Saint Flaherty Series · Writing

Am I Making You Tense? In Defense of First-Present

Think of a book, your favorite book. Quick, what tense is it written in? Past or present?

You probably had to think for a moment. Nothing wrong with that. Any book that’s written well will be remembered for its content, not its perspective. Nevertheless, persist. What was it written in?

Now what was the perspective, first or third? First meaning the narrator used “I,” while in third the narrator is not a part of the scene. Now think of other books you’ve read. Is there a pattern?

My favorite books have always, always been first person.

I love first person. The way you can connect with the character’s thoughts, their feelings. How they can foreshadow or not, show you details or give you broad sweeps, I adore that. It feels natural to me. After all, my life is in first person.

It was natural, when I began to write, that first person would be my perspective of choice. Looking back, almost all of my childhood stories were in first. The fanfiction I wrote was mostly in first, and when I at last began my own novels, there wasn’t even a moment where I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I should try this omnipotent narrator thing.” I was in my characters’ heads, and there I stayed. If I needed a new perspective, I brought in a new character.

All good and well. Writers, I see you nodding along.

Now here’s the part where I make you all cringe like I just announced my favorite cheese comes from a can: I write present tense.

Always.

(Yes, okay, “The Foreigner’s Loneliness” is a big fat exception, but it proves the rule.)

First person, present tense is the red-headed step-child of the literary world. The butt of jokes, the easiest target there ever was, it’s maligned by lazy blog-writers everywhere in need of an easy post. “Don’t use first-present! What are you, a teenage romance-novel writer?”

First of all, there’s nothing wrong with novels for teenagers; second, there’s nothing wrong with romance novels. (I sort of assume people who think that feel cranky from not enough sunshine due to where they generally keep their heads.) Third, there’s nothing wrong with present tense, you just haven’t read much of it.

Like anything that isn’t what you’re used to, present tense takes a little adjusting to. Readers conditioned to accepting was and were must shift their brains into processing is and are, but more than that, they must come to realize that present tense is a completely different form of storytelling.

When the book says now in present tense, the narrator does mean right this second, and when they start throwing out gerunds, that’s because that action is continuously taking place at this moment, all through while the narrator is talking. That’s a bit of a departure from past-tense first person accounts keen on throwing out –ing verbs as a way to show that time is passing.

Present tense also tends to be more influenced by the everyday of whatever reality the characters are living in. What someone says they thought and said and did in the past is never quite what they do and say and think in the present, and this tense is naturally less filtered, more raw, more character-driven. Past tense may say having a cold on the day of the big game didn’t change the outcome; present tense is floating in tissues and has no sense of smell. Present tense has intrusive thoughts. Present tense stumbles.

Foreshadowing also changes its shape drastically. Forget the “little did I know what was to come” you’ve read a thousand times, and oh how tired of it we are. Say hello to unreliable narrators instead! Why do you think they’ve become so popular of late? If you make Character A reliable, the second someone mentions the stolen ring, she’ll tell us she stole it, but make her unreliable and she’ll say she hadn’t heard a thing about it being stolen until just this moment.

Does past tense have unreliable narrators, especially in first person? Sure, but not with such frequency. In present tense, even narrators who are mostly dependable keep secrets just because they don’t have time to sit down and do big plot expositions. Talk about automatic tension.

First person present tense is also brilliant for conveying feelings. You’re literally inside the character’s head as they react to every single thing. If they don’t know what’s happening, neither does the reader. If they’re confused, you don’t have to rely on “my face showed my confusion” and can just have your character literally think “What the hell.” You know those clunk italics thoughts that sometimes pop into past-tense stories? Those are used when an author realizes that, actually, present tense would be perfect right here.

You can show absolutely everything so long as it’s happening when your character’s present. Okay, that’s a bit of a limitation, but as I’m not writing political thrillers where we need to know where the President of the United States is at all times, I’m not going to sweat it. And if you are? Add a narrator. Double the perspectives, double the fun. Plus, you get to see different characters’ views of each other as they try to predict one another, as well as enjoy the challenge of illustrating different ways of thinking. One person thinks about the future, the other person likes to describe things… The possibilities are pretty fantastic.

Nevertheless, many people swear they hate present tense, especially when it’s first person. The publishing industry mostly won’t touch it, unless it’s in the aforementioned highly-disdained category of YA romance. Present tense is amateur, stupid, and sucky.

You are, of course, entitled to sneer, just as I’m allowed to squirt whipped cream directly from the can into my mouth until it comes out my nose as I laugh at your disdain, just so long as we are both making an informed decision. But instead of having a knee-jerk reaction, give first-present a try. Read it, write it, eat some whipped cream, and repeat the process all over again until you realized that this perspective has its place in literature, as well-done and comfortable as any of the others (and a good deal more natural than some).

Plus, to quote Dr. Seuss: “You may like it, Sam-I-Am.”

What tense do you prefer to write in? How about perspective? What type of books do you read? Is there a pattern, or is it split between a few? Are there any notable exceptions you read despite being written in a tense or perspective you dislike? Leave a comment below!

Oh, and in case you haven’t read it yet, chapter 1 of “What Boys Are Made Of” is now available to read here! It will be out March 15th, and yes, it’s in first-present. I mean, of course it is!

Thanks for reading.

[Picture credit to wokandapix, photo in public domain.]

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6 thoughts on “Am I Making You Tense? In Defense of First-Present

  1. I used to like writing in present tense (and first person, for that matter). However, the thing I wrote was incredibly depressing. That deterred me from writing in that perspective for a while…

    The big thing I’m writing is in third-past. I’m edging back toward using first-past. I don’t think I’ll be using present tense very much — I tend to write depressing things when I use present, and I don’t need that in my life. I don’t mind it when other people use it… normally I don’t even consciously notice tense until I realize that it’s I say and not I said.

    Erp.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very interesting, that the mood your writing takes changes depending on tense/perspective. First-present’s ability to tap into deep, immediate thoughts definitely has its disadvantages! I know there’s a couple characters I don’t write about because I don’t really want to go into their heads that way. I even relegate them to third just to keep some distance between my thoughts and theirs–their heads aren’t very nice places to be. Above all, your health comes first!

      I don’t really notice tense either unless it suddenly jumps weirdly, like if the author tries to do a present maneuver in past or something. Then I’m jolted out.

      Like

  2. This post is making me a little tense. Had to get that joke out of the way, sorry. I approach tense a little like how I get dressed, i.e. what do I feel like wearing today. Sometimes you have to try a few things on before you find the right fit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if one day when I return to Australia as an English teacher I could invite all sorts of creative bloggers to talk with my students… It seems so much more real and authentic than just another lecture from an English teacher. There are so many interesting and valuable people just under the radar out there that kids could learn a lot from. You’re one of them!

    Liked by 1 person

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