Using 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.
There are other, more commercial, reasons for writing in first-person present-tense. The younger generation have fewer problems with first-person present-tense than their elders, which I believe is something to do with their familiarity with texting and snapchat. Two-thirds of my audience read my novels on their mobiles and first person present tense is uniquely suited to the mobile generation, because it incorporates so much more dialogue, which is closer to the text conversations with which they are so familiar. Of course, there are other considerations when writing for the mobile reader which I have writing about elsewhere.
So, to the perils of writing in first-person present-tense.
First the usual stuff:
What to include
The first amateur mistake people make with first person present tense is to think they need to include absolutely every thought, idea, and movement. “I look to my left, blink, take another breath, and step forward.”
However, just like any other story writing technique, you are selectively presenting only what actively moves the story forward, so there is no need for such a minute level of detail. If a reader wants to fill in the extra detail they can do that in their own minds.
Neither do you need to include the thought process behind every idea. In fact, I nearly always deliberately leave the thought process out entirely, so when my character blurts out an idea it is a surprise to everyone, including the reader.
Alternatively, if I want some fun, I can include a very reasonable sounding thought process or line of reasoning, then have the character blurt out something totally unreasonable, based on pure instinct/feelings. I can then have the character defend the bad idea against the criticisms of other characters who are following the good and logical reasoning that the POV character has just gone through. This can give great depth to a character.
Firstly, you 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 them at all. And never, ever, use “I think” or “thought” (which is the wrong tense anyway).
What works well for me, and something I would encourage you to experiment with, whatever tense you are using, is to identify the speaker by their actions. e.g.:
‘Jason hovers by the controls. “Is anyone in charge here?”’ Clearly 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.
Slipping from present tense to past tense is a real danger – no matter how hard I try, it still happens. Drifting from “I’m doing this,” to “I did this.” As a rule, I only use past tense when summarizing 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 summarizing, not some nebulous narrator.
Reading back your writing aloud, or using a text-to-voice app to read it for you (I use the standard Windows Narrator, but you could use Dragon or Claro Read), is the easiest way to pick out this error. Also, get your manuscript edited/proofread and specify this as an area of concern for special attention for your proofreader (if you don’t have a tame proofreader in your family or friendship circle, there are plenty available for reasonable prices on Fiver.com).
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 can only be conveyed 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 whiteness.
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, concentrating 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 technical stuff:
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. “Yeh, absolutely fine.”
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, because 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.
When I first started writing in the first-person present-tense, I was actually advised, by an experienced writer, never to 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 realizes. 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.
So what is prefiguring?
It is human nature to generally see what we expect to see. In defense, I quote the famous experiment asking viewers to count objects in the foreground of a TV scene. Seventy-five percent then fail to notice the guy in the gorilla suit dancing crossing the background.
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 realizing 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. If you have any other first-person present-tense tricks, or if you have any comments, I would love to hear from you.