Something Is Breathing in My Ear

I’m lying in bed, and cars are passing outside as if everything is normal, but there’s hot breath against my skin. I live alone.

What is it about first-person present that people find hard to connect with?

I’ve seen it said by some that they can’t read stories written in that tense because it’s unbelievable. “Someone wrote the story, right? So it’s already happened, it can’t be happening as I read it.”

Seems to me that those folks are missing the point entirely. This is about immersion. It’s about being in the story, not outside it. Whether it’s first person or third (or the even rarer second), this tense is all about presence. Experiencing along with the character, not after everything is done and the character is telling you over a shot and a beer. (Or a hot cup of tea, or a mug of coffee, or whatever.) To my mind, the people who claim that “someone wrote it already, so it can’t be happening” are making an excuse. Do they also avoid watching any visual entertainment that isn’t live? When we watch a movie or a tv show, we’re experiencing it in the moment. Yes, it’s been recorded in some manner, but we’re seeing it in our real time. The dialogue is, for the most part, in present tense. What’s happening to the characters is happening in their present time. Does that make it somehow lesser? Is its worth less because it’s not live? Because we’re not physically there? Perhaps this is reductive, but so be it. I think the point remains valid.

It’s the same, to me, with first-person present narratives. Obviously someone has written it because I’m reading it. But beyond that fact, there’s the art of pulling the reader in so thoroughly they forget about it having been written, and allow themself to experience the story alongside the characters.

Here’s a short article from Mignon Fogarty (the Grammar Girl) with her take on the topic.

We don’t agree, and that’s okay. The point isn’t to find someone who agrees; it’s to think about the experience and form an opinion. Is first-person present just “edgy,” or is it skillful? Is it annoying, or is it engrossing? This isn’t a new undertaking. Updike’s Rabbit, Run is two years younger than me. Damon Runyon (whose short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” became the musical “Guys and Dolls”) predates Updike’s novel by nearly thirty years. If you tried a first-person book before and didn’t like it, perhaps it’s time to try again. If you’ve never tried reading one, I suggest you take a chance. And if you (still) don’t like it? That’s all right.

I’m just an editor, standing in front of readers, asking them to try a present-tense narrative.

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