Thursday 20 October 2011

The pros and cons of writing in first person present tense

Much contemporary fiction seems to be written in first person present tense. I find this difficult to do and I'm most comfortable writing my heroine, Jessica's scenes in third person past tense.  Whenever I've tried to write Jessica in first person, she becomes more like myself and that is (as per my previous post) exactly what I'm trying to get away from.  Writing her scenes in the present tense doesn't work either.

I have written a subplot (journal excerpts) in first person present tense however and the words seemed to flow more easily than when I tried to do it with Jessica.  I wonder if this is because the subplot is written from the point of view of a man, the heroine's grandfather, Peter and because the setting is during the Second World War rather than in the 1990s. I have found that the further away a character is from myself, the easier they are to write.
The problem with the word 'had' when writing in the past tense and referring to what happened before.
An advantage of writing in the present tense is it's easier to refer to what happened before as the past tense can be used to do this.  When writing in the past tense, referring to what happened before can be tricky.  The pluperfect (or past perfect) tense can be used meaning the word 'had' can crop up too many times.
eg. She went to the dentist, she had not been there since she'd had the root canal treatment. 
Nobody wants to read the word 'had' over and over again. By writing in the past tense, I have to find ways to avoid using 'had' when referring to what happened before. Sometimes rewording can work by merging sentences together.
eg. She went to the dentist. It was a long time since she'd had the root canal treatment. 
Another trick I've discovered is to use the word 'had' initially (pluperfect tense) and then convert to the past tense.
eg. She went to the dentist.  It was a long time since she'd had the root canal treatment.  That day the local anaesthetic lasted for hours and she survived on milkshakes because she couldn't eat.

By the way, my book isn't about going to the dentist - it's the first example that sprang to mind!
I'd be interested to know your thoughts. Which person and tense do you write in and why? What other problems occur because of the person and tense you're using? Please feel free to leave a comment.


  1. I've used first person present tense in a single viewpoint in one book. It seemed to work for that character, but I think I'd find it really hard to do through a whole book. So difficult to show action, I found, particularly what other people were doing. Well done you, I'd say!

  2. I did write one book in the first person present, but rewrote in the third person past tense and have continued to write that way. I prefer books written from the third person most of the time.

  3. I don't enjoy reading books in the first person, and to put present tense as well makes me put the book back on the shelf, or click through to another book. I don't write books in the present tense, or first person, either.

    I think more people prefer third person past tense stories. Also, if you're not comfortable in first person present, why bother? You have to find your own voice as a writer. It's the main thing you have to sell.

  4. Limited third person past tense is the default method of telling a story, isn't it? And it has the great virtue of being almost invisible to the reader - you don't always want to remind them of the craft behind the writing. However, I think the story should dictate the way you tell it. Cormac McCarthy's The Road would be a very different book if he had written it in the first person but Emma Donahue's Room had to be a first person narrative - I can't see how i would work any other way.
    Can't see why Anna is so resistant to first person stories - it creates an intimacy that is really important for some stories.
    Why restrict the tools available to you as a writer?

  5. I love reading novels using both third- and first-person narrators but mainly write using first-person, past tense. I think this is possibly because the books I loved best when I started to write - Rebecca, Love in a Cold Climate, I Capture the Castle, Brideshead Revisited, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jeeves and Wooster, several Jilly Coopers and the romantic thrillers of Mary Stewart - were all told in the first person. For me, Sophie Hannah is a notable example of someone who uses first person, present tense successfully in alternate chapters of her crime novels.
    But I would always say go with what your gut tells you is right.
    If I get caught up with the too-many-hads problem I sometimes find passing the information on through action in the story, rather than having the narrator relate it, solves the issue. (For instance, the dentist can take one look at the heroine's teeth and say 'My goodness, you've left it too long this time. That hole's the size of a crater.' Then maybe he could refer to the detail of her previous treatment if required. I do realise this might not always work though. Might depend on how much info you need to get across and how succinctly.) Very interesting to have the chance to read your thoughts and those of others - thank you!

  6. I quite like first person and I've written quite a few novels using first person, present tense -- which I know is a love/ hate thing. However, in ym genre, it's fairly common and I like being so inside my MC's head.

  7. I usually write at the third person. Now i'm trying to write an entire novel at the first person present tense. So far I find it easier to write! I wish I had tried that before!

    As for the 'had' problem, i'm writing in french, and in french there are (I think) many other way to write verb to avoid having the same word too many times in the same block of text.

  8. I read and write in both third and first person. Some stories work better in first person. It was fun to do in Renovation, Renovation, Renovation where the timeslip is also first person.

  9. Interesting post, thank you. I tend to write novels in third person but veer towards writing short stories in first person past tense. I admire those who can sustain the first person intimacy and immediacy over the length of a whole book.

  10. i am writing a novel in present tense, now I do have a problem staying in the desired tense, but my editor seems to think this not the way to go. however, i agree with some people that writing in present tense is easier, and for this series, it's necessary, because my heroine dies at the end of the last book, therefore she couldn't have known to tell us the story before she dies, and in the 2nd book there will be different points of view because of the way the story goes. So that being said. I find that present tense is necessary for this story but hard to keep straight. Its work, but if it wasn't would it be worth it?

    1. Hi Melissa, thanks for your comment. If the heroine dies at the end of the last book, could you use third person past tense to tell the story? I've started a short story in first person present tense recently as a kind of experiment really, to see if I can make it work. Good luck with your novels!