Fluid Imaginalphabet: F is for First-person, Present-tense

A lot of beginning writers gravitate towards narrating their stories in the first-person, present-tense: “I walk to the store” (as opposed to “He walked to the store”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with this particular perspective, but it creates all kinds of challenges that a beginning writer might want to avoid.

The first challenge of the first-person, present-tense (FPPT) is being locked in to your character’s limited perspective. With the FPPT, you can only narrate your story in the “here and now,” which means if your character doesn’t experience it, neither does your reader. You can’t take them into rooms where your character doesn’t go, listen in on conversations your character doesn’t hear, or explain things that your character wouldn’t know.

The second challenge of the FPPT is that your narrative style is limited to your character’s style. You don’t have the freedom to make word choices your character wouldn’t make or attempt syntactic gymnastics that your character can’t land. Your rhythm must conform to your character’s class and background, and the judgements you might want to make as the narrator have to be the same judgements your character would feel in the moment.

It’s that last bit that is particularly challenging for beginning writers: writing in the moment-to-moment prison that is the present-tense. Where past-tense perspectives provide the narrator with the gift of hindsight, the present tense locks you into the shallow world of stimulus and response, where the very narration of your story has to align to your character’s reaction to sensory impressions. In some ways, the difference between writing in the present tense and writing in the past tense is the difference between the rational mind and the stimulated body. With the past tense, you can pick and choose your moments; with the present tense, the moments just keep coming at you like a freight train, and you have no choice but to narrate them.

Which brings us to the third challenge of the FPPT: the need to narrate everything that is occurring to your character. While a past-tense perspective allows your narrator to consciously select the moments and people who are germane to the larger story, the narrator who’s horizon is limited by the FPPT doesn’t even know what the story might be: they just know the moments they’re living in. And who knows?, maybe that conversation with the waiter about what’s on special tonight will have significance later on; but then again, maybe it won’t…and if it doesn’t, the need to narrate that moment has only sidetracked your story into a narration of the mundane.

And really, you don’t have a choice but to narrate moments like this, these mundane moments that matter not at all, because if you’re going to stay true to the first-person, present-tense, you have to stay true to the moment. And truth be told, it can be difficult to sustain narrative tension if you’re forced to explain all the different moments of any given day; hell, even James Bond got bored once in while.

Of course, this is not to say that all writers should avoid the FPPT, but it is to say that beginning writers should avoid it.

Instead of trying to tackle all the challenges inherent in the FPPT, hone your skills by narrating in the tried and true of the third person, past tense (“He walked to the store”). Give yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, to listen in on whatever conversations occur, and to make narrative judgements and write in narrative styles that go beyond the limited perspectives of your characters.

My advice? Save the first-person, present-tense for the stories that absolutely demand it.