First person, present tense

Today I spent a couple hours going through pages on Ellen Brock’s blog, Workshop pages.  Writers each submitted a piece for critiques, separated by genre.  Originally, I planned on just peeking at one or two but quickly got sucked into the whole thing.  I ended up reading all of them and commenting on most with (hopefully) helpful feedback.

If you have some time I would highly encourage you to go check out the submissions.  It’s always fun to see what other people are doing and getting feedback is one of the most important steps for writers.  There’s some good stuff over there.

A couple of the pieces got me thinking about a subject that’s been rolling around in my head for a while.  Recently, I’ve seen a lot of writing done in the first person POV using present tense.

Here’s some examples for those that aren’t familiar with the terms:

First person, present tense: I walk into the bar and look around.

First person, past tense: I walked into the bar and looked around.

Third person, past tense: He walked into the bar and looked around.

There are plenty of other options but those three are the most common I see so I’m going to stick with those for this post.

Each option has it’s pros and cons.  I’ve seen it argued that first person, present tense (FPPT for simplicity) is more immediate and gripping than the others.  And in some cases it probably is.  The Hunger Games is a good example, I really enjoyed those books.

However, in my opinion, FPPT seems to have more risk than other variations.  It’s easy to use it poorly, if that makes sense.  And when it isn’t done really well it can be choppy and awkward, like a character narrating their own life.  Who does that?

‘I walk into a bar and look around.  I don’t see anyone I recognize.  There’s a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  I find a seat at the counter and motion to the bar tender.’

It’s almost robotic at times.

I mean, it’s okay, but does it work as well as other options?  Most recent FPPT stories I’ve read might have been better as third person, past tense.  Being inside a character’s head can give you a really in depth perspective but it can also be really limiting.  To describe people, scenes, and details well enough to move the story, and keeping that authentic voice, is not as easy as it seems.  Whereas, taking a step back, third person, past tense gives the writer more wiggle room, with the con of being further removed from the specific character.

‘Eric walked into the bar and looked around.  The big red-head didn’t see anyone he recognized.  There was a faint smell of stale beer and urine.  He found a seat at the counter and motioned to the bar tender.’

Again, this is all personal opinion, but I’m a big fan of third person, past tense.  To me, it’s more ‘invisible’ to the reader and flows better.  I’m sure other people think the opposite, otherwise I wouldn’t be seeing it so often.  And maybe for some projects one makes more sense than the other, but either way it’s something that should be a conscious decision by the writer on a piece to piece basis.

2 thoughts on “First person, present tense”

  1. Interesting post. Most of my writing is in third-person past tense, and I agree, it does allow an author a broader view of a scene. I’ve written one book in first person and I loved it – the pov of the story is so much tighter. You make a great point though that the narration can seem awkward, especially if the author isn’t careful. Your example of clunky first person narration is perfect – starting all sentences with “I” is a common challenge that trips writers up.

    1. I’ve worked on a couple stories where first person worked well and made sense, it really depends on the story though. Honestly, I think it’s more difficult to do well than third person, which is why it trips me up when some writers automatically go first person thinking it’s easier. It’s definitely tricky.

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