So, back in 2004 I came up with a concept for a story. Literally a decade later, outraged by just how bad a novel could make the New York Times Best Seller list I put my money where my mouth is and started.
Now, starting was easy. Like just over 3000 words easy, straight of the bat. Direct in to MS word (my first novel – If only I had known!). Done. I was astounded.
I had set myself up.
You see I had wanted to put the reader right there, they were playing the part of the protagonist, and only one way to do the that was by using first person, present tense.
It was immediate, it was frightening, it was visceral, exciting, and enticing.
It was creating a rod for my back.
For those who have never tried, the first person, present tense form is hard, and I would argue the hardest of all the forms of storytelling there is. That’s a statement right there, huh? Where’s Flynn going with this, eh?
Well, look at any story you like and ask where the reader is getting all of the information from. Usually the story is not told by the protagonist, it is told about the protagonist. ‘The protagonist does stuff’ – my fictional four-year old, sitting on the sofa next to me, just said. And she is right. That is the readers’ first source of information for the story: What the protagonist does.
Florence (she has a name now) gets stories, she loves them. She loves to imagine. She says she does, so we have to believe her. And right there is the other source of information: What the protagonist says, and of course, how they say it.
From those things alone we could probably have a fair bit of a story understood, Florence and I, but we do need a bit more. Thankfully we have the descriptions of: What the protagonist encounters.
These are selectively described according to their relevance, or ability to entertain us, or to convince us of where, when, how, or in what context, the story is taking place. They could be dark things, bright things, scary things, or lovely things (any kind of thing) but they are described and now we are really flying. What’s more, those descriptions can be about what the protagonist thinks of them or how they react to them, or they can be about what they don’t think, or even notice about them. In the first person, present tense you can’t describe what the protagonist is not noticing or thinking about. Take Arthur’s example to Saito in Inception ‘I tell you not to think about elephants, what do you think about?’ we know the answer. So in the first person present tense, you can only faithfully reflect the protagonists experience otherwise you are taking the reader out of that character.
But wait, there’s more, for the third person writer it isn’t just about being released from the first person, present tense experience. No, it actually gets even easier, because look, in the third person almost anything can be brought in from anywhere. A new character can be introduced or followed about without any reference to the main protagonist at all. 5,000 miles away in a dark cave…
The present tense does not lend itself to that, and the first person, present tense does not allow it at all.
This is the present problem (all right it was, I got past it – this is a story, not a cry for help!), you see, once you are in the first person, you can only tell the story form that persons point of view. 5,000 miles away in a cave… no longer works, you have to be there in the cave to know about it, or someone has to tell you, and if they do you have to explain why they know. It’s a form that means you must take time to find a way for the protagonist to encounter, experience, or engage, with everything in the story. If Dr X is in his secret laboratory deep underground, 5,000 miles away in a cave that no one knows about, plotting the downfall of your protagonist, civilisation, the capitalist system, the feminist movement, the production of alcohol, or cat videos, your protagonist doesn’t know about it. What happens in the room next door is a mystery to the protagonist unless they actually go there, or Dr X comes out of the room with the magic balloons and the gun.
‘Does Dr X have my magic balloons’, Florence asks, and well she might, we don’t know because our protagonist doesn’t know.
To find out do we bring Dr X in as a character who is going to start telling the story (first person, present tense, of course)? Most story tellers will agree; telling the story from the bad guy’s point of view AND the good guy’s point of view is not going to lead to a coherent story. That can work in a film, No Country for Old Men is a classic example, but truthfully, even film tries to avoid that in the majority of cases. Star Wars with the Emperor’s take on it? No thanks. Sherlock Holmes with cuts to the bad guys? No, we want to follow the hero (probably) through their quest, or struggle, or experience and arrive at the finale with them.
Florence is disappointed so I have promised to buy her magic balloons tomorrow.
But the first person present tense is exciting for precisely this reason. You have to wait to experience things with the protagonist, through the protagonist. As the writer, you just can’t cheat that. So you work out ways to ensure you create characters and experiences suited to the task. And then you complete your book and say, ‘never again’.
Because there is a reason writers tend not to do it. It is dammed hard.
You can’t talk about the beautiful sunset if your character doesn’t notice it, you can’t mention how cold the rain feels if your character is isolated from it by six feet of concrete, you can’t talk about the agony of another person’s experience if your character doesn’t know, or care (it happens).
So you start the next story. The fingers start doing their magic thing across the keyboard and it comes out – as the bloody first person, and in the present tense. Because it is so hard to get in to that way of writing that you now can’t help it. Then thousands of words in you realise you just can’t do this again, not another 150,000 words of it. So you go back, you re-work that first few thousand, and then have the time of your life, doing it the easy way. Crossing continents in the blink on eye to fulfil the desire to feed your reader that bit of information that will progress the story for them. You finish the book it record time. Florence hasn’t even had another birthday (or magic balloons, she points out, before asking also if I can finish this so we can go and play in the fictional sand pit). All is good in the world.
Then people ask for the follow up to the last book, that one which people found so interesting, and unusual – and written from such a unique perspective.
Far from looking to the future, or living in the past, you are stuck in the present tense again, praying that this time you can get it all out in just 125,000 words and that Dr X will hurry up and make the mistake that reveals his plan, because your protagonist is currently looking back from the screen, laughing at you,
‘Fool! you thought you were clever!’
I did, yes, I did. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again – but this time I will kill my protagonist off, because I can’t do this another time.
My protagonist isn’t laughing now.