First Person Present: Yay! Or Nay?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

I’m a big fan of mysteries, and I especially love mysteries with an historical bent where I can learn a little something something. One of my favorite periods is Victorian England so I was beside myself when a creepy mystery with a female protagonist popped up in my search. Until I started reading it.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first; I just knew that it seemed a tedious read. I even re-read the first page, trying to figure out why I was so uncomfortable. And then I realized it was all about the first. That is, it was written in first person (which I love) present tense (which apparently I don’t love so much). 

In general, when we write in first person, our go-to tense is past. Those of us of a certain age probably don’t even think about it; first person past is what comes naturally. Honestly, I’d have to really think about first person present to write in it. Here, let me give you an example: 

First Person, Past: 

It was a dark and stormy night and the rain and wind battered the casement windows at Hall Manor.

“Darling,” said my paramour, the Count of Chocula, “come sit beside me and let the fire warm you.” 

He knew that I would continue to search the grounds; I was obsessed. 

First Person, Present (in which I spent fifteen minutes, rewriting this simple passage): 

It’s a dark and stormy night and the rain and wind batters the casement windows at Hall Manor. I stand near the window, searching the grounds. 

“Darling,” says my paramour, the Count of Chocula, “come sit beside me and let the fire warm you.” 

“I cannot,” I say, turning to him only for a moment. “You know of my obsession.” 

 Now, I understand that first person present is all about immediacy, and it may be true that it ramps up that element, especially in a suspense novel or mystery. But holy moley, the constant “says”—because there’s typically a lot of dialogue in this choice—were so annoying. In first person past, we use said, but you’ve probably heard a million times that a reader doesn’t notice “said.” It’s only when it’s a different verb, like “yelled” or “remonstrated,” that we pause. And “says” made me pause over and over again.

Which brings me back to the point about the tedious read, with me stopping and going, feeling like something about the words was just not quite right. 

I continued to read this particular novel, in spite of the style choice, because all the information surrounding the plot was fascinating! But despite my love of the Victorian time period, I don’t think I’ll be reading more in this series; it was just too much of a slog for me. This, despite the fact that it was a very well-written first person present novel. 

Which brings me to the next point, that if you’re going to write in first person present, there is absolutely no room for mistakes. One must be ever vigilant to stay in the present tense! And, too, finding ways to get around tiring the reader. But I wondered, after I’d finally finished the book, is this just me being out of touch with what’s a cool and hip writing choice of the masses? So I did a little research. 

Turns out, it kinda is me being an old fuddy duddy. It’s not uncommon to find YA written in first person present because that appeals to the YA demographic. I guess teens used to texting and tweeting and such basically live in the immediacy of first person present. And it’s not just a choice for YA authors but also authors writing thrillers and—like the novel I read—mysteries and suspense with an eye to attracting both the Millennials and Gen X audience. 

So fine. I guess I’ll stay in my nice and comfortable first person past tense, maybe take up writing for the Boomers. But I am curious about you, dear writers. What do you think about first person present? Do you love it? Or avoid it? Inquiring writers want to know!


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I don't understand why, but I tend to find it more appealing in YA than I do in adult books. I've also tried writing in first person present and find that I constantly drift into past tense. This of course means that I'm always having to go back and make adjustments.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

I'm with you Cathy. I prefer to write in first person past tense.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yes, exactly, Sue. I can go with it in YA but that trend in adult fiction is going to have to pass by Cathy C. Hall. :-)

So, Jeanine, the first person past wins the day!

Renee Roberson said...

First of all, your example passages with Count Chocula cracked me up! I think you are right in that you find more first person present in YA. I actually wrote a YA in first person present, and it was a dickens to edit for consistency because I'm not used to writing that way. I think I also prefer reading in first person past. This post got me thinking and I believe Elin Hilderbrand (the author who writes most of her books set in Nantucket) writes first person present. I sometimes catch errors from it in her books and there are times I find myself re-reading passages because I'm having a hard time tracking that style.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I don't know if I've ever read a book in first person present, but I'm sure if I did, it would seem awkward.

First person past? Yes. THAT is something I enjoy.

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