Who is telling the story... and to whom?

In the first part of this three-part series on first person narrative, I talked about why you should use first person narrative and how it’s different than third person point of view. Part two covered how the words you choose for the narrator develops them as a character, and how who is telling the story to whom is important in shaping the narrative.
This post concludes the series and deals with the narrator’s motivation for telling the story and the importance of using first person past tense versus first person present tense.

Why is the narrator telling the story

Before writing in the first person, you must understand why the narrator is telling the story.

Did your narrator survive a haunted house only to be forced back in?

In the works of Lovecraft and Poe, often is it some kind of warning or catharsis. Other stories take the form of letters or journal entries. These reasons shape the story’s structure.
A warning―I went into that haunted house and barely survived, so no one should go in―would start with that warning. From there, the narrator can explain the back story.
A series of letters, though, would likely slow build over time.
But why the story is being told dictates its climax. If it’s a love story, it must end with the culmination of that love. A love story where the lovers come together halfway through the tale is not a true love story. All stories need tension that is resolved in the climax. So know why the narrator is driven to tell the story, which would end with them getting to purpose of the tale.

When did the story take place and when is it being told?

The last question to ask yourself is when did the story take place in relation to its telling?
That is, first person present tense or first person past?
As with third person by default, if the story is told first person is should be past tense. Usually, we tell a story after it’s happened.
(There does seem to be a hipster rebellion against this reasoning with stories told first person present tense for no other reason then just to different. [Full disclosure: About half of my published works are first person present tense, but for good reasons. And, those are the works that are published. The majority of my writing is third person.) While you can tell your story however you wish, understand editors have seen plenty of stories that try to be “different.” “Different” does not make a story any better.)
Why the narrator is telling the story also relates to present or past tense. Going back to Poe and Lovecraft, the motivation of the character is to rely some horrible event that has already happened, so naturally past tense. As well, consider most stories begin in seemingly normal situations where something occurs that forces conflict. So it doesn’t make sense to begin a story in present tense under normal circumstances since no one narrates their day-to-day life hoping a worthy story comes along.
So, why tell a story in the present tense? The main reason is to tell a story as it’s happening. Past tense allows for flashbacks and introspection, but some stories demand to be told as they’re happening without flashbacks, forcing the reader to keep up and experience a situation as it unfolds. It also provides an immediate, you-are-there telling experience.
But considering this rationale for present tense, the story must begin at a noteworthy event―a discovery, “I’m pregnant,” a sudden explosion.
Taking this idea a step further, telling a story in present tense forbids jumping ahead in time. Telling a story in the past tense allows the narrator to jump ahead a little, back up, resume the narrative, etc. In present tense, the narrator can speculate, but has the same knowledge of the future as the reader. [Hat tip to Helen Michaud for this idea.]
Another reason for present tense is your character is in real danger and might not survive the story. A story told first person past tense indicates the main character will survive. (If you do to tell a story in the first person past tense, don’t kill your character at the end. That’s cheating.)

As well, present tense may reflect the character’s mentality. She lives in the moment, either because she’s a thrill seeker, is someone who doesn’t look back, or is a raving psychopath with no regrets and can’t think more than a few seconds ahead.
Further, the main character is going through changes and is unable to appreciate or remember what has happened to them, such as “Flowers for Algernon” (or my short story “The Weak Son” in Tesseracts Thirteen).

Wrap-up: Use first person properly

First person narration, when used properly, can be a very powerful element to your story telling through immediacy and developing your character in a way third-person narrative can’t do. However, you must keep in mind:

  • How does first person writing add to the story (setting, plot, theme, etc.), such as show-don’t-tell
  • What information would your narrator know and not know
  • What words would your main character use and sensory detail would he/she/it describe
  • Is the narrator reliable or has her/his/its perceptions coloured the plot… or is the narrator insane
  • Who is telling the story—the main character or a bystander? And who are they talking to and why? What would the narrator expect the listener to know?
  • Is the story taking place now (present tense) or has it already happened (past tense)