The ‘squeaky wheel’ of illogic: present tense with first person

Squeaky wheel of illogicWhen a writer wants to draw attention to language without seeming too ‘literary’, first person present tense (FPPT) can seem a handy tactic. It’s almost a mainstream device nowadays.

But what authors gain in casual literary kudos they can also lose in character and depth. Look at this popular effort:


When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

We’re right in the narrator’s head from the start, with scant use of voice and wordplay to show persona. This is serviceable prose, and its pared-back tone suits the material, but I find such a stark entry into another person’s headspace alienating.

Of course, The Hunger Games sold fifty million copies at last count, so it didn’t alienate its target readership. After all, it’s been widely noted that teen readers want main characters who are like themselves; they want a close personal perspective without preamble; and they want serious tones and situations to reflect their angst, the more dystopian the better.

But does success mean Collins’ opening works as well as it could? Let’s consider what the opening is actually doing by examining first person and present tense together. What are these devices about, and are they well used?

Aside from its literary feel, the form is often used to invoke immediacy. While behind every past tense story there’s a teller who has pre-organised the telling, in present tense there’s no sense of organisation or premeditation; there’s just ‘now’. If you can’t sense a storyteller putting events into order and perspective, it’s harder to know what to expect of the tale.

However as a form of narration, first person present tense (FPPT) is always and demonstrably a big lie. It maintains that events occur at the same time as the writer writes and the reader reads. Even after long familiarity with the form, the reader is aware of its impossibility.

It’s this easily disproved lie that gives FPPT its silghtly edgy feel, and makes it so capable of ‘defamiliarising‘ storytelling. However when you make narration strange or unfamiliar, you also trouble immersion. Thus at openings and scene changes, FPPT narratives can push readers away, especially those readers who don’t already know and love the form.

For the above reasons it makes sense for writers to find ways to make beginnings to FPPT narratives more familiar, thus smoothing the way to immersion. When the narrative gets into full swing defamiliarising tactics are far less risky.

With that in mind, ask yourself whether Collins’ opening could have been more effective if written something like:

We seldom get up before dawn, in my house. A few times a year maybe, when ashes of harvest cloud the afternoon sky and we’ve all gone to bed at dusk. But this morning I wake in darkness. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress… etc.

I’m not pretending my wordcraft is essentially better than Collins’; only that I’ve paid attention to the form’s weakness and addressed it in a conscious way.

As you can see, this ‘conscious way’ means starting with a generalisation.

Generalisations are observations, and they intend to have future impact, so they always use present tense. ‘My cat is an exceptional hunter.’ ‘I like to wear orange.’ The familiarity of a generalisation helps the reader accept FPPT in the narrative proper, because its tense and perspective are the same. It’s FPPT without the defamiliarising.

Of course, generalisations don’t stand on their own. If you want the story to be interesting you need to subvert or add surprise. ‘All cats hunt, but mine hunts other cats.’ ‘I like to wear orange because it hides the burns.’ But that boils down to your own personal intent.

Here’s a published example of the style I mean (but using second person rather than first):

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

— Jay McInerney, Brights Lights, Big City

Can you see how McInerney’s intitial sentences add a comforting familiarity of form before he plunges into FPPT proper? Beginning with a natural use of this perspective encourages the reader to hang in there past the opening.

By borrowing a familiar use of FPPT during openings or significant scene changes, you can shepherd readers safely past points where immersion is most troubled. By the time readers hear the squeaky wheel of illogic, they’ll be gripped.

2 thoughts on “The ‘squeaky wheel’ of illogic: present tense with first person”

  1. Hi Jennifer, I agree with you about FPPT—I find it a difficult POV/tense to read. I do like the opening line of ‘The Hunger Games’, though, as it takes the reader straight into the action.

  2. Hi Louise, and thanks for the comment — I’m glad you liked the original opening (you and 50,000,000 other readers can’t be wrong). You’re right that it cuts to the action right away, which for Collins’ audience is probably crucial.

    Still, it gave me the chance to talk about FPPT! Something I’d been meaning to do for a while.

    I hope the redraft’s coming along — you must be nearly through. I’m dying of curiosity!


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