First Person Tense. It’s Tense.

Every time I kill someone, their soul lands on the far side of the Styx. The ferryman that navigates the river knows the faces of my victims well since I kill them regularly.

This is the opening of my debut novel, THE FOURTH CHANNEL.

Debut. n. Fancy word for “I rewrote this enough times to qualify for a half dozen new novels”.

Right away, you can see that I went with first person perspective. I did this for a very technical and artistic reason that will blow your mind: This guy said all new writers should avoid first person and I took it as a challenge.

In my defense, his reasoning is that first person perspective demands a strong, unique voice and I was convinced I could do it. I wanted to grow as a writer and thought it would be smart to go the hardest route, upstream without a paddle, dragging the remnants of sad first drafts behind me.

So I did. It took me a few rewrites, but I accomplished it! Ha! Showed you, James N. Frey! Proudly, I handed my brilliantly crafted novel off to someone for editing — an anal-retentive, OCD programmer with a strict, by-the-book grip on grammar who upholds the Oxford comma with an unholy passion: My spouse. And then I waited for his gushing over my story to begin.

He didn’t. Instead, a nervous smile flickered at the corner of his mouth and he said, “Um, I’m having a problem with the first sentence.”

And that’s when my problems began.

Third person perspective, which I had a lot of experience in writing, is all done in past tense. Period. First person perspective, on the other hand, is a whole new ball of wax. So what my spouse-ditor (get it?) read was:

Every time I killed someone, their soul landed on the far side of the Styx.

So, she stopped killing people? Maybe just cutting back a bit? Or maybe they’re no longer landing near the Styx — maybe they land in it. The tense here is just too confusing. It makes the reader stop and think, and not in a good way. What’s going on here?

As the story opens, our protagonist is standing on the plane of the dead, watching her cousin sail across the river Styx — so it’s not in the past, it’s in the present. Plus, this is a world law. It will always happen. The verbs all have to be changed to reflect that. As I warmed up to the idea of present tense, I found that I even liked it. The direct, active voice really grabbed me.

I was pretty sure I had a grasp of this until recently when a friend started making line item edits for me. Guess what came up? The past/present tense issue. He had notes sprinkled all over the pages, asking why it wasn’t in past tense. This friend is quite the grammar Nazi and also knows what he’s talking about, so I became a mite frustrated.

Which is right? Is it present tense, or isn’t it?

Luckily, just before I imploded, we found a word of wisdom. Holly Lisle has an article on her blog about this, called Time and First Person. I won’t say that she totally cleared everything up because, as she clearly says, this can get “pretty messy.” What it comes down to is a matter of time. The key is to think of your protagonist breaking away from the story for a few minutes to catch their breath, and is now sitting down to tell you what just happened. As soon as they’re finished, they’ll re-enter the story. So the actions will be past, but the “laws” of the world/story will be present. Thusly:

Every time I kill someone, their soul lands on the far side of the Styx. (World Law #1) The ferryman that navigates the river knows the faces of my victims well since I kill them regularly. (World Law #2) Some are killed more than others — my cousin gets it weekly. (World Law #3)

When I emerged through the dense cluster of souls at the Drift Line, he was on the other side of the river, boarding the ferryman’s rickety little boat. (Story/Action – Past Tense)

Clear as mud? Awesome. It takes a little bit of working with but, as soon as the ideas behind it become solid, it can manipulate some very strong statements. Needless to say, I’m thrilled with how this is shaping up.

6 thoughts on “First Person Tense. It’s Tense.

  1. First person can use past or present tense, there’s no rule about that. It just needs to be consistent, you can’t switch back and forth while describing the same event. “I press the accelerator. I felt the car move forward.”

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  2. I love that first person present tense example! Great first paragraph in general. It’s intriguing.

    Some people have a thing against present tense in general, but I just love it. I wrote my first (unpublished as yet) novel in present tense and I like it that way.

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  3. Hi Perri, thanks for your encouraging words! I’ve heard pretty nasty things about first person, too, but when it’s well done, it can accomplish so much. It definitely takes a lot of work to master, but when everything aligns… Oh, what a feeling!

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  4. I have been thinking about this subject for the past few days! I was really glad to run across this post. And that first sentence is making me wonder when this debut novel is going to debut because I loved it.

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  5. Thanks Aden! I’m hoping to have it out in a few months. My editors are hard at work, sending lots of stuff for me to correct, and my illustrator (cover art!) is already on the case. I’m very excited about it.

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