First Person Present Tense

313970_476362175725200_1967134630_nUsing first-person present-tense is intended to give your reader the immediacy of the moment, but to be convincing the writer needs firm control of the narrative and to be scrupulously consistent with the tense.

The biggest problem I have come across is that some people just don’t like reading in this tense. They feel awkward or uncomfortable, and a few just don’t think it’s a valid tense in which to write a novel. I disagree.

I’m on my second novel written in the first-person present-tense (I have written others but in the more traditional third-person) and I find it an exciting tense in which to write: it suits my point-of-view character and I can really get into their head.

First the usual stuff:

Identifiers

Firstly,ou will have to say “I” a lot because the narrator is the view-point character, just as you have to say “He”, “She”, or “They” a lot, or use names, in the third person past tense. However, do try to avoid starting every sentence with “I” – in fact, turn it into a game and try to invent as many different ways of starting a sentence as possible – see how long you can go without starting a sentence with “I”.

“He says”, “she says”, “I say”, all just sound too narratory for me and detract, I feel, from the immediacy of first-person present-tense, so I try, if possible, to avoid using any identifiers. What works well for me, and something I would encourage you to experiment with is to identify the speaker by their actions. e.g.:

‘Jason hovers by the controls. “Is anyone in charge here?”’

Clearly, in this example, Jason is the person speaking.

However, this technique does require you to be meticulous about not mixing the thoughts and voices of different characters in the same paragraph, e.g.:

‘I notice Jason hovering by the controls. “Is anyone in charge here?”’

This could still be Jason speaking or the speaker could have changed from Jason to the point-of-view character, which is confusing. So you must first be clear in your own mind which action is associated with which character and secondly, you must make that crystal clear to your reader.

Keep the actions and dialogue of each character confined to separate paragraphs. This will probably result in shorter paragraphs than you are used to, but just go with it and see what happens.

Tense Drift

Slipping from present tense to past tense is a real danger e.g drifting from “I’m doing this,” to “I did this.” – no matter how hard I try, it still happens. As a rule, I only use past tense when summarising at the start of a chapter, and only if time or location has moved on. Even then, it is the point-of-view character who is summarising, not some nebulous narrator.

Reading back your writing aloud, or using a text-to-voice app to read it for you, is the easiest way to pick out this error.

Showing not Telling

We’re all familiar in our writing with the concept of showing and not telling, however, in the first-person present-tense it can take on a new element. In this case, your point-of-view character is also the narrator, so whatever you are trying to show about another character, you can only convey through showing not telling. Otherwise your reader is going to think, “How do they know that?” and the narrative spell of the novel will be broken.

In other words, the reader cannot be privy to a scene or a development, or character trait, no matter how important, if the point-of-view character is not present in the scene where that information is revealed: either they need to directly observe the scene or be informed by another direct witness.

This can get confusing. I find it useful to plan out all the scenes in a grid that records what every character is doing while other every scene plays out. This way, I know exactly who needs to be in which scene, which scenes the point-of-view character actually witnesses, and which parts of the story must remain hidden.

Enrich your writing

Your point-of-view character can only receive information through their five senses. So concentrate on providing plenty of sensory information for your reader. This will result in an intensely intimate reading experience for your audience.

A technique which may be of use here is something screen writers use, called the, ‘extended scene brief.’ Basically, after you have written your first draft, you go over the text again adding in as much color and sensory information as you can. Concentrate specifically on information received through all five of the senses. This extra scene description can be used or rejected when you come to the first edit of your manuscript. I’m always amazed how much of this additional information I eventually use.

Now for the more difficult First Person POV technical stuff:

Witness Reliability

Should your viewpoint character always be a reliable witness? Two people seeing the same event will never have exactly the same story. We all make assumptions and mistakes when trying to read other people or situations, and we all filter that understanding and recall of events through our own experience and understanding of life. In fact, studies have shown we are exceedingly bad at reading other people. So no, your point-of-view character will never be a 100% reliable witness. Anything they observe, or are a part of, will always be filtered through their understanding, prejudices, and desires.

You can have a lot of fun with this, especially if you have more than one viewpoint character. If your characters constantly misunderstanding each other – this makes the reader the only one who truly knows what each character thinks. Your aim here is to make the reader shout out, “No, don’t do that!” If you can achieve that level of reader involvement you have nailed it.

Also, in the first-person present-tense you are always inside your point-of-view character’s head, so this must be represented in your writing. Your character’s hopes/fears/angst need to be present. However, as with most people, what they think is often not what they say. Often this is only hinted at in the third-person past-tense, but in the first-person present-tense it is right there laid out for us:

“How are you feeling?”

