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First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

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XtremeOne1
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First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by XtremeOne1 » 12 Mar 2015, 09:41

I've got a question for all the readers on this forum; what type of narration do you prefer? For me, I use to HATE first person present tense but now I kind of see it's merit and enjoy it. Really, it depends on the writing style and the character who's narrating but the same can be said for past tense.

I ask this because I want to start the second draft of a novel I wrote and I'm thinking of maybe changing it to present tense. I think both could fit and in some ways, since it is a YA novel, I'd say present tense is probably more marketable but it's also kind of problematic.

So as a reader, which form of narration/pov do you enjoy?

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 12 Mar 2015, 09:47

I've only had any real experience with Past Tense, Dresden Files is written in this style, but I've seen examples of Present Tense and it drove me up a wall. I could not read an entire book in Present Tense or I'd want to murder everyone ever.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Nu-D » 12 Mar 2015, 12:56

Both are narrative tools that serve a purpose. First person present should be employed when the author wants to imbue a sense of intimacy and immediacy. It's hard to do well over an extended narrative, but typically can be quite effective in shorter forms. There are several reasons this is a difficult narration style. One is because the longer you spend in that kind of intimacy with a particular character, the more likely it is that their fictionality will become apparent; it's very hard to make an internal dialogue remain realistic over a long work. Another is simply that the single POV becomes boring or repetitive, or that the more you learn about the character, the more likely it is that you begin to find things about him/her unlikeable.

Third person past imbues a sense of objectivity and historicity; it's much easier to write because the reader is kept at arms length, and thus it's less likely to fail as an author's chosen narrative form. Depending on the kind of story, either one is appropriate.

The truly interesting and difficult method of narration is the second person present. Try reading the delightful book If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. Not only is he able to effectively make "you" the protagonist, he changes who "you" is mid-narrative so convincingly that you'll have to check your undies to see if you've changes gender. ;)

(And yes, I conjugated the verb correctly in that last sentence 8-) ).

Personally, I don't think writers should try long-from first person narration until they're familiar with the works of Virginia Wolfe; particularly To the Lighthouse, and if you're up for it, The Waves. These modernist masterpieces should serve as a lightpost to guide aspiring writers in the first person form. Yes, Wolfe's writing is very difficult high-modernism inappropriate for popular fiction, but it can be abstracted into popular narratives. For an example of that read Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, or Atonement, the latter of which is heavily based on the narrative forms of To the Lighthouse.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 12 Mar 2015, 14:13

Tying along with what Nu-D, that name always makes me smile, says is something Jim Butcher, Dresden Files again, said in his livejournal posts about writing. I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like if you are going to do first person make sure that character is REALLY interesting. That one character has to be able to basically carry the entire story.

Are the Twilight books written in first person? Because Bella, from the movies anyways, is the most boring character ever and I couldn't see her she could carry a paragraph let alone an entire book series. I know 50 Shades is, but that's kind of a different case because I'd consider those kinds of story more of a self-insertion kind of thing and a bland character helps with that.

I imagine there's a reason most books, I think, are third person. You can have less interesting characters because you have more of them. You can also move around from place to place.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Nu-D » 12 Mar 2015, 14:39

Keep in mind, also, that in a third person narrative you can provide information to the reader that some characters don't know. In a first person narrative, the reader can only know what the protagonist knows.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 12 Mar 2015, 14:46

Which is also useful for first person storytelling. It's easier to convey that feeling of surprise when the narrator finds out something at the same time you do. Dresden is my only experience with first person so I'm using it for examples a lot, but Butcher has basically said a lot of what Harry thinks about things is just plain wrong because he's not omniscient and thus the reader isn't being the full story either.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by XtremeOne1 » 12 Mar 2015, 19:48

It's interesting it took you so long to come across a first person narrative. I'd say I've been 60/40 towards third person.

It's true that the most important aspect of first person is the character. I write a fan fiction on here and for most of the run, it's 1st person past tense between four characters. Obviously that could be tricky but it makes the tale more of a character/coming of age drama than anything else.

