A popular post from April 2008
by Annette Lyon
Don't. Unless you know what you're doing. Really.
In some of my editing work recently, I've come across an interesting trend among aspiring writers: a huge number of them seem to think that writing in first-person present tense makes their work better or sound more literary or intellectual.
The truth is that it's the author's voice, word choice, pacing, description, and so much more that make them sound good, literary, or intellectual.
If the author has the skill to pull off both first person and present tense, it's a nice layer of icing. But it's not the cake.
Worse, when done poorly, first-person present tense can turn into a real mess, like a lopsided cake with crumbs in the icing and entire chunks missing.
Most fiction, even with first-person point of view, is written in the simple past tense:
I walked, I ate, we drove.
There's a lot of excellent first-person present tense fiction out there:
I walk, I eat, I drive.
In other words, the piece feels like it's happening right now as you read it.
One of my personal favorite books written in first-person present is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It's a fantastic book, one that's funny, poignant, and abounding in excellent writing all around. In a discussion with some friends recently, one pointed out that it was written in present-tense, and another friend, who counts that book as one of her favorites, had to go pull it off her shelf to check. Sure enough, it was present tense. Huh. She hadn't noticed.
And that's how it should be. The nifty tools you use as a writer shouldn't be out there flashing in the reader's face. They should be used for a reason, and that reason needs to be more than, "It'll make me look good." Because chances are, it won't.
Present tense can provide a different style and feel to your work than past tense. It can make the story feel more immediate. And it does have its place. One of the pieces I edited did it very well—and really needed to be in present tense because of the structure, tone, and events of the piece. But most of the others that used it would have been better off with plain old past tense.
Those pieces felt like awkward toddlers trying to get their feet under them as they try to use first-present present, as if they're declaring, "Look at me! I'm a writer! I really am!" Instead, they should have analyzed why they wanted to use present tense—what effect were they trying to create, and will present tense help them get there? In the vast majority of cases, the answer was unclear at best and a resounding, "NO" at worst.
One major problem that creeps in with trying to write this way is accidentally falling into the wrong tense.
For example, if a writer includes a brief flashback into the past, it's all well and good, if they're now using past tense. You can't stay in present tense for a flashback. Doing so confuses the timeline for the reader.
("Wait. Isn't this a memory? Then why does it say it's happening now?")
Similarly, when you come back from the flashback, be sure to stay in the present tense. It's easy for a writer to accidentally slip into past tense (we're all more familiar with it, after all) and then go back to present tense, but it's very hard on a reader to keep everything straight. The back-and-forth reads clunky and amateurish.
And a lot of times, a story can be told more effectively in the simple past tense. It's a voice most readers are very familiar and comfortable with. A present tense version might call attention to itself . . . in a bad way.
If you do decide to use first-person, present tense, fine. But be sure you can handle it. It's one more plate to keep in the air, and if you let that one fall, it's going to make a huge crash.
The great news: you don't need present tense to be a great writer. In fact, I recommend not using it at all unless and until you have a great handle on all those other plates you need to keep in the air. (Things like plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, dialogue and more . . . that's a lot of plates.)
Don't assume that this is a plate you need to sound good. Some of the best writers in history never gave it a passing glance. Using it well doesn't mean you're extraordinary.
But if you do eventually decide to pick it up, don't do it until you know precisely why it might make your piece more effective and you know—really know—how to juggle it.