“Good.” Except for the splitting headache and the nauseating hangover. “Yeah, absolutely fine.”

Dialogue

One of the consequences of using first-person present-tense, is being forced to use a lot of dialogue – often this in the only way to convey what is happening, so don’t shy away from it.

In the first person present tense, character relationships need to be developed and expressed through dialogue, which is a good technique anyway. However, long descriptive paragraphs, even if directly observed by the character, will only serve to break up the dialogue, which is not good, unless, of course, you are deliberately trying to slow the pace of the story.

This takes us back to the identifier technique I highlighted above. Little snippets of detail mixed in with identifier action can help build a picture of the scene in which the dialogue takes place. (This is also the way we build character: a slow but continuous drip of consistent character information throughout the novel).

To be successful, this technique requires the development of a good vocabulary. Usually you have room for only one choice descriptive word, and picking just the right word makes all the difference. The example I like to quote is Mrs Weasely ‘galloping’ up Diagon Alley towards Harry Potter: That one word, ‘galloping’ paints exactly the right description of both Mrs Weasley’s action and her character – brilliant.

Prefiguring

When I first started writing in the first-person present-tense, I was actually advised, by an experienced writer, never to use prefiguring in this tense, because the point-of-view character cannot unknow what they have already experienced or seen. If the target of prefiguring is the point-of-view character, they would be right.

However, I would argue that whatever tense you are writing in, the reader is always the target of prefiguring. The whole point of prefiguring, is to create a foresight or hindsight emotional response from your reader.

There cannot be any foresight on the part of the point-of-view character, because your action is always taking place in the present. Any foresight at all must be on the part of the reader. If your character is walking into a trap, you really want the reader to be the only person who realises. We’re back to manipulating the reader’s emotions so they shout out, “No, don’t do that!” all over again. Foresight requires prefiguring.

Hindsight is closely related to foresight, but in this case we are aiming for the reader to slap their forehead and shout, “I should have seen that coming.” Hindsight also requires prefiguring.

Prefiguring in the first-person present-tense does work if you go about it in the right way. I use it a lot.

Firstly, you need to be sneaky. Your prefiguring has to be so blatantly obvious that the reader skims straight over it without noticing, only to recall it later, either as foresight or hindsight. Dialogue with two meanings is a good technique for this, because the reader will automatically assign the meaning that best fits the current scene, only later realising there could have been more than one meaning when the alternative meaning fits a different scene.

Secondly, because you are in the first person present tense, you can only prefigure in snippets, so you may have to build your prefiguring in separate pieces that only slowly fit together in the reader’s mind – like a jigsaw-puzzle. I find identifier action is a good place to hide prefiguring snippets. This is because once your reader is used to the idea of using action/description to identify characters in dialogue, they tend to start skimming over the details of the identifying action/description in order to get to the dialogue: just picking out enough detail to identify the speaker.

Of course, if you fail to deliver on that prefiguring or don’t offer a better/cleverer solution than your reader has pieced together from the prefiguring, they will feel cheated or let down – yes, if you are clever, you can use prefiguring to build a false sense of foresight that increases the impact of your clever end twist.

The good news about prefiguring is that in your novel you are god, therefore you can rewrite previous scenes/chapters to include prefiguring once you know what/how you need to prefigure. This is one of the useful purposes of editing.

I’ve posted some sample chapters of first-person present-tense writing on my website if you want an example of this style of writing. Read a few chapters and see whether you feel comfortable with it.

Hope this helps,

Nick

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Overcoming a Story Blockage

What you need to do, is take a serious look at your story structure and decide how the story evolves and where it ends.

Your story should look something like this:

 

(Diagram by Christiana Wodtke (The Shape of Story))

If you don’t know anything about story structure you may need to do some research at this point.

You probably already have some idea of the Crisis, Climax, & Final Conflict, but given you are only 15k words in, it would suggest you are labouring with the struggle and how that builds tension to the final crisis.

Here are a few tips:

Write down a story outline.

What needs to be revealed between where you are now in the story and where you need to get to. ‘Reveals’ are the information/character changes, that need to be disclosed/discovered by the characters in each step of the journey. Each ‘Reveal’ scene/set of scenes/chapter, should be more intense/important/dramatic than the one before. By concentrating on the information ‘revealed’ at each stage of the story you can plan your way from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’.

Sub/parallel plots, involving minor characters, can also be woven around the reveals of he main story to add interest.

