Writing fiction in “First Person Present Tense” Versus “Third Person Past Tense”

I wrote my recently completed experimental novel, Stella Vero; Our Lady of the Tunnels, in first person, present tense.  I’ve often heard the warning that a writer should never use that tense, and while I agree it is frought with peril, there are stories where it feels like the way to go.  This novel was one of those stories.  What I like about first person present tense is that it has an immediacy you don’t get with third person past tense.  In case you aren’t familiar with these tenses, first person present tense reads like this:

“I’m standing in the alley waiting for Roger to show up when suddenly a huge steel safe falls out of a window above, narrowing missing my head.  I can’t imagine what idiot would let something like that happen.”

Third person past tense can relate the same event, but from a more distant perspective:

“Bill was waiting in the alley for Roger to show up when a huge steel safe fell out of a window above, narrowing missing his head.  What Bill didn’t know at the time was that Roger had pushed the safe out the window, hoping to kill him.”

As you can see, with third person past tense, you can jump forward in time and provide more information that wouldn’t logically be available in first person present tense (that Roger was trying to kill Bill, the “I” of the first person present tense version.)

First person present tense has many limitations, making it hard to pull off.  One of these is that if you have the “I” look back and tell what happened before the present moment, you’re writing in past tense, which can be done, but it gets confusing and can be awkward.  To be done cleanly, the first person present tense narrative has to stay with one person’s point of view, at one point in time.  While this may seem like a disadvantage, working within limitations can inspire creativity.  It’s a challenge, and the writer can rise to meet it.

I recently began a new work of fiction, a series of zombie stories called Electro-Thrall.  After 13 months of writing in first person present tense, I was fairly tired of it, and it’s been a pleasure using the more flexible third person past tense.  In the first installment of this story (now available as a Kindle ebook), I stay with one character’s point of view, but I may shift to other characters’ points of view in later installments.  Writing a series and publishing installments as you go has its own challenges, and I’m enjoying the riskiness of telling a story when I have no idea what will happen further down the road.  If you’re a writer, I suggest you try writing a series, just for the excitement of pulling off such a “stunt.”

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About David Barker

David Barker is the author of two works of weird horror fiction written in collaboration with W. H. Pugmire: The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal and In the Gulfs of Dream & Other Lovecraftian Tales (both books were published by the now defunct Dark Renaissance Books, but copies are still available from Dark Regions Press.) Barker and Pugmire also collaborated on a Lovecraftian horror novel, Witches In Dreamland, which will be published by Hippocampus Press, possibly in late 2017. Recently, his stories and poems have appeared in Fungi, Cyaegha, Spectral Realms, The Art Mephitic, The Audient Void, The Indiscriminate Mixture and on Shoggoth.net. He has a short story in the weird fiction anthology, Nightmare's Realm, edited by S. T. Joshi and published in 2017 by Dark Regions Press. He also has published several works of horror and bizarro fiction as Kindle ebooks, including the bizarro zombie novel Dead Guys in Packards. Together with Jordan Hofer, David Barker has written two nonfiction books about UFOs and alien abduction: Little Gray Bastards (published in 2016 by Schiffer Publishing) and Unidentifiable Flying Objects (due in Fall 2017 from Schiffer.)
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