First-person present v third-person past, examples

HareBrain

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Over the years I've read quite a few people say they tend to avoid first-person, or present tense, or the unholy combination of the two. I wrote a novel in first-present a while back and am now hoping to do something with it, and it occurred to me that it would be easy to convert it to third-past and still keep most of the voice.

The question is, is there any benefit? Below is a (condensed) section, in the original form and then converted. Regardless of whether it makes a huge amount of sense out of context, does anyone find a marked difference in feel between the two? Would anyone shun the first, but not the second, and if so, why?


First-present:

Mum said no gawping at the Crazies, but she won’t know. The cart’s near the East Street entrance, same as ever. I hang a few metres back. No point drawing their attention.

‘It’s all in the sky!’ A woman’s shouting, blood wet on her forehead. ‘Emptiness forever! An endless nothing! And you think it’s different down here, you think keeping your eyes down will help? We’re all as empty and dead as the sky. All of us!’

She glares around. Her eyes tangle with mine. Here we go.

Him!’ A finger stabs at me. ‘Why are you just standing there?’ she screams at the guards. ‘You’ve got spears! Kill him!’

Another joins in — ‘Get him! Kill him!’ — and now all the Crazies are shouting for my death, even the old guy, blood-masked faces twisted, eyes uncalmed and raging white. Gets me shaking, like it always does. Me and death, and only cage-bars between.


Third-past:

His mum had said no gawping at the Crazies, but she wouldn’t know. The cart was near the East Street entrance, same as ever. He hung a few metres back. No point drawing their attention.

‘It’s all in the sky!’ a woman was shouting, blood wet on her forehead. ‘Emptiness forever! An endless nothing! And you think it’s different down here, you think keeping your eyes down will help? We’re all as empty and dead as the sky. All of us!’

She glared around. Her eyes tangled with Yuri’s. Here we go.

Him!’ A finger stabbed at him. ‘Why are you just standing there?’ she screamed at the guards. ‘You’ve got spears! Kill him!’

Another joined in — ‘Get him! Kill him!’ — and now all the Crazies were shouting for his death, even the old guy, blood-masked faces twisted, eyes uncalmed and raging white. Got him shaking, like it always did. Him and death, and only cage-bars between.
 
I always think of writing first-present as a highly emotional tense — every thought and feeling is vivid, desperate, intense. First-past is more measured and always feels a bit like clipping the wings of 1st present.

I’ve got a soft spot for 1st present (my love for angst is perfectly suited for it!) and I wrote Hunted as a combo of first present and past for the above reasons. I think you might be hard pressed to find people who can stick with a whole novel of 1st present though... but i know you can pull it off, HB :)
 
There was perhaps a slight lessening of intensity in the third-past version, providing a slightly calmer feel. On the other hand, it might just be me thinking that's what's there, rather than what is there, because I'm trying to judge them rather than just reading them. :confused:

I'm not a big fan of present tense, but I recall that when I read the whole thing, it didn't bother me after the first few pages, and the first person narration meant Yuri's distinctive voice came over well, especially at the beginning, which might not transfer entirely to third person. Having said that, on balance I think I'd prefer third person past. It might help in situations which are a bit confusing, when you'd be able to give a little more information without it jarring in quite the way it might with Yuri narrating. It would also allow you to change POV if you needed to -- I know you could anyway, but it would be easier in third past -- which might be no bad thing.

To me, first person present is very much a young adult convention. If you're planning on marketing it as a YA novel, then I'd leave the tense alone since your readership is used to it and are more likely to get antsy if it doesn't meet their expectations. If, though, you don't want it to be an obvious YA novel, then it might be an idea to change it over to third past, again to fit reader expectations.
 
I'm trying first in a variant of a gumshoe fantasy detective noir. It couldn't be anything other than first person.
 
The first one works for me; however I love present tense and first person.
You should have tried third present to compare and then
Drop to first past vs third past.
I know it sounds like work, but it's really fun--come-on--give it a try.

Note:and afterthought::
Even though I said that the first one worked better there is something strange in that the two pieces are exactly the same and if the empathy and emotion were reaching across to the reader they should be about equal weight with the difference only being in reader preference.

With that much said; the first person present tense seems closer, however I would guess that that is an affectation of the combination propping up the rest of the writing and that overall this piece could use a bit more work to help invest the reader and that is independent of the POV and tense.
 
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I much prefer the first. It's more intense, more involved, more of your voice and style.

When I read The Hunger Games, my first impression was "Oh, my god, it's first-person present?" and I flipped through to see if was all first-person, and it was, and I groaned, and kept reading because I was hooked anyway, and a few pages into it I had forgotten all about it and didn't care anymore. I read all three books, and I loved them.
 