Hope this helps you out of the doldrums.

Nick

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About the Author

Nick Travers

Nick Travers

Author of Dystopian Steampunk fiction. Nicktraversauthor.com. On Wattpad/Twitter

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Developing Your Writer’s ‘voice’

Writing VoiceFind your authentic voice is simply a matter of finding a writing style that flows naturally for you and develops from regular writing.

It involves your use of vocabulary, use of grammar, and the way you construct sentences and dialog.

Learn the grammar rules, then break them creatively until it all ‘clicks’. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles, points of view, types of story, genre, writing tenses, characters etc. In fact, the more you experiment the better. Realising you have a voice to your writing is a real confidence booster – it is a style unique to you.

If you want to develop a particular style of voice, then find writing in that style and analyse what makes that voice different from your own (word choice, vocabulary, sentence construction, and grammar). Draw up a set of rules that you can apply when editing your writing that will help produce the style you want.

Applying your voice or style happens largely at the editing stage of writing, so second or third edit after you complete your first draft.

Whilst it is true that practice helps to refine what you produce in your first draft, you will always need to edit to achieve the style/voice you want.

That’s the theory; now to the practical stuff. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Write, write, write, edit, edit, edit, applying all the grammar rules rigorously (White & Strunk’s little book, Elements of Style might help with this).
  2. Write, write, write, edit, edit, edit, applying sentence structure and grammar artistically (Noah Lukeman’s little book, A Dash of Style might help with this).
  3. Experiment, experiment, experiment (repeat as often as necessary).
  4. Start writing a novel/novella length piece of writing. Somewhere between chapters 5 & 15 you will hopefully realise you have found your voice.
  5. Modify as necessary

There is, unfortunately, no short cut to this process. Some will find their ‘voice’ quickly, some will take a long time to find it, some will change their ‘voice’ as they change character or genre. There are no hard and fast rules.

The best way to really get a handle this and develop your own ‘voice’ is to post chapters to an online writing forum, like Wattpad, and then provide constructive feedback on other peoples stories. It sounds counter-intuitive, but you will discover far more about your own writing preferences and style by feeding back on someone else’s work.

Hope this helps,

Nick

Edit to Improve Your Writing

Image result for the red pen

So I was asked by a reader recently how editing makes you a better writers.  I need to break this down into three areas: the skill/craft of writing, creativity, improvement techniques.

The Skill/Craft of writing

Editing, improving, and re-writing are all skills I have had to learn. As a person with mild dyslexia, spelling is a real problem for me. Also, in common with most people, I find it very difficult to spot my own errors. Becoming aware of these issues is the first step in over coming them.Image result for writing better

As a writer, you develop ways/processes to mitigate the errors in your writing: You learn to edit, to proof read, to spell check. Technology is a huge help in this regard. However, you also need to accept that if you are serious about writing, the skills and opinions of others are also useful tools that can be employed in creating a better product.

Creativity

Image result for free flow writingI have learned that to truly and freely create, I need, to a large extent, to ignore spelling and grammar. In particular, I need to ensure that considerations about spelling, grammar, story structure, dialogue etc, do not get in the way of the creative process. My first draft is never going to be accessible to others so why worry about these things.

All, errors, correction, alterations, amendments and additions or deletions will be taken care of in the different rounds of the editing process. One key lesson I have learned is this: there is nothing that cannot be re-written or re-worded at stage in the editing process. Very few sentences, or even thought, from my original first draft will make it through to the final edit without being re-written, re-worded, or re-structured at least twice.

Improvement techniques

Related imageI find the best way to improve my own writing/editing/crafting/story writing skills is to constructively comment on other people’s writing: at it’s simplest, three things I liked about your writing; three things I might have done differently.

A platform such as Wattpad or another writing platform, where people are actively looking for suggestions and feedback, and who are prepared to feedback on your own writing would, be more accommodating and conducive to the improvement of your writing/editing skills.

I find it amazing, just how much I learn about my own writing, simply by providing positive feedback on other people’s writing.

Hope this helps,

Nick

Vary your Sentence/Paragraph Openers

Image result for he she I weDo you ever find that the majority of your sentences/paragraphs start with He/She, I, We, They etc?

If you are writing fiction, you will need to mix up the sentences a bit or risk your readers becoming bored.

On your first draft, don’t worry about it.

