Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Staying In The Moment With First Person

This is my weekly writing post over at Sisters In Scribe be sure to check out our blog!

I usually write first person present tense. It feels most natural to me and it's what I'm used to from writing screenplays. For my current WIP I made the choice to write first person past tense because I thought it better suited the way I wanted the story to unfold. What I noticed almost immediately was that some of the energy of my story was lost. The ms starts with a short piece of necessary backstory (paranormal world-building) and then moves into present day. My problem was that the "present day" stuff still sounded like it was happening in the past. It was all telling. Then I stumbled across this quote by Tami Brown over at the blueboards:

The biggest hurdle, I think, is true for all first person narratives. It's what I call "let me tell you my story" syndrome. The narrator tells the reader about what happened to them rather than jumping into the middle of the action and letting it unfold with the reader right there in the middle. You can debate showing vs. telling all day, but having plenty of showing and a minimum of telling is very important in a first person story, in my opinion. If you "tell" too much that creates a huge distance between the reader and the story- the narrator/protagonist is literally standing there, blabbing, instead to acting, and that equals boring.

It's so interesting to me to read this, because I've found it doesn't happen at all in present tense. There's just not a lot of room for sitting around ruminating on the past in present tense, because you are by definition, in the moment. I looked over my (very) rough draft and realized that I had fallen into this trap of "let me tell you a story" which was making my characters distant and the story itself, less powerful because it was being told as if it had already happened rather than as it was happening.

Here's an example of some of the changes I made (and remember please that both of these are still rough drafts!):

The "Let Me Tell You A Story" version:
I had a bad feeling as soon as Jenna said “party at Snake’s,” but I ignored it. Snake, Jenna’s latest victim, was twenty-two, and when he wasn’t busy selling drugs to the rich kids at West Haven, he worked at his uncle’s body shop.

Jenna was stoked though, so what could I do? I had just dumped my boyfriend, it wasn’t like I had other plans.

The "In The Moment" version:
Jenna shoved her phone into her back pocket and flashed me a grin. “Party at Snake’s.”

My gut said bad idea, but one look at her face told me I had no choice. Jenna had that “new guy glow”. Even the pink streak in her hair looked brighter.

I shrugged.

Jenna rolled her eyes. “It’s not like you have other plans.”

See the difference? One is a character standing in some undisclosed place, musing on events that happened, and the other is that character actively experiencing those events. I think the second version feels much more connected to both the character and has more energy than the first.

I find for me that it's important to remember that just because the character is narrating in past tense, doesn't mean that everything happened in the past.

I'll leave you with my new favorite piece of advice on tense: When it's done right, tense should be invisible.


TerryLynnJohnson said...

ah, I was confused with the double post on two blogs. I get it now. Good post.

Jen said...

Great post!!!!

Iapetus999 said...

I'm writing a first-person piece right now and it's hard to keep the narrator from just blabbing everything. Maybe I should try some present tense...

Valerie said...

It's a tough trade off, because with present tense, I think it's harder to have your MC muse about things that aren't actually happening and not have it sound forced or like exposition. Present tense is great for stories with a lot of action though.

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