Writing in the First Person Point of View (Part 3/3) – Motivation & past vs present tense

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)
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5 Responses to “Writing in the First Person Point of View (Part 3/3) – Motivation & past vs present tense”


  1. 1 Helen Michaud November 9, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Matt,

    Love this series — you make a lot of good points about things to consider when choosing to use first person narration, but I have a few counterpoints to some of the things you mention here:

    I think that first person narration as a device doesn’t have to be literal — it’s not always the reader eavesdropping on an actual communication between the narrator and someone else, although having that background, even if it isn’t made explicit, does tend to make the story richer.

    Likewise, present tense doesn’t always imply that the story is happening as the narrator tells it. Using the historical present can be natural and, as you say, it gives the story a you-are-there feel:

    “Oh my god, you won’t believe what just happened!”

    “What?”

    “Okay, I’m walking past the post office when this MANIAC on a bike comes around the corner and …”

    Another thing it can do is establish that what’s being described is an ongoing, everyday state of affairs. I can’t imagine “Don’t Move a Muscle, Mr. Liberty” (http://aescifi.ca/index.php/fiction/35-short-stories/495-dont-move-a-muscle-mr-liberty) in anything but the present tense. You didn’t mention your reasons for using present tense in your stories but I’d venture that its use in “Touch the Sky” comes from a similar place — yes, it’s a significant moment that doesn’t happen every day but it’s about being in a world cut off from the past and coming to terms with the way the world is Now.

    Another limitation of the present tense: it allows you to look backward but not forward from the moment being described. With past tense you can do something like: “When I was six years old my family moved across the ocean. I had lived my whole life in the same small cottage until that point. It wasn’t until I was much older that I found out …” If you’re describing the move in the present tense, you can’t do the same thing without sounding extremely contrived, but sometimes that can be to a story’s benefit.

    Anyway, this set of posts was a good look at a few of the knobs and dials you can mess with (not that they should be the things that drive the story, but they can certainly affect how the story comes across …) And as you can probably tell, I’m a fan of some of the stories you’ve chosen to tell in first-person present-tense 🙂

    • 2 Matt Moore November 10, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Thanks a lot for your input, Helen. All excellent points. I especially like that present tense essentially forbids jumping forward in time. I might add that to the post (with a hat tip for you) when I have a free moment.

      As for not mentioning my stories, I don’t want these posts to be seen as promoting my work or holding my own stories up as paragons of first person narration to be emulated. But if others want to do that, I would not stand in thier way. 🙂

  2. 3 Robin November 19, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I am so grateful for this lesson and the posts by you and Helen. I am in a perplexing situation that I find difficult to describe because I am not lucky enough to be an MFA student or grad. So here’s the situation..and I’m paraphrasing.
    My novel begins like this:
    When I was twelve, life as I knew it was pretty good until the day (blah, blah something I won’t mention happened).
    It was a day like any other around here except that it was hot as hell and I was sweating bullets in the heat of mother’s closet while she moaned about what to wear.
    (blah, blah blah-more on this, etc.)
    Trudging home from school it was still beastly and I swore that once I got there, I’d turn up all the air conditioners full blast, even though I wasn’t supposed to.
    Mother was at the club and Daddy had taken Jack to camp. All alone, the house was mine for the rest of the day, so I roamed around doing daring things. I made myself a bowl of ice cream and sat on the living room sofa-reserved only for company and special occasions. I didn’t use a coaster for my ice cream and I kicked my feet up, resting them on the antique coffee table and didn’t even take off my Mary Janes…”
    As I was admiring how shiny they were, the doorbell rang and I dropped my spoon on couch, getting a blob of ice cream on the upholstery. Damn! I’d sure be in trouble for that when Mama got home.
    ——
    Ok, you get the idea ( I hope). The actual novel is written much better than this, but I condensed and left out a lot and shifted language to get the point across that this little girl starts the story by refering to a past event, then relates the past event in the present tense. At some point in the novel, time catches up and she is in the present for the rest of the book except for a few memory flashbacks.
    Upon presenting this work in a writing workshop I’m taking, the class insists upon changing the tense (in their line edits) to past tense.
    I’ve waited to clarify this to the class because we had to submit two pieces for workshop and I thought they’d get the idea at some point, but they don’t.
    So, is it ok to do what I’m doing and am I doing it correctly and since I’m not a literary sophisticate-how do I explain what I’m doing so that they stop changing “I am not supposed to open the door to strangers.” to ” I was never to open the door to strangers.”
    It’s driving me crazy. I don’t know if what I’m doing is ok and there is a name for it or if I need to change everything.
    Also, everyone insists (wrongly) that this is an adult having a memory about her life and it isn’t. She is twelve at the beginning of the story and she turns 13 during the course of the story-about six months after it begins and everything is in the present from then on until the end of the novel.

    Any and all help would be greatly appreciated, if you have the time or inclination. I don’t know how to explain what I’m doing in terms that they will consider valid. (And of course-if what I’m doing here is wrong-I’d like some advice on how to change it.) I desperately need Help!!!!!!
    Thanks so much! Robin

    • 4 Matt Moore November 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

      Reading your post a few times, your comment “I thought they’d get the idea at some point, but they don’t” jumped out at me. Sometimes, when writing, you don’t understand how everyone can miss what is obvious to you. At first you get frustrated with your readers, but in the end you have to realize why they don’t “get it” is because you have not provided them with enough information to “get.”

      So, maybe the group is right. But, something else to consider is: who is in your group? If they are experienced writers, with publication credits, they are worth listening to. If not, take what they say as advice, but ultimately you the writer have to make up your mind of how you want your story to go.

      Now, telling events in the past using the past tense is, on the surface, correct, but we also sometimes say: “OK, the most amazing thing happened to me yesterday. So there I am, outside work. This guys comes up to me and says…” We do tell past events in present tense. Yet, that kind of story telling can also get exhausting after too long.

      So, if you think that is how the story has to be told, do it. It’s your story. But consider what others are telling you. If enough people tell you the story does not work, maybe they’re worth listening to.

    • 5 Helen Michaud November 21, 2011 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Robin,

      Glad you’re finding these comments helpful. I agree with what Matt said, and would put it this way: Most of the time with fiction, it isn’t about what’s correct but about what works, or what works best. In general, it is easier to make third person and past tense “work,” but there are lots of effective uses of first person and present tense.

      When it comes to telling stories, the test of whether something works is whether your audience gets out of the story what you’re putting into it. If that doesn’t happen then it’s possible that it’s the wrong audience, but it is also useful to look closely at the story, try to forget what you know, and see if what you wanted to convey really comes through using just the words that you put down. In addition to keeping in mind who it is who’s giving you feedback, listen to what they say about what isn’t working. Often readers can point out problems, but their solutions (if they offer them) aren’t necessarily the right ones. In this case, your readers are confused about who the narrator is and at what point she’s telling the story. How can you make that clearer?

      Finally, it might be worth trying, as an experiment, to write it in the past tense. You might be surprised at how well it works out, or maybe you’ll be fighting it the whole way and come out even more confident of your original approach. But past tense isn’t just a switch you can throw by going through and changing every verb. It should change the entire way you tell the story. Try writing it from scratch without looking at your original draft and see how it unfolds telling it a different way … then decide which one you like better. Good luck!


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