First Person Present Narration

First person present-tense narration is a tricky prospect, and it’s one that starts to break my brain if I think too long about it.

Oddly, for someone who is comfortable with all sorts of wild experimentation and nonrealist twists and turns in fiction — Nonlinear storytelling? Bring it on! Witches on Mars? Sure, why not? — wrapping my head around a first-person narrator who tells a story to the reader as it unfolds sometimes threatens to be more than I can handle. It is, in some respects, a question of suspension of disbelief. Who really keeps a running commentary¬† through their entire day? Is that actually what consciousness is like? Do you honestly expect me to believe this narrator is capable of stringing together coherent sentences while dodging bullets or giving birth or whatever else is happening in your story?

The answer, of course, is, ‘Sure, why not?’ It’s a conceit of storytelling you simply have to accept. The same is true of omniscient third-person narrators. Some part of me revolts at the idea. ‘Where did this narrator come from?’ I want to shout. ‘Doesn’t anybody in this story notice the disembodied voice in the sky???’ (Plenty of writers have taken on this metafictional question, for example: Miguel de Unamuno’s Mist, Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, and the film Strange Than Fiction.)

Like third person narrators, first-person present tense narration doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard, but it’s a technique that allows you to accomplish certain things as a storyteller. It accesses the immediacy of present tense, without sacrificing the intimacy of first person. It lets us experience the events of the story right alongside the protagonist, in the very moment that they happen.

I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to write a good story with first-person present tense narration, or even that I don’t like first-person present tense narratives. There are lots of great first-person present stories out there. But whenever I sit down to write in that voice, I reach a point where I have to interrogate why I’m making this choice: why from this perspective, why at this position in time? Sometimes, I can’t make a good case, or the logistics of maintaining that position are unfeasible (for instance, can you maintain first-person present narration after the narrator dies?). But other times, the choice yields valuable benefits for a story, and it’s just the kind of illogic I need.

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