For me it is all about getting into the story. If I've been reading one POV and then switch to the other it jars, the same will be true either way. once settled into the story I'm happy with either. I try to read a few short stories in first-present before starting a novel generally. Otherwise I can miss the best bits of the opening sequence shuffling in my seat trying to transition.
I can get picky with my food if trying to decide which meal to cook. If i'm given one i just tuck in. Much the same with reading really.
All said and done...There is something about this tho.
Him!’ A finger stabs at me. ‘Why are you just standing there?’ she screams at the guards. ‘You’ve got spears! Kill him!’

once into first-present there really is no other way to make the reader sit up quite in the same way. Is there?
 
Thanks for the responses so far. First-present was always my choice for this one, for some reason -- I would never have used it for my published one, and not just because of the multi-POV -- but I wanted to get some idea how many it might put off and how many of those wouldn't be put off if it were directly converted to third-past. (First-past is out, because I cannot envisage a time when future-Yuri would narrate these events, to himself or anyone else. Or not in anything like this voice.)

Having said that, on balance I think I'd prefer third person past. It might help in situations which are a bit confusing, when you'd be able to give a little more information without it jarring in quite the way it might with Yuri narrating. It would also allow you to change POV if you needed to -- I know you could anyway, but it would be easier in third past -- which might be no bad thing.

Are those the reasons you'd prefer it, or would you prefer it anyway and those are just other things to consider? You're right that it could open it up to other POVs, but I've decided not to do that, partly because the story is about isolation.

As for whether it's YA or not, bleaaaargh.
 
I've always found it interesting that YA seem to be the only people who love First Person Present Tense::

As for whether it's YA or not, bleaaaargh.

At 65 it's good to know that the top end of YA can reach this far. (Virginia does often say I act like a thirteen-year-old--is that too young for YA?)
 
Not a fan of present tense (put down two books recently when I realised they were in present tense - one was Hunger Games. Don't care if it got good) because it always makes me feel talked down to especially third present which should just die in a fire.

I like first past. I know you're saying you can't envisage him narrating the events but... in first present he's still narrating them isn't he? Only he's doing it as it's happening, which is even more daft.
 
I liked the first one better, but it might be because it was originally written like that, and the 3rd-past might be a less perfected conversion.

His mum had said no gawping at the Crazies, but she wouldn’t know.
This is the only thing that felt off to me. Could be "said no gawping", instead of "told him not to gawp". I know you tried to keep everything as close to the original as possible, but this bit doesn't work for me in 3rd-past. Tbh, I probably wouldn't have brought it up if it wasn't the first line though.
 
Are those the reasons you'd prefer it, or would you prefer it anyway and those are just other things to consider? You're right that it could open it up to other POVs, but I've decided not to do that, partly because the story is about isolation.
I'd prefer it anyway, and those are extra justifications to show how right I am in coming to that decision. ;) I particularly think it would be helpful at the very end which is confusing, to say the least. Using third-past you can explain what is happening and you wouldn't need to go into another POV/epilogue which might otherwise be needed to clarify what's going on.

As to YA or not YA, you'll have to make a decision since it needs work either way, so if you're serious about doing something with it -- even though you ought to be writing Firestealers Book Three not faffing around with old things -- stop bleurghing and get on and decide.
 
I've always found it interesting that YA seem to be the only people who love First Person Present Tense::

I used it for a lot of short stories when I was doing my masters ~20 years ago, but the first novel I came across in it (this was pre-Hunger Games) was David Mitchell's Number9Dream, still by far and away the best use of it IMO (and which inspired me to try using it in this one). Number9Dream also has a young protagonist, but it isn't at all a YA novel.

I like first past. I know you're saying you can't envisage him narrating the events but... in first present he's still narrating them isn't he? Only he's doing it as it's happening, which is even more daft.

I guess I see first present as trying to dump the character's actual sensory and thought experience into words in real time, so he's not actually aware of narrating it, whereas he would be in past tense. You could argue with the realism of that, but it's how I like to see it. Hunger Games doesn't even really try to do that, in my opinion, which is why, for me, it might as well have been in some other person/tense.

even though you ought to be writing Firestealers Book Three

I have good reasons, I think. This one (or two) might be almost good to go, meaning I could have three or four books out by the year-end rather than two. It would only delay TMP by a month or so.
 
I liked the first one better.

But, I read a lot of YA fantasy, and I've long since gotten past my original aversion to present tense. That, and I think that with practice writers are getting better and better at writing in first person present.

If that sample is anything to go by you do it well.
 

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