Blue: First Person Present Tense at Its Best

First, a quick note. My "Writing Career Advice from a Neuroscientist" series was featured on Science Magazine's career blog! :-) Thanks for the kind words, James, and I hope the scientists who came here via that link found the advice helpful. (Given this development, I guess the series should be called "Writing career advice from a neuroscientist, but still applicable to scientists," ...hrrmm... )

We had such great discussion about tense and point of view two weeks ago that I wanted to continue the conversation. Many comments centered around first person present tense, which I'd like to explore more today.

Take a look at this following example, a passage that I think showcases first person present tense (from here on abbreviated as FPP) at its best. A bit of background information: the narrator is a young woman who lives with her parents. Her nieces Izzy and Lawrie are visiting them.

everyone's wearing blue today, accidentally: izzy, lawrie, mom, and me matching like a benetton ad. so dad runs off and puts on a blue polo of my mom's, and emerges looking very uncomfortable, as only a 59-year-old minister can look in a woman's sky-blue shirt that is a little too small.

this kind of thing strikes my mom as very funny, so she shrieks like a good witch, which of course gets the girls all riled up and pretty soon lawrie is grabbing my hands and dancing me in a circle in the living room, and we are shouting "blue! blue! blue!" with each bounce. "blue! blue! blue!" we shout, dancing clockwise, then, "eulb! eulb! eulb!", counter-clockwise, and dad searching for the camera while mom yells after him, "take a picture! we need to take a picture!"

we pour out the back door onto the sunny porch, still shrieking like the bunch of girls + one crossdressing boy that we are, still yelling "blue! blue! blue!" as mom is crying, "we are blue like the sky! the sky of heaven! we are heavenly blue!" and izzy declares joyfully, "we are the blue team!"

dad sets the saran wrap box on the picnic table and i put the camera on top and everybody arranges themselves for the picture, except for dad, who is still screaming, "blue! blue! blue!" and trying to sneak various blue objects into the picture with us: an old plastic jug with the top cut off, the recycling bin.

our next-door neighbor is standing in her backyard and staring at us. i wave and yell, "we're all wearing blue!" as if she can't tell.

This example is actually an entry from my cousin Caren's blog. To see the photograph they took, hop over to the original entry. While you're there, try to convince her to do more writing. She's wonderfully talented.

I love this passage because it uses first person present to the author's advantage, creating a vivid and realistic experience for the reader.
So when does first person present work, and when is it simply a distraction? After some reflection and a lot of help from commenters on the last post, I've compiled a list of advantages and disadvantages of FPP.

Possible Advantages of First Person Present Tense:
1. Immediacy and vividness - As commenter Judy mentioned, 1st person present tense feels more immediate and urgent. If done well, FPP can have a "virtual reality" type feel where there is absolutely no distance between reader and protagonist. It's great for making sensory imagery come alive and also works well in passages where action take place in "real time."
2. Freedom with voice - Judy and Caren (yes, the same Caren) mentioned that FPP is more chatty and casual, which makes it more tolerant toward ungrammatical sentences and colloquial constructs. The advantage to this is that it gives the writer more freedom to develop a unique voice for the narrating character.
3. Contemporary feel - Because stories are traditionally told in past tense, telling the story in present tense gives it a modern feel.(Thanks,Surya) If contemporary is what you're going for, then that's good news.

Possible challenges of first person present
1. Unusual -- As flaxeloquent and Beth mentioned, FPP is relatively rare. Because of that, readers will notice your choice and may find it distracting.
2. Lapses in voice are more noticable - Again, because this is such an intimate POV, it's easier to notice the narrator breaking character. You have to be extra careful that the voice stays intact.
3. Harder to write about past or provide background information- FPP often feels like a "what is he thinking here and now" narration mode. If you want to provide background information about a character or setting, you may find it harder to accomplish this without artificially pushing your character's thoughts on tangents. (If anyone knows of an example where this is done well, do let me know!)

