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.”