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I am currently writing a story in first person and present tense. I've read a lot about what various people think of this perspective and I've heard many people say they enjoy it when it's done well, but hate it when it isn't. Does anyone have any advice on how I can write this perspective without it being annoying or distracting from the story?

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There are genre conventions regarding tense. If most of your genre is written in present tense, readers will expect it and not take much note of it. If present tense is a deviation from genre conventions, it will be more conspicuous and readers will find it irritating in and of itself. In this case the challenge to you as a writer will be steeper.

Also, the tense needs to fit the viewpoint and story. If you write in present tense, the narrator cannot know the future or events outside of the present moment. It is therefore more befitting to a first person narrative and a limited perspective. Third person present tense often feels rather factual and cold and would fit a more "scientific" narrative better, e.g. a psychological portrait of pathological behaviour or certain kinds of science focussed hard SF, than a love story or a story of subjective emotional development. Present tense also lends itself well to action and surprise, while past tense does better at reflection and drawing conclusions.

As for how to write it well, that is a very broad question and I'm not sure I can answer it exhaustively. I believe the most important aspect, though, is linguistic flawlessness. The more readers note something, the better it needs to be executed. So make sure you understand and master all the grammatical consequences of present tense, e.g. anteriority and posteriority, indirect speech, etc. Write in a smooth and unobtrusive style. Use words that the readers are familiar with and that fit the voice of your narrator. Bascially what you do all the time as a writer, except even more carefully.

I would also say that present tense requires shorter sentences on average than past tense, at least outside of passages that recount people ruminating about their past. The thoughts of people may be convoluted and their experiences multi-layered, but the awareness of people in the present moment is usually rather compartmentalized and moment to moment. Only looking back on events (in past tense) creates a coherent and structurally complex narrative.

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  • Completely disagree that 3rd person present is more factual and cold, not suited to emotional development, and better for action and surprise. Many of the present tense books I've read have been quite the opposite. I don't have access to my books right now so the only one I can point to is Maggie O'Farrell's 'Instructions for a heatwave'. Mar 11, 2023 at 7:31
  • @Mousentrude Reading the beginning of Maggie O'Farrel's Instructions for a Heatwave, I find the narration distincly distanced from the characters and observing them and their behavior with maybe an empathetic but nevertheless inquisitional gaze. I haven't read the book, but according to one review it is about "a dysfunctional but deeply lovable family", and that would fit my assessment of third person present tense befitting psychological analysis well.
    – user55858
    Mar 11, 2023 at 10:44
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Action-oriented books are easier to read in first person present. If you are doing a lot of world-building or description, third person allows for easier descriptions since you don't have to constantly have the main character look and describe the scene and what is happening right this second in every scene isn't quite as important. Past tense feels right most of the time because the reader is reading - it's more a "this has already happened" feel than, say, a visual story like a movie.

Present-tense keeps action tight and feeling like it's happening right now so it's well-used for action genres. The best example of 1st person/present tense I can think of is "The Hunger Games." Horror can be another genre with first person/present because the reader is stuck with only what can be seen and experienced by the main character.

It is sometimes disorienting to read in present tense. I recommend starting off with an action sequence, this helps to introduce your reader to what they can expect to happen later on in the story AND the distraction of what is happening in the scene should allow for a reader to accept the POV/tense choice. If it's badly written, it's a big slog and most won't bother to finish.

Use tight word choices, more short sentences than long. With the latter, don't write only short sentences, mix it up so the rhythm of your sentences doesn't get boring. But when you have a choice, write shorter sentences.

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First person present tense narration gives the sense of watching a stream of the hero's direct perception and experience as it is happening. It's a good choice if you want to show your reader what the hero is going through from that raw, unfiltered perspective.

It doesn't lend well to elements that wouldn't be part of the immediate moment:

  • Passages summarising a development over a longer period of time (say, weeks) in broad strokes.
  • Asides explaining things the hero knows in the back of their mind when there's no reason to focus on those things at the moment.
  • Commentary from the narrator's older, more knowledgeable self. (A past tense first person narrator can say things like, "Boy, was I wrong." In present tense, they don't know they're wrong yet.)
  • The narrator deciding not to reveal a detail. (You can still hide things from your reader by skipping a scene, like you do with uneventful periods such as brushing teeth in the morning, but that's basically your only tool.)

What you need to do is the same as with any other form you write in — decide well if the form fits the content, and then work in accordance with its nature and limitations.

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  • @Laurel I wanted the answer to consist of three well-defined parts. The way you've reformatted it, it makes the disadvantages look like the only relevant part, and all the rest easy to completely miss. That's a misrepresentation of what I was trying to say. Would you please allow me to reverse your edit? Or can you suggest some other formatting that wouldn't make the first and third paragraph so inconspicuous?
    – Divizna
    Sep 4, 2023 at 14:43
  • Having actual bullets is essential for anyone who uses a screen reader, because otherwise the bullets would be read as one large paragraph, which would be confusing. Now, you probably could convert it to actually be a single paragraph with a few minor changes which would do what you want. Alternatively, you could add headings to each section which summarize the point (## Heading in markdown). Also, the reason the middle seems emphasized is because it is — you spent more words on it, explaining it in the most detail, so adding more details to those other sections would even it out.
    – Laurel
    Sep 4, 2023 at 14:56

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