Whew, halfway through writing this list, I realized what a crazy undertaking it was to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of an entire mode of narration in a single blog post. Please help me out in the comments!

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  1. You talk about trying to keep this relevant to science writing. In that vein I have a question for you: how do you feel about 1st person vs 3rd person in scientific journals? It's been a while since I've read a lot of them, but generally they are written in 3rd person with a lot of passive voice used (A gel was made from..) versus 1st person (I or We made a gel from...). Is this still the case? If so, why?

    On a side-note--I don't think first-person present tense is ever going to be popular in science journals. ("I make a gel...") :P

  2. So I'm seeing more "We did this.." in science journals, and some people are trying to move away from passive voice. But mostly it's still 3rd person. I have no idea why. Old habits I guess.

    Hehe, and I have no illusions about keeping my writing entries relevant to science writing. I was more thinking just those 4 career posts were relevant to scientists.

  3. Details on the past were woven into FPP very well in The Hunger Games. :)

  4. It's painful to read science journals because the passive voice makes the paper that much more difficult to slough through.

    I think it's funny because I remember as a chemist being taught to write in the passive voice. I learned to say things like

    "into a heated flask, 30 mL of liquid was poured."


    I guess you sound more detached and professional when you use passive voice. How do you make it sound detached yet active at the same time?

    How about this?

    "The next step involved pouring 30 mL of liquid into a heated flask."


    2nd person . .

    Pour mL of the liquid into a heated flask.

    I kind of like the "we" style although it might be inaccurate since usually it's just one person doing the experiment . .

    "We then poured 30 mL of liquid into the heated flask"

    Hmm . . not sure what works best. What do others think?

  5. I think the general consensus on scientific literature is simply to be consistent - pick first or third, and stick with it. Single authors should just say "I" though. I don't think the royal "we" flies in scientific literature.

    FPP - I think writing in FPP is just as important for the author as the reader. After all, if it helps the reader get inside the character's head, think about how much deeper and author could get.

    Also, a lot of people aren't comfortable reading FPP for a long time, but it definitely works well for short pieces, like your cousin's. It's also used a lot in flash fiction (including my own).

  6. Peta, I like your point about FPP helping the author as well. I've never thought of it that way.

  7. 2nd person present tense in science journals could be really awesome. "You pour 2 ML into a heated flask." --> reminds me of those Create Your Own Adventure books! "Create Your Own Experiment" -- this way you get to see the mistakes the author(s) made while doing their experiments too :)

  8. oops. i meant "choose your own adventure".

  9. My last novel (the one that Random House bought) was originally written in first person present. I did it that way for the immediacy, as you've stated - especially because the story was all told in flashback, as the character remembered her life in Zimbabwe. My reasoning was that, to her, the events there are still happening in her daily life, and they still feel just as vivid. I wanted to plunge the reader right into her world.

    When I came to rewrite it at the beginning of the year, however, I switched it to past tense, mostly because of the third point you make under 'challenges.' Since the narration followed Elise from the age of five to the age of fifteen, it was difficult to keep her voice authentic at all those different ages without making it sound contrived. So now the book is happily in first person past! I would still like to pull off first person present successfully at some point, because it can be so effective.

  10. Wow, I thought that passage was from a published book until you said otherwise. She should definitely keep writing!

    As for writing about past/providing background information -- no matter the POV or tense, some writers try too hard to wrangle in some kind of transition where none is needed. To use the passage here as an example, if Caren wanted to describe some past incident about her family or some other related bit of information, she could start a new paragraph and dive in. Showing characters in the act of thinking is often unnecessary.

  11. Thanks for dropping by to let me know the conversation is continuing :)

    One of the reasons I sometimes shy away from FPP, as a reader, is that it sometimes seems unnatural and affected to me--though much of this may be because I'm used to reading past tense. I recently read Break by Hannah Moskowitch and was amazed at how well she pulled off FPP.