Currently, the newest season, it's been switched to present tense. I'd definitely say I enjoy past tense more but for story purposes(this whole season main theme is about dealing with the great unknown of the future) so it only made sense for me to be as present with the characters as possible.

I'm leaning against present tense in my original tale. I did two versions of the same scene in past and present and I'm not certain if adds anything(I'd have to read it over). In some ways it makes gbr first person narrative more conversational, as if this person is sitting back and shooting the shit but I think you get a version of that in past tense. Plus, I think there is more of an intimacy.

Of course, there is the "everyone is sending 1st person present because the kids love it!" so that part of me wants to do it for that reason.

The interesting thing is, a lot of people say "first person means the person doesn't die" which I've never gotten. I read something once that it could be seen in two ways. There is the framing 1st person narrative(Someonr remarking on their past as from the future) and the broadcast first person. Like TV it's has a five second delay.

My draft has, again, four different narrators which makes that "they can't die" not as appicable.

I also really like third person limited(which is the most common from of perspective I see). It's got the best of both worlds. You only know what your character knows. I'm not a big fan of the omnipresent narrator. I wrote another draft of a story that I've got to work on(damn actual work) that's limited third person

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 13 Mar 2015, 00:40

I'd say First Person Present would have a harder time writing the character death.

Most of the books I read are fantasy/Sword & Sorcery type. Far as I've seen they tend to lean heavily towards third person. I read maybe a paragraph of First Person Present from Divergent and knew I'd never read the series. I get that it can convey a sense of urgency, but it felt...fake? I've also read snippets of 50 Shades for comedic reasons and that was even worse, but once again the whole self-insertion angle comes across.

What do kids even read these days? I imagine the Divergent series is popular because of the movies. I never read Maze Runner or the Mortal Instruments series so I don't know what tense those use. I know Hunger Games was third person limited and Harry Potter was third person as well.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by XtremeOne1 » 13 Mar 2015, 00:55

Hunger Games is actually first person present tense. Harry Potter third person limited. I actually closed Hunger Games right away after releasing it was 1st person limited and only picked it up again at a friend's suggestion.

And yeah those are what the kids are reading. I sampled a few other YA books recently(Kindle is good that way) and 90% of them are first person present. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn't but overall it's exhausting because they all start to read the same.

And yeah, I do tend to notice fantasy does tend to be third person limited. I wonder why that is...Maybe because it's such a LARGE cast.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 13 Mar 2015, 01:17

Is it? I could've sworn it was third person, but this was a few years ago. Maybe that explains why I never finished it...

Edit: Just opened it because I have it on Google Play and you're right.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Crawler » 13 Mar 2015, 01:36

I find first person present-tense grating. The plot got me through Hunger Games and Divergent, but Tris is honestly such an annoying character and even Katniss was rough to read sometimes. But that's just personal preference at this point. I think Maze Runner was third-person limited IIRC and it flowed really well.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Cable » 13 Mar 2015, 01:37

For me if the story is good enough to draw me in then I won't be conscious of a detail like what tense it is. I mean I would say I would prefer past just because it is what I am most used to, but it wouldn't really matter either way if I liked the premise. Kind of how in comics if the story is good I can overlook bad art.

The only novel I have ever been unable to get through simply because of how it is written is Moby Dick. The central plot of that book is so good, but man what a chore to get through. But that has more to do with editing (him wandering off into tangents) than with his prose style.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by History of Paper » 13 Mar 2015, 09:38

Always preferred reading and writing in the past tense. The first person present often feels like a very 'fake' attempt to forge a closer connection with me. There have been exceptions where a skillful writer actually takes advantage of the limited perspective, but usually it's just bland writing that could easily be converted to a third person POV (and would have been infinitely better for it).

Oddly enough, my sister loves the first person present tense. I blame her teenage hormones.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by XtremeOne1 » 13 Mar 2015, 10:25

Third person present tense? Or third person past? I loathe third person present tense more than any form of writing outside the pretentious second person tense some authors think they're awesome for using.

