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First Person Present Tense Narration In Teen Novels, by Beth Revis

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis

The first YA book I read that used first person present tense was Libba Bray’s epically beautiful A Great and Terrible Beauty. I don’t think I really noticed it until one of the characters “says” something rather than “said” something, and once I noticed it I couldn’t un-notice it. It was definitely something new to me, and I found it fascinating.

Many novels, including my own, have been written in first present – including, notably, the Hunger Games books. In fact, it wasn’t until I read The Hunger Games that I realized the real power that first person present tense can have.

There are two features of first person present tense that we have to consider: the appeal of a first person point of view and the appeal of present tense.

First person: This is a point of view that lends itself ideally to YA literature. Most teens – most people, honestly – want to escape into a novel. They want to experience the world of the story along with the characters. By using the first person point of view, the characters have more immediate accessibility to the reader. You’re not reading about Katniss shooting the arrow, you shoot the arrow as Katniss. Ultimately, what a first person point of view gives to the reader is accessibility.

Present tense: This is a tone of voice that also lends itself ideally to YA literature. The key here is immediacy. This is what brings a whole new appeal to high-stakes stories such as The Hunger Games – rather than telling the reader what happened in the past you’re letting the reader experience what’s happening to the character as it is happening. Additionally, when you’re dealing with a life-or-death situation with the characters, you have the additional fear that the characters won’t make it to the end of the story. In a novel told in present tense, the characters – particularly the narrating character – might not survive to the end. If you want to see just how powerful that underlying fear can be in a novel, check out Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner’s These Broken Stars.

In the end, first person present tense is so often used and so popular among teens because of the two simple traits of accessibility and immediacy. That’s one of the things that makes YA literature stand out – and one of the things that keeps the reader turning the pages long into the night.

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Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com

Beth Revis’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

   

United Kingdom (and beyond)

   

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Across the UniverseA Million Suns (Across the Universe)Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)    I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeDark Hunter (Villain.Net)Code Name VerityHold Me Closer, Necromancer

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great article :) Nice to see an advocate of first person present tense.

    I find that some people can be a bit snobbish of it, but I find it really engaging; there’s a different element to reading something that’s *happening*. I want my readers to feel that same sense of excitement that I have when I’m writing.

    April 4, 2013
  2. Few things make me stop reading a book faster than seeing that oversaturated first-person present tense fad! It’s worked well for me in certain kinds of memoirs, books narrated by very young children, stream-of-consciousness type books, and maybe a few other instances. But I’ve reached a point where I wonder if all these writers, both published and hoping to be published, are only choosing FPP because it’s such a fad, and they feel it’s somehow expected or required. It’s such a bizarre, non-intuitive, awkward way to tell a story. So many books that otherwise interested me ended up as DNF because that tense/POV combo just ripped me right out of the story. The entire time, I was hyper-consciously aware of reading a story in present tense, not forgetting about tense and getting lost in the flow of the story.

    I write some of my books in third-person omniscient present, but that was a conscious decision based on the types of stories they are, and this was YEARS before present tense was so common. Personally, I feel that to write present tense well, and to have a sense for what type of story merits that lesser-used device, one has to have experience in writing past tense first. There’s a reason it’s been the default for so many years. Other than my Russian historicals and my contemporary historical family saga, everything I write is in past tense. I really, really hope this FPP fad goes away soon! I’m so happy every time I see a current YA that’s actually in third-person for a change.

    April 4, 2013
    • While there are definitely writers who choose to narrate their novel in first person present tense because of the popularity of teen novels like The Hunger Games, or because they consider it to now be the default style for teen novels, there are also many other motivations for choosing first person present tense.

      A few of these motivations can include:
      A writer might have a background in writing for screen or stage, where standard practice is to write in present tense, but also want readers to have access to the thoughts of their main character.
      A writer’s favourite novel, or the last novel they read before beginning their own novel, might have been written in first person present tense, helping that style come to mind without the writer thinking too much about what style of narration they are using.
      A writer’s storytelling strategy might rely on presenting their story via the limited perspective of a character within the story-world who doesn’t know what happens after the events they are narrating at each point in the story, or the dynamic created when several narrator characters within the story-world, each with their limited perspective, interact without knowledge of future events in the story and without knowledge the reader gains about the experiences of the other character.

      April 5, 2013
  3. Amen. I keep hearing editors & agents claim that first person present tense is overdone & dead. Wrong. It’s powerful & compelling when done right. Thanks for standing up for it.

    April 4, 2013

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