Teachers Write 7.23.16 “On First Person Present” by Dayna Lorentz

Good morning & happy Saturday! Today’s a reflecting-on-craft kind of day, and our guest post is from Dayna Lorentz, the author of the Dogs of the Drowned City series for middle grade readers and the No Safety in Numbers series for teens. Dayna’s here today for some nitty gritty point of view discussion. 

Wrestling with the First Person Present Point of View

When I sat down to write the final book in the No Safety in Numbers trilogy, I wanted my narration to be intense, immediate, and voice-driven, so I used the first person point of view and wrote in the present tense. Once I started putting words on the page, however, I realized the depth and breadth of the hot water this choice put me in: first person, present tense is an incredibly limiting way to tell a story. Here are some of the pitfalls I encountered and some tips on how to get around them.

When writing in the first person, present, you are limited to a single character’s perspective, and also to that character’s immediate experience. Not only is the reader stuck in your narrator’s head, they are stuck with her in her present moment. This fact of the point of view sets boundaries on the story you can tell. The story is constrained by what the narrator can perceive, and the information she understands in that moment within the plot.

However, you can use this limitation to enrich your narrative by creating tension for the reader. For example, have someone tell the narrator something that she doesn’t understand, but that the reader does, building some dramatic irony. Perhaps the narrator overhears an older sister telling a friend about seeing a spirit haunting the bathroom mirror, which the reader knows is teasing, but the narrator is spooked.

You could also build suspense by having the narrator hear an unidentified, but menacing noise coming from somewhere in the setting. An omniscient, third-person narrator would have to tell the reader it’s a window-shutter flapping against the siding, but the first person narrator, limited to her experience, simply hears the clatter and bang and her imagination conjures up the ghost Big Sister described.

Practically speaking, this point of view handcuffs the writer’s ability to use the full toolbox of techniques for telling a story. For example, if you want to include a flashback or give context to a character’s reaction or even describe the scenery, you need to create the space in the plot for that to happen. To continue my example, the narrator can’t dive into her long-standing fear of ghosts brought on by an unfortunate Halloween mishap or even describe the eerie shadows playing across the wallpaper without having to stop on the stairwell, back to the wall, eyes squeezed shut, and reminisce, knowing full well that precious seconds are ticking by as she stands there during which the ghastly ghoul might grab her.

The first person, present point of view also lends itself to rambling. Your book could easily end up a string of thoughts and observations. To avoid this, it is important to put your character into scenes—add another character to the setting or force the narrator to move into a new space. Don’t leave your narrator fretting on the steps, convinced of imminent danger; add Big Sister flipping on the lights and revealing the misunderstanding, perhaps by dragging the poor narrator into the bathroom and confirming the lack of phantoms in the medicine cabinet.

Finally, first person present effortlessly slides into “telling.” Don’t let the narrator blow through a moment by telling the reader, “I feel relieved.” Show her relief by describing the relaxation of her muscles, the quieting of her heartbeat. Let her describe the tree branches outside the window as she recognizes that they, and not some silly specter, made the spooky shadows.

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  1. Dana Kramaroff
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    This is very helpful to me. I wrote my whole MG manuscript and then revised it to first person. I still don’t know if it was the right move but it feels more intimate and the story my MC is telling needs to be told in that way. Thank you for sharing this with us today! (From one Dana to another!)

    • Posted July 23, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      I’m so glad it’s helpful! Trust your instincts–you know how your MC needs to tell his/her story:) best of luck!

  2. Martha Willey
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Dear Dana, thanks for sharing today. I love the advice. I have written several books in first person and it is hard. In one of my books, I started out third person and then switched to first to see which I liked better. Still haven’t decided but now I can look at it with respect to the rambling issue you mentioned. I’m sure that will help. Thanks again.

    • Posted July 23, 2016 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      It’s so hard not to let your character ramble in first person! Just remind him/her that not *every* thought needs to get down on the page;) Best of luck!

      • Posted July 24, 2016 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Such great advice! I fall into this trap often as I write about my own experiences with random acts of kindness. Your advice really hits home for me! Thank you for sharing your experience with these challenges!

        • Posted July 24, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

          So glad you found it helpful! Sometimes you need to let your character ramble. Just remember–it’s only a draft. You can always trim back the verbal overgrowth! Best of luck!

  3. Posted July 23, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Dear Dana,
    Thank you! I’m off to do some re-writing in different points of view and see what possibilities open up.
    Your post is most helpful and inspiring!

    I’ll also add your books to my library wishlist and find you at goodreads!

    Happy Saturday!

    • Posted July 23, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! Glad the post inspired some experimentation! I’m obsessed with POV–it does so much work in the story without the reader even really noticing! Best of luck!

  4. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 23, 2016 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Dayna!

    Not only is it difficult to choose a point of view and tense to write in as a writer. It is equally as difficult to teach this to middle school student writers. When they are writing creatively, they bounce back and forth between past and present tense (sometimes between first and third person). When they write their persuasive/argumentative essays, they want to use “I”, “me” or “my” all of the time.

    This is a great post that gives some concrete examples. Thank you.
    Happy writing!

    • Posted July 23, 2016 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      So glad you enjoyed it! There are times when I get going writing and reread and realize I’ve jumped tense, so I sympathize with your students;) I’m glad you found the post helpful! Best of luck to you *and* your students!

  5. Posted July 24, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I am going to tell you the truth. I have never written in 1st person. I don’t even know how to do it. I’ve been writing for 3.5 years, am a former 7th grade English teacher & K-12 librarian. What do you suggest? I am petrified by it. TY.

    • Posted July 24, 2016 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      I say just jump in and try it! There’s nothing to fear in a draft–it’s your playground! Let your creative self play! Start with, “I need to tell you a secret…” And go from there. See who’s talking to you and what secret they’re harboring. It’s easier than you think! Best of luck!

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