Feeling Tense: Part 1

Feeling Tense

Part 1: First Person

Lately I’ve been experimenting with telling short stories from different points of view and in different tenses than my usual preferred method, and wanted to share some of my perspectives.

First person past tense

“I felt the damp air of the cave close around me like a shroud. Beside me, Tina gasped in surprise.”

First person feels…well, personal. The reader is very quickly drawn into the main character’s world. The intimacy of a viewpoint taking place from behind the main character’s eyes lets me easily imagine how it would feel to be that person. On the down side, first person-past or present-means we have only one window onto this world.

It’s often awkward to switch between first person narrators, which is why most stories written in first person are told entirely from one character’s point of view. This can prove a trap for the writer if s/he needs to convey something to the audience that the narrating character can’t possibly know. If major events are happening out of the narrator’s knowledge, it can seem contrived or confusing when their effects are suddenly revealed. There are also no opposing viewpoints to counter your narrator’s ideas and perceptions. Make sure your first person narrator is interesting enough to deserve a whole story about “me, me, me!”

I admit, I love unreliable narrators. That moment when as a reader, I pick up on little hints in the narrative suggesting that the narrator is mistaken/missing something/mentally unsound just give me the shivers. Unreliable narrators are difficult to do well, though-making the distinctions between the narrator’s perception and the actual reality can feel heavy-handed if done too obviously, while if it’s done too subtly, many readers might miss it entirely.

First person present tense

My high school English teachers made a point of “curing” their students of the urge to write in first person present tense, for example:

“I run into the mouth of the cave. My heart pounds and my lungs constrict.”

During my university years, first person present tense became the language I used while roleplaying, acting out my character’s words and actions literally as they happened. I never would have thought to write a story in this tense.

Imagine my surprise when I opened The Hunger Games.

Today, trilogies from the Hunger Games to Fifty Shades of Grey are written with this sense of the immediate present. In a novel like the Hunger Games, the present tense adds to the sense of urgency, creating the illusion that the narrator might die at any time-after all, this story is being related as it occurs, as opposed to a past-tense framing which would make the story sound like a tale told by the narrator after the fact. If your story needs that urgency, first person present might work for you, even if it’s less common than past tense.

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