When you start to line edit, try to switch round the different elements of the sentence. Remeber:

  • Each sentence should only contain one thought.
  • The last section of each sentence should always be the thing you most want to emphasise.
  • The last sentence of each paragraph should always be the main point of the whole paragraph.
  • Never end with a pre-proposition, technically it is not wrong, but stylistically it just looks unprofessional – unless, of course, you are doing dialogue, where ending in a pre-proposition may add an element of realism.
  • If a sentence does not work (feels clunky) switch the end to the start or the middle to the start and reword.
  • Alternate names with he/she/we etc.
  • Never use etc in fiction.

Hope this helps,

Nick

5 Minute Freewrites

You may have notices, I’ve discovered a new addiction, I mean passion: the five-minute freewrite.

The five-minute freewrite is exactly what I need to help me develop my storytelling muscles/technique. I am not a literary writer, I have no qualms about this. To sell enough stories to make money, Indie authors must continually hook in their readers. Every chapter, every story, every novel must end with a cliffhangers big reveals. As a self-published Indie author, I am a writer of pulp fiction; a writer of Penny Dreadfuls.

Netflix are the modern masters of the Penny Dreadful. Watch their ‘Netflix Own’ series and you quickly realize the episode plots are all devised with one aim in mind: to keep you binge-watching the series.

The idea of the 5 Minute Freewrite, is to spend five minutes writing non-stop to see what you produce, freeing the brain from the shackles of the dreaded editor and making writer’s block a thing of the past. A most noble aim.

In my case, the editor appears to have greater control than ever. Using the writing prompt, I knock stories around in my head for a few hours, while going about my daily business. When I find an intriguing idea, I jot it down. Later, I spent five minutes on creating a story structure, then five minutes writing the story, and a further five minutes editing the story.

I am using a simplified story arc for these five minute writes:

  • Stasis
  • Quest
  • Complication
  • Action/Choice
  • Climax
  • Twist/Reveal

 

With this simple structure I can construct a five-minute entertaining and intriguing story that will hopefully delight.

Using this five-plus-five-plus-five-minute technique I can hopefully write good rounded stories, which is my main aim. I’m not expecting to win any freewrite prizes, as I’m not entirely sure I’m entering into the spirit of the five-minute freewrite in its entirety, but it is what I need at the moment to grow as a storyteller.

 


 

This piece of writing first appeared as part of the ‘5Minute Freewrite’ on Steemit.

Why don’t you give it a go.  Let me know how you get on in the comments.  Better still, join in the fun on Steemit.

 

Reality is a Palimpsest – A 5 Minute Writing Challenge

Reality is a palimpsest

Image result for branes

Reality is a palimpsest. I could just leave it there and let you ponder that inspiring statement, but this is a five minute free write, so I must go on and explain what I mean.

Reality is a quantum superposition, at least it acts like one: it could be anywhere until it is experience (measured) by me, then it crystalizes into the reality I know. But it is only my reality, as experienced by me. Others have their own perspective of reality which is unique to them.

However, as soon as your reality solidifies, it is overwritten by a new reality; the merest act of creating a reality creates a new one. So, as reality is constantly over written, but a portion of all your previous realities are also present, reality it is a palimpsest in the truest sense.

Reality could also be a brane, this dawned on me whilst watching my daughter play with slime, which she stretched up into a sort of thin skin. One string theory interpretation of the multiverse, is that each universe is a brane, like a skin, which is why they can all coexist in the same space. The idea is that each time different branes touch, a new universe is created.

It occurred to me that realities might be like that too – each person’s personal reality is a single brane, and where different peoples’ lives cross each other, that is where their branes touch.

So reality is a palimpsest brane.


 

That is the end of the free write, based on the word ‘palimpsest’ as a prompt (you may have to look it up – I did).  Not a story this time, but an idea for a story world. Okay, so it is all complete nonsense – what sci-fi writers would call rubber science – but it sound good doesn’t it.  One day, I will write a sci-fi series using these ideas of reality.  I have never heard of the word palimpsest until today, but it seems to fit this idea really well, so thank you for introducing me to this new word and concept.

A 5 Minute Writing challenge is just that – what can you write on a given topic in five minutes of free writing.  I tend to limit myself to only five minutes to plan the story, five minutes to write the story, and five minutes to lightly edit.

This piece of writing first appeared as part of the ‘5Minute Freewrite’ on Steemit.

Why don’t you give it a go.  Let me know how you get on in the comments.  Better still, join in the fun on Steemit.

Cigarette – A 5 Minute Writing Challenge

Cigarette

Image result for cigar cowboy quickdraw

Match flames to life, lighting the cigarette.

Sure the rolled weed is aflame, beard places it gently on top of a wooden post.  Then strides clear, to where he can see both the lit cigarette and the other.

