Claire King

Author

First person, present tense: Snog, marry, or throw off a cliff?

Posted on: September 8th, 2010 by Claire - 19 Comments

It’s all me, me, me and now, now, now.

I recently finished writing a literary novel, which I wrote in first person, present tense. I can already hear some of you wincing. So before we look at first person, present tense (let’s call it FPPT), I would like to explain why I chose to write in that way:

My main character is a five year old girl. The only authentic way to view the world as she sees it is in the first person. This is critical to the plot, to the characterisation and everything about the book. There was no debate about that.

I chose present tense, rather than past tense, because although I have heard the opinion expressed that FPPT is often difficult both to write and to read, every moment is important to this little girl. Five year olds usually dwell very little on the past and rarely consider the future. Everything is about what is happening right now. The fly that has landed on your arm. The smells coming from the kitchen. The narrator is purely in the moment the action is talking place, not not weighed down with hindsight or reflections.

However, even in the last couple of weeks I have seen a proliferation of blog posts and tweets saying ‘agents hate FPPT, publishers hate FPPT, readers hate FPPT – don’t write it, you’re wasting your time’.

OK, many of the posts are less black and white than that. Here is the general concensus:

Where FPPT is “acceptable” – Young Adult Fiction (egos, urgency); Short stories (less need for reader stamina); Blogs.
Where FPPT is considered wrong, usually – Adult novels.

But there are exceptions of course. Do they prove the rule?

One of my favourite contemporary books, Audrey Niffeneggers ‘The Time Travellers Wife’, is written in FPPT. It found an agent, a publisher and a very wide readership.

I am currently reading ‘Room‘ by Emma Donoghue. It was published just after I began submitting my MS to agents and I bought it out of morbid curiosity – would reading this Booker shortlisted book, not only written in FPPT but from the point of view of a five year old child, show up fundamental problems with the way I used FPPT? Was I going to be encouraged, or shown up?

The answer is that I have been encouraged. I found the voice of Jack in ‘Room’ quite hard work to begin with. This worried me, because you really do need an engaging narrative voice if FPPT is going to be successfully used. In novel length fiction the reader has to want to spend a lot of time with this character. But as the relationship grows between reader and narrator, which Donoghue manages swiftly and skilfully, the book flows perfectly. FPPT gives a sense of intimacy and urgency to her excellent novel.

Another argument is that using FPPT is that it limits your POV – you can’t observe things that the narrator doesn’t know or can’t experience; you have to tell the story entirely from his or her POV. But this can work to your advantage if you want to keep certain things hidden from the reader or to examine a subject from an unusual vantage point. In the case of ‘Room’ it is used to throw the spotlight on the behaviour of adults as seen from the point of view of someone who has never been one, and up until his sixth year had only ever known two of them.

What is your experience of first person, present tense? Do you avoid books written that way? Do you even notice? If you are a writer how do you choose to use it, or do you follow the bulk of advice and avoid it altogether?

19 Responses

  1. First person present tense doesn’t bother me. Though I think it’s hard to write so the tense isn’t noticed. Good luck with it!

  2. I’m a big fan of FPPT but you need to work harder to make it work. I like its immediacy. I really dislike the omniscient 3rd person narrator that tells you how everybody feels, what they are thinking all the time. Again, this takes a lot of discipline to work for me. Novels can feel contrived when folk are glancing at each other ‘knowingly’. I like characters to come through their dialogue.

  3. I read YA, so not only am I use to FPPT, I love it.

    I recently rewrote my YA novel from past tense after an author at the SCBWI LA conference critted my first 15 pages and told me to switch the tense. I tried it out and loved it.

  4. AliB says:

    Hi Claire
    Despite warnings, I wrote my last novel in FP though not PT. I took it to Winchester last year and was told by 2 agents that FP was a mistake. I also know other writers who have rewritten entire novels from first to third (sounds like torture!) only to have the new version rejected. I don’t think that FP is automatically the kiss of death and if the book really is good enough will not present a problem. But in the cold hard world in which we live, is it worth antagonising those whose attention we seek? Ironically, a ‘close-up’ third person narrative is just as interalised (and limited in view-point) as first person, so not sure what the problem is with first. I’m about to start a third novel and still like writing – adn reading – in first person. Decision time!
    AliB

  5. Rosie says:

    When I first came across FPPT a few years ago, I found it difficult to read and get used to. But now I sometimes get 50 pages into a book and suddenly realise I hadn’t noticed it was FPPT at all.

    I think if it’s a well-written book and the FPPT choice is made for good reason (like yours), then go for it. I doubt it’s true that agents and publishers are immediately put off. Keep going with it, and good luck!

