I’ve been holding this question in my drafts for a while now, but I read a couple of articles in Writers Write today that spurred me on to finally ask:
How do you decide on viewpoint? Is there ever a time when first person present works better than past tense in the book or the essay you’re writing?
The articles I read were geared more toward memoirs in book form, but I grabbed this quote as a starter for this conversation:
Viewpoint is the lens through which you tell your story. Viewpoint affects the mood in a story. As I explained in How Viewpoint Works: ‘First person is intimate, second person is alienating, and third person is more comfortable.”
I looked back on my own pieces to see if I’ve ever used first person present and it looks like I haven’t. I remember experimenting with it in my earlier days, but it never felt comfortable. It felt fake. Still, I’ve read enough present tense to know that in the right hands it can be magic. If it’s done right it can read like poetry.
Until I read it in the article today, I never picked up that Frank McCourt wrote much of ‘Angela’s Ashes’ in first person present. I’ve read that book twice, and never noticed!
In the scenes where he’s vividly remembering a childhood event he switches and he’s in the present. He leaves the past without fanfare, from one paragraph to the next.
And it works because he’s Frank McCourt and this is how he wanted it to be.
A year later another child was born. Angela called him Malachy, after his father, and gave him a middle name, Gerard, after his father’s brother.
The McNamara sisters said Angela was a rabbit and wanted nothing more to do with her till she came to her senses.
Their husbands agreed.
I’m in a playground on Classon Avenue with my brother, Malachy. He’s two, I’m three. We’re on a seesaw.
Up, down, up, down.
Malachy goes up.
I get off.
Malachy goes down. Seesaw hits the ground. He screams. His hand is on his mouth and there’s blood.
I wonder, now that I see the technique, how effective that book would have been without those present tense flashbacks? He forces us to be right there. In the moment. When he was a kid. And then we’re back with the storyteller, grown up now, as he moves the events forward.
What if he had written the entire book in present tense? Or past tense? Would it have diminished the power of the flashbacks? I think it would have. I think the mix may be what makes that book so amazing.
I think, too, that most writers couldn’t pull off changing tenses from paragraph to paragraph, without line breaks or chapter changes. Have you seen this before? Does it jump out at you, or can it appear so natural that you, like me, might not even notice?
So let’s talk about this. Most writing is in past tense, and it’s true that it’s the most comfortable, but if you’ve played with tenses what have you discovered? How does it hit you if you’re the reader?
Comments, as always, are open to everyone.
If you like what you read here, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Each new post will appear in your inbox, but not so often that you’ll dread seeing them.
Excellent question. When I get the right viewpoint for my fiction or for memoir, it's like finding one's seat on a horse. It feels as if you and the horse are moving as one. I've found the same goes for writing, not just riding:) For example, in my historical novel, Counting on Grace, I tried everything else first and finally landed on first person, present tense because I'd forced myself to write a diary for my main character. That brought her close to me and in the end, to the reader.
Oh my goodness, Ramona. Thank you for the question! In truth, because I am such a newbie, I don’t know if I have even considered what tense I may be writing in… L O L. In these few months since I started a blog and am now exploring Substack, my practice has been simply to sit and let what I call a “download “ occur. Then from there I go back and edit, edit, edit.
I worked with a lawyer in the corporate world for a number of years and he was what I considered a master wordsmith. He taught me much and I felt I had acquired a certain skill set. But, now, you have prompted me to stop and take a closer look. So thank you so much!