Poor first person present, getting beat up for sure. I do think it works sometimes. There is this sample I was reading about these kids obsessed with death, and I guess that story has that undercurrent of "will they die"...so it makes sense that we're with them in the now. I think when it's necessary for the plot, to be with the characters in the present as they think to the future, present tense works...But overall, I do find it unnecessary.

But yeah, all the teens love the present tense and so I want to market a book to them, do I try and meet their expectations. But Harry POtter and The Fault in Our Stars are my two favorite YA books and neither are present tense so...HA

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by tokenBG1009 » 13 Mar 2015, 10:51

How the hell do you even write third person present tense? Second person always confused me.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Nu-D » 13 Mar 2015, 11:46

tokenBG1009 wrote:How the hell do you even write third person present tense? Second person always confused me.
Most plays are written in the third person present.


There is a table in the corner. There is a gun in the drawer. He approaches the table.

Her: "Why are you doing this to me!"
Him: "Because I must, for my honor!"
Her: "But I never meant to sleep with your brother!"
Him: "My evil twin! How could you!"

He slowly turns and he lifts up his fist, shaking it at the sky.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Milkshake08 » 19 Mar 2015, 21:31

I'm never a fan of second person because reading "you" over and over just enrages me.

As someone who writes and reads daily (you know, English teacher and all) I think that the preference between first person past/present and third person really depends on the story. I think a majority of the time, first person present tense doesn't work as a drawn out narrative (Nu-D gave excellent reasons). If it's a short story, it lends urgency and quick connection, but can wear thin on a longer narrative and is difficult to maintain. It is also very limited, since you only really see what is now and from one point of view (again, can work for the narrative style). I'm not, myself, much of a fan because I enjoy broader narratives and multiple characters to latch onto (I have always been more a fan of strong character work over plot). I also think first person present tense can highlight plot holes and narrative contrivances a lot moreso than other styles.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Douglas Mangum » 24 Mar 2015, 19:49

I think first person present tense only works really well if it's the author's intention to have the story be told from the POV of an unreliable narrator. Fight Club was written in this manner and, given the later revelations, I think it was the best voice-tense for the story being told. I suppose the Hunger Games series also worked in present tense but I honestly wonder if it was an attempt by the author to avoid "world building." Katniss could not describe what she did not see or had no experienced, so the author was freed as to what was going on in the greater world, leaving it up to the reader's imagination. Can you imagine the movies if they had kept to that POV?

A wholly frustrating book for me was Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon." It was written in 3rd-person present tense, so it was just odd, odd, odd. This would have been fine if the novel had had an ending. It didn't. It just stopped. I immediately texted a friend of mine and berated him for recommended a book without an ending.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by EvilMonkeyPope » 23 Jun 2015, 21:31

I really liked Cryptonomicon but I agree it just kind of stopped. It definitely ends better than The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri, which literally has no conclusion.
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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Nu-D » 01 Jan 2016, 12:17

Neal Stephenson, author of Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age, among others, has a reputation for being utterly unable to write endings to otherwise marvellous books. I haven't read any, but multiple friends and family members have made the same criticism.

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Re: First Person Present or Past Tense: What Do You Prefer?

Post by Polaris » 03 Jan 2016, 10:33

Second person doesn't actually exist, to me. I've never read any literature in second person.

First person has its place, but I get irritated with it, sometimes. Making me like the main character in first person... is almost impossible. I often find myself rooting for antagonists when I read first person. I hate knowing how lame and not well dimensioned a character is by knowing all their vacant thoughts. I hate knowing how stupid a character is by figuring out the entire plot line before they realize there is a plot line. Also, as Douglas Mangum pointed out, it often feels like so much is left to the imagination for the author to avoid world building. But, of course... there are some great first person books out there, notably Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is my favorite book to date.

Third person is my preference. I like bits where we can get a break from the main character, see how people might interact away from them. I like the freedom of relating to characters I choose, instead of the book choosing for me. I like deducing the characters motives as opposed to being forced to experience them.

Past tense is where it's at for me. Third person present is atrocious. First person present is slightly easier to choke down. I just read Divergent, which is written in first person present, and while it took me a good 100 pages to get used to it, I did. And then there were other issues I had with it, but that's probably personal, too.
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