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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