All eyes stare, unblinking, at the soft curl of grey smoke, silently swirling and rising in the noon-day sun.  Hands tensed, fingers twitching, shoulders shaken lose.

A bead of sweat cuts through the grime of a shaven face.

Ash, exposed by the burned paper, clings together, and droops.

Quick breaths, staring eyes, a beard wafting in the gentle breeze.  Eyes flick briefly to clean-face, then back to the cigarette.

The column of ash extends and sags. Is it going?

Why wait?  Why not do it now?  No one would know.  But like knights of old, honour demands the cigarette be obeyed.  The strained wait continues.

Fingers twitch, muscles tense, sweat runs, stinging eyes stare.  The dead ash clings on.

Then drops.

Before windblown tumbling ash splashes into parched ground, both lie bleeding in the dirt: the cigarette their only witness.

Eye-ee-eye-ee-eye, oh-wow-wow,

eye-ee-eye-ee-eye oh-wow-weee.

 


 

A 5 Minute Writing challenge is just that – what can you write on a given topic in five minutes of free writing.  I tend to limit myself to only five minutes to plan the story, five minutes to write the story, and five minutes to lightly edit.

This piece of writing first appeared as part of the ‘5Minute Freewrite’ on Steemit.

Why don’t you give it a go.  Let me know how you get on in the comments.  Better still, join in the fun on Steemit.

Hard Boiled Minds – A 5 Minute Writing Challenge

Hard Boiled Minds

Harsh unrelenting sun beat down; hot enough to hardboil brains.

Gazed out to the blue horizon, ripples caught on an azure sea. A hermit crab scuttling across the white sand. Paradise.

Today, however, was not like other days. Today, something was wrong: a rumbling in the stomach, a stretching, pulsating, pressure. Something was about to erupt.

Then something poked, from the inside.

‘Ouch. Oww.’

And stabbed. ‘Stop that!’

But the stabbing persisted, like a monster about to erupt from a stomach in one of those horror movies.

Then it snapped.

Crack.

No more feeling in the lower half.

Something wet and downy peered with a bright eye. The something pushed and shoved until the egg shell rolled out.

The newly hatched chick stared in the hard sunlight. If it had known what a mind was, it would have known the day was hot enough to hardboil one.


 

A 5 Minute Writing challenge is just that – what can you write on a given topic in five minutes of free writing.  I tend to limit myself to only five minutes to plan the story, five minutes to write the story, and five minutes to lightly edit.

This piece of writing first appeared as part of the ‘5Minute Freewrite’ on Steemit.

Why don’t you give it a go.  Let me know how you get on in the comments.  Better still, join in the fun on Steemit.

 

Is a Novel always Fiction?

novel

Is a Novel always Fiction?  Curiously, not necessarily.

To discover if a novel is always fiction, it will be helpful to address a different question, “Is a novel the same as a story?” Stay with me on this, because it will help you understand my answer when I come back to the original question.

  • Is a novel the same as a story? No. A novel is a story telling convention – an accepted (expected) way of presenting a long form story. These are the elements of a novel that any novelist must address:
  • Plot development – the way a plot develops, using one or more story arcs.
  • Story beats – plot developments that are unique to the novelist’s chosen genre (type of story). These will sit on the story arc(s).
  • Reveals – plot points and/or story beats that show how the story/character(s) is developing, or information that answers a question intrinsic to the plot, or information that sends the plot in a new direction. These also sit on the story arc(s).
  • Character development – How something about the main protagonist and/or antagonist, and possibly other characters too, develops from the beginning to the end of the novel. These are reveals that sit on the story arc.
  • Sub plots – additional smaller plots, woven round the main plot, that involve supporting characters or themes, these may mirror, highlight complement, or contrast the main plot. Sub plots may or many not interact with the main plot. they will have their own story beats and reveals.
  • Theme – an over arching idea/subject/focus/symbolism of the novel. Sometimes a theme develops despite or in-spite of the author’s intentions/design.

Now back to your original question, “Is a novel always fiction?” No.

Here’s why, because, some or all of the story telling conventions that are used in a novel, can also be used (I would argue should be used) in constructing an interesting non-fiction book too, particularly a biography or autobiography.

This is one reason why some autobiographies about people we have never heard of are absolutely fascinating and why some about celebrities are as dull as mud: the non-celebrity knows what theme/message/argument/development they wish to communicate and uses novel writing techniques to achieve their aim. The result is a non-fiction book that is compelling, entertaining, and readable – technically a novel, but not fiction.

Nick

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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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