  6. Marcus Speh says:

    In the past I would probably not have lasted a novel written in FPPT (the akronym makes it sound like a detergent…) but it’s different now because I read like a writer not like a reader. A younger writer friend told me recently that he was more and more put off by the omniscient third person past tense (OTPT?) POV that dominated the novel scene for the past…200 years: he experienced it as patronizing. What’s missing in FPPT is the distance: it’s all very up close and personal – you said that in your post. But this distance of the OTPT and related POVs comes at a price of course: loss of intimacy and immediacy. In the novel I’m writing right now, I am experimenting with FPPT, too. It is written in flash bursts from the 1st person POV of a number of characters, some in present tense, too. I find that I’m much more relaxed about changes of POV and tense now – and that being relaxed carries over into my reading experience. Hope this helps & I’m curious to see how your journey evolves…I’ll be writing similar posts on my blog for the next year or so…

  7. Claire says:

    I’ll admit that until recently I’ve turned up my nose at FPPT, and even FP. It always felt too “easy” to me. As a writer, I thought that people who chose FP or FPPT were taking the easy way out, basically “cheating” to infuse their story with more immediacy and suspense. I also thought that FP made the narrator less distinct, because the FP POV allows the reader to slip more easily inside the narrator’s head and BECOME them instead of viewing the character from a distance. I didn’t want my readers to insert themselves into my characters; I wanted my characters to stand alone.

    I’m coming around, though. I still automatically go to 3rd (not omniscient, though) when I sit down to write, but I’m experimenting with FP/FPPT here and there, and I’m even considering writing my next YA project in FP. I think it’s all about what feels right for the story. And I’m proud to say that I’m working on dissolving my tense/POV prejudices. 😀

    Great post, and thank you! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.

  8. Traci VW says:

    I appreciate this post. Today I received a critique back from a crit partner with this question about FPPT and the industry’s opinion. My MG WIP is written with this POV, and because of this post I pinpointed why I think it’s important for it to be written this way. My MC can’t stand to look at the past and doesn’t dare look at the future. Now I’m another step closer to being able to make the final revision on this. Thanks! Now, I need to smooth out the writing so readers don’t notice. Hmmm, not an easy task, but I’m feeling optimistic.

  9. claire says:

    Thanks everyone for such a great discussion on this. I suspect that the more writers grow in experience, the easier it is to assimilate all the different advice and viewpoints and have confidence in the way we’ve chosen to write a piece.
    Like Marcus says, it should get easier to be relaxed. Of course FPPT may still seem more risky as a time investment for a novel-length work, but if it’s done for the right reasons and the writing sparkles, ultimately it should not be an issue for agents, publishers or readers.

  10. I really like FPPT and one of the things that attracts me is that the POV is so limited. I really like writers who play with voice and point of view, who are unafraid to tell the story from a particular angle.

    That said, it can stand out like a fluorescent sheep. I think there’s a place for every narrative voice and that all of them can work in the right situation – but equally all of them can fail in the wrong situation.

    FPPT sounds perfect for your story for exactly the reasons you chose it.

  11. Martha says:

    ‘Ello ‘ello, I like your story, and for what it’s worth I think it could be told in first or third; they wouldn’t be the same, but they’d both work. Anyway, as regards the general debate – have you seen this? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/sep/14/present-tense-narration
    Obviously a hot potato. M.

  12. Nik Perring says:

    Great post!

    I think, as I’ve said many, many times over and when I teach writing, that if it works, it works. And if it works, it should be used.

    I think there are far too many people who like to generalize about this, and maybe they have reason to, maybe a large portion of what eds and agents receive that are written in the FPPT aren’t good (enough) – but I’d wager that the reason they’re not good enough has more to do with the story and the way it’s been told that it has with the tense it’s being told in.

    Writers have a duty to let the story come first, to come as it’s meant to, naturally. And there’s a significant chance that the best way to tell a particular story IS in the FPPT and, as I said earlier, if it works, it works!

    Nik

  13. mary says:

    A good read is a good read, regardless of POV. I think the only way to convincingly tell the story of a 5 year old is from that 5 year old’s point of view. It is an extremely efficient of yanking your reader right into that 5 year old world. And having read your story when it was still a WIP, I can tell you that FFPT works.

  14. claire says:

    Thanks my dear Beta readers, Martha & Mary, for your encouragement. I did see that link, plus a couple of others from different sources. It does seem to me that the literati are sticking their heads up their own bums a bit. All this focus on the tense, rather than, oh I don’t know, the subject, or the quality of the writing?
    And thanks, Nik for the superlative!

  15. claire says:

    Just as an update – my use of FPPT has not been considered an issue *at all* by agents and publishers, confirming for me that we should use what works best!

  16. Patti Mallett says:

    I’m new to this blog, and to you Claire, so when I began reading the list of “Fifteen” I was saying to myself “What the heck?” I read a lot of YA and am working on a YA novel so this piece of advice momentarily threw me. But, lesson learned, one person will say black and another will say absolutely must be white. You “showed” instead of “told” which made this very effective. Thanks!!

  17. […] tense?  Claire King is feeling first person present tense—and she makes a case for when and where (and why) it’s […]

  18. Barry Walsh says:

    Thanks for this Claire.

    I was in the ‘not keen on FPPT’ camp but ended up, like you, writing my first novel in FPPT. Although it felt right for me and, I hope, helped make the story more immediate, I worried (still worry) that it might become a bit of a route march for readers; it’s quite demanding to ask them to remain inside the head of a child – and in the present tense – for a whole book. At times it was hard going for the writer too and difficult to hold back on insights/experience/analogies of which the child couldn’t conceive!

    I was sustained in my doubts by a kind agent who simply said ‘make the story count and the tense and past/present thing won’t matter’.

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