How I Used First Person and Present Tense to Wake Up My Story—Guest Blog
Last month I wrote about why I believe writing in the present tense is problematic for many writers. Today’s guest blog is from talented author C. B. Wentworth, who confidently uses the present tense in her writing. I asked her to share her thoughts on the subject, and she graciously agreed to do so. Be sure to visit her blog at http://cbwentworth.wordpress.com/ for some wonderful posts on a variety of subjects.
C.B. Wentworth: When I set out to write my first novel, I was admittedly clueless in just about every respect. However, the two things I thought I had figured out were point of view and tense. As a relatively new writer, I went with the traditional model of third person and past tense. After all, just about every novel I’d read up to that point followed the same pattern.
The story and characters all fit together, but I found myself wondering why the novel just didn’t seem to click. Something was off and it took four drafts to recognize the problem. I realized my character was drowning in third person and the overall theme of the book was lost in past tense. In order for both elements to shine, I had to ditch tradition and try something a little more unorthodox.
First person point of view is nothing new, but pairing it with present tense does fall outside the norm. When I put the two together, I was amazed at how much more realistic my main character became and how the story went from trudging along to a crackling narrative.
The shift in both point of view and tense created an immediate change in my novel, from the very first paragraph:
Noah had no idea what he was doing. He’d worked at Dominick’s Fine Foods for two years, but from where he stood everything about it looked foreign. Today had been his last day and when the automatic doors slid shut, he was officially segregated from the employee pool. Worse still, he became the guy who quit because he always did what his father told him to do. He held onto the strap of his messenger bag and picked at the frayed edges. The ratty old bag went everywhere with him, slung across his body and molded to every groove of his tall, lanky frame.
Today was my last day. I’d been working at the same grocery store for two years, but now it’s all over. The automatic doors slide shut behind me and I am instantly an outsider. Worse still, I’m the guy who quit because I always do what my dad tells me to do. What a loser! I clutch the strap of my messenger bag and pick at the frayed edges – an old habit I can’t seem to break. The thing is ready to fall apart, but I can’t find another bag I like and that fits all my stuff. I’m as bad a girl trying to find the right purse.
The biggest shock came when I realized how much stronger Noah’s voice became when I let him take the lead in telling his story. His personality reacted to the situation, as it was happening, which was something that did not occur in previous drafts. In addition, changing the tense flushed out a sense of humor I didn’t know Noah possessed.
Point of view and tense play a crucial role in storytelling in that they dictate how characters and the plot are perceived. However, it can also be argued that these literary devices can be used to convey an overall theme. Most of what I write centers around the idea of embracing life in the here and now. Writing in present tense allows me to present this theme on every page in a way that doesn’t annoy or patronize the reader.
Whether it’s Noah’s story or the characters in my second novel, I want life to happen to them in the same fashion it occurs in reality. Fiction can best mirror the truth in a format that emulates moment-to-moment experiences and honest, personal reactions. Present tense has the ability to pull the reader into a story like a 3-D movie, while a first person point of view lets a character speak with unmitigated candor.
– – –
C.B. Wentworth is a writer and artist. While on the hunt for a literary agent, she is hard at work on her second novel. You can follow her journey at http://cbwentworth.wordpress.com/
- Present Tense: Breathlessly Waiting to Read About What’s Already Happened (changeitupediting.com)