    From Break:

    I hit the bottom. The first pain is just the usual dull ache, the impact slap of my body against the concrete. I brace myself for the real pain--it'll be awful, but at least I'm used to it.

    But, oh.

    I'm not used to this.

    My entire arm is ripping off, and I feel every tendon and every muscle and every bone and my side's on fire and my body is crushing my body and it's orange orange orange hurt and it's awful, it's worse than anything's ever been.

    As soon as I get air I start screaming.

    And, yes, your cousin should keep writing.

    1. I'm currently struggling with FPP, but want to succeed. Okay, a bit masochistic. However, I've never read a book in that voice. Thanks for supplying that information.
      I'm looking for a reference book on this subject, but haven't found one yet. Do you know of any?

  12. I think the trick to avoiding FPP sounding affected is actually using your voice. FPP is meant to be intimate, a conversation between author and reader. Reading aloud, or even speaking while writing, can help authors capture a natural simplicity FPP often lacks.

    Actually, this sounds like something I might go write about right now, while Joe has Baby...

  13. Kathleen -- I like that passage from Break. i think I'll read the book now :-)

    Peta - It's probably easier to write good FPP if it's in your own voice, although I'd hope that it'd be possible to adapt too. I'd like the option of writing FPP about someone other than a twenty something graduate student/writer :-)

  14. FPP is indeed a tricky beast to ride, but once you have it by the reins, its a great ride. That said, it is true that many editors and publishers frown upon it. I'm my book, I'm taking the risk of having it there. It is an unorthodox approach, I know, but I feel it works in my story. I have two narrators. One is FPP the other is 3rd person past.

    I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog. very interesting.

  15. It's funny, I actually find FPP easier when it's not me. I think this is because I find myself boring. I mean, why have a conversation with a 28 year old writer/new mother when I could chat with the 19 year old pink princess of power who just moved into the empty house at the bottom of our street?

    Then again, that's just me - I have princesses on the brain.

    Inspired by this post, I did end up writing a post of my own about FPP, as part of a short series about voice - if you're interested, you can see it here.

  16. As you point out, first person, present tense makes movement through time very difficult and jerky to handle. It also tends to destroy all "narrative distance," since the first person narrator is explaining the drama "as it happens to her." So there is no time for reflection. I encourage anyone who is wrestling with this to see my post on narrative distance on Kim's Craft Blog. Best, Kim

  17. Hopefully this is not a ridiculous question: is it acceptable to write in FPP through multiple characters? To rotate the narration through the experiences of different characters throughout the story?

    I appreciate any feedback you can give me, and I am very happy I have stumbled upon your interesting page.

  18. Anonymous 9:07 -- Yes, it's certainly acceptable. It would certainly have challenges -- for example, you would want to make each character have a unique voice. I will raise the question to my readers as well and see if they have anything to say.

  19. It's fairly common to write from the POV of several characters in first person but for some reason the only book I can think of off hand is Marian Keyes's book "This Charming Man" (I know, chick lit! but fairly good one). The book is basically about 4 women's relationships with one man, told from FPP by each of the women. One of the characters (spoiler alert) actually turns out to be an unreliable narrator and she tells a warped story to herself and to the reader. (And one of the characters sounds a bit like Bridget Jones which I wasn't too impressed with)

    I agree that you have to make sure each character has a unique voice and take care that you do this well. I think Keyes did this fairly successfully in her novel. It was problematic that she had 4 different characters, though, because the more characters you add, the harder it is for your readers to stay engaged (and the longer your story becomes).

  20. The Best example of this being used is Bram Stoker's "Dracula".

  21. I must add that I felt "Layer Cake", was a successful First Person Present format, especially for a crime drama. For that matter the usual info dumps by the narrator was actually less distracting because they were necessary to carry the Narrator's story forward. Oh and nice blog entry

  22. Try "Layer Cake" by J.J. Connolly. The flash backs and info dumps are palatable inside the narrators head as he writes in First person present. Great book oh and a nice blog post by the way even though it is a few years old.