven't read any GOOD books in fppt so I can't give any recommendations. By real time I mean starting at a point and running through to the end without flash backs etc.

Valinora Troy said...

I have to apologise to D. Shan. I checked the other day and no, he doesn't write in present tense. Howevr there is something about the tone of his books that makes me feel that he does...I don't know what it is!!

Valinora Troy said...

I take back my apology - just looked at one of his other books. yep - fppt!

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Alysia said...

I know this blog is old, but it came up in my Google search (first page, no less) for "first person present tense." I've just re-read The Hunger Games and keep forgetting it's in that format. It's an excellent book, as is the second one, but it always takes a little to get into after reading so many past tense books.

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Jeni Decker said...

You know, I actually feel the opposite! I think third person pov, past tense is remarkably lazy and the easiest to write in. First person, present is so difficutly BECAUSE of the reasons about describing your characters, as you outlined. It certainly can be done, but in order to do it well, it takes a really savvy writer. Everyone writes in third person/past. That's because it's most 'natural' to the ear and easiest to get across. The 'rules' are lose and easier. With first person, present, there is an immediate intimacy (I also love first person, past--The Bell Jar, Catcher in the Rye). Probably my favorite.

But I'm up for a challenge as a writer, so I'm about to try some shorts in first person/present. And make it so effortless for the reader, AND filled with unique ways to describe things.

I agree with Inkpot. New writers often try first person because they THINK it's easier than third. Then they realize third is easier--which is why the vast majority write in third. Then, when they want a challenge, they go back and try first person past tense, and then when they want a REAL challenge, they try first person present.

As a writer, it's our job to step out of the box now and again and see if we can do something different, well. I say, if you find it 'easier' to write in first person, do it.

Because, there is no distinction without risk and it's definately a 'risk' in the publishing industry. So if you as a writer find it easier, go for it! And hope your readers think you pulled it off! My guess is that when you try it, you'll realize it's much harder to write it WELL than you initially thought!

Tag, you're it! Give it a go!

Jeni ;)

Anonymous said...

I know this post was long ago but I will still add my snippet to its end.

I myself am a very descriptive writer so I find third person past tense the easiest because it aloys me to portray the world I write about in a broader sense.

However I am working of a first person present tense story and finding it somewhat difficult. Its sort of a noir 1950s style detective tale but with a bit of sci-fi, surreal and non-sense thrown in to boot. The main protagonist doesn't know what's going to happen as he looks into things (To tell the truth, neither do I. I sit down to write and words just come out without me knowing where its going, often else where to where I saw or planned it.) Its pretty challenging to keep the narration on track, but I find it important for the added suspense I'm aiming for in this particular story.

Bricheze said...

I am resurrecting this because it too came up first on my google search.

What do you think about switching into and out of first person present tense to third person past or first person past etc? I read a book, I can't remember the name, but the first chapter was in first person present tense and it drew my right into the book.

It made me understand the main character (who had lost his hand in an accident and had stopped speaking for over a year since the accident, for psycological reasons) he doesn't spell that out in the first chapter, it's just the main character going through his life for a day, without his hand, or voice, and his thoughts and feelings about it.

The rest of the book is in third person/ past and you don't get more insights on the main character; but because of the first chapter, you not only understand him better but you care about him and feel an intimacy with him.

The first chapter was also a refreshing and unique read. I like the idea of switching in and out of tenses in different chapters like this--especially if they have an purpose like that book did. What do you think about books that do that?

Bricheze said...

Oh and I find it natural to write in first person/present tense. I have written a few short stories in it and now I find it much harder to write in third person past anymore. It's not as challenging or fun to me.

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Kevin said...

Yes, I'm tired of present tense. And first person to top it off. It's usually this quasi-poetic voice, too, that doesn't exist.

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