Writing in First Person, Present Tense? Think Again

I must admit I wasn’t aware of the growing trend in fiction of authors writing stories and novels in the present tense until I read David Jauss’ chapter “Remembrance of Things Present” in his volume On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2011).

If you’ve written something in first person present tense or are in the process of doing so, I strongly recommend you read this chapter. Jauss reviews the origins of present tense writing, suggests why it’s become popular and details seven advantages and 10 disadvantages of using this format. In my humble opinion, the disadvantages win hands down. Yet, Jauss believes it can be done well if the writer is aware of the pitfalls.

In truth, very few writers manage present tense without falling prey to more than one of the negatives. Oddly, I happen to be in the middle of a political thriller that is written in present tense. I was having trouble committing myself to finish the book; now, after reading Jauss, I understand why. Without mentioning the name of the book or the author, I’ll give some examples of the problems in the novel I’ll call “Florida Thriller”.

One pitfall of writing in present tense is that authors tend to get caught up in the minutia of daily life. In “Florida Thriller,” the protagonist keeps up a steady stream of information about what he’s doing almost minute by minute. He tells us each time he pours himself a cup of coffee or takes a shower. He tells us whenever his girl friend takes a shower and he tells us what he has to eat seemingly for every meal.

That the author recognizes that he’s doing this and is concerned about the impact it may be having on the reader is revealed half way through the book: “I made a pot of coffee (yes, I know I drink too much coffee) and took a cup into my office, where I sat down and reread the notes.” When an author suspects he’s boring his readers, he’s always right.

First person present tense also creates problems of the pace of the story. Writing about the minutia of daily life bogs the story down and distracts the reader from the plot. It takes so long for the story to unfold that the reader is tempted to put down the Kindle and turn on the TV.

Another problem that first person authors face is the difficulty in providing the depth of perspective on events and situations that one gets from the narrator in a third person story. So, in “Florida Thriller,” the author is forced to make the protagonist a walking encyclopedia. He has to be an expert on so many things because there’s no third person narrator to provide the necessary background. Then when the protagonist doesn’t know something, the author is forced to introduce new characters just to provide the missing information. The new characters play no role in the story, but the protagonist needs them to provide key information. This slows down the flow of the story and burdens the reader with keeping track of extraneous characters.

I suspect that authors who are attracted to this format are often writing about their own lives as they wish they had turned out and therefore they can’t resist making their main characters into super-human heroes. Because they identify with their protagonist and are thus intimately interested in what their main character eats, how s/he dresses, h/h love life, etc., they don’t see the disadvantage of drowning the reader in those details. Further, super-hero characters suck tension out of the story since we have no doubt that the hero will figure everything out in the end. In sum, I don’t think present tense authors are thinking enough about the impact that format has on the reader. They’ve chosen a format that is inherently narcissistic. This is my story, the author is saying. Read about me. Admire me; aren’t I terrific!

In sum, if you want to write in present tense first person at least take the time to read Jauss’ essay to learn what some of the difficulties this format presents as well as make sure the supposed advantages are essential to your story.

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