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Author Topic: First Person Present
Corin224
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So, I just finished reading The Hunger Games. Yeah, I know, old topic, and I honestly feel like I'm about the last person on the bandwagon, but bear with me.

For the record, I despise First Person Present viewpoints. Always have, still do, in fact, and it jars me right out of the story when I see it. It did with this one, too. I read the first page and had to put the book down and go read some reviews to convince myself it would be worth the slog.

I got through the first chapter and had to do the same thing again.

Three days later, I picked it up and read it through, cover to cover in one session that started at 11:30pm and ended at 3:15am. I haven't buried myself in a story that intensely since my marathon 7-day Wheel of Time slog. (There were only 7 at the time, and I finished Crown of Swords at 9:30pm on day 7 having read non-stop for every waking hour for a week. I highly recommend reading binges like that from time to time.)

So, it's fair to say the FP-Present viewpoint isn't a barrier for me anymore. But I went back and peeked at some more FP-Present stories, and I still can't stand them, but I finally think I know why.

First Person viewpoints are inherently about directing attention. It's a bit easier with past tense, such as Dresden Files, because you're being told a story. The MC is free to build suspense, withhold info judiciously, goof around with the reader with humorous editorials about their own actions, and generally mix it up a bit. It's in the past, feel free to re-tell it your own way.

FP-Present is FAR more constraining, and it takes a masterful writier to be able to play around within those constraints.

I think present is so hard because the attention MUST be in a single place at a time. What Hunger Games does so well is track Katniss's attention perfectly. I saw a thread in here from a couple years ago wondering how the author makes Katniss such a sympathetic character so quickly, and while KDW's response is spot on, I think there's more to it.

The astounding thing about Hunger Games is how the importance of information is very rarely addressed directly. We just know very quickly . . . if Kat is paying attention to it, it's important. Where her attention shifts, that's where ours goes, and so much about what's important to her, where her priorites are, what her fears are, her intelligence, is communicated by simply having her pay attention to them.

I'm not sure we ever see Kat directly describe an adrenaline rush, the terror she feels, the heavy dread of a situation . . . something happens (in a brief description), she says her perspective of it, the thoughts of the consequences flash through her head, and she acts to prevent them. Oddly enough, that's the same way you and I perceive our own lives. Something happens, we perceive it, process it, and react to it. Over and over again in this book, we see simply the stimulus, the perception, the motivation, and the action, and VERY little description outside of that. There are exceptions, most of which are in the 'motivation' part of that formula, but I think one of the reasons the story works so well is that it very rarely deviates from the formula.

[Edit-Added Paragraph]
The other astounding thing that happens in this book is that at times, Katniss skips over HUGE swathes of information. She generalizes her experience down into a few sentences that sum up hours or days (or in the second book over a week) of experiences. As with our own perception of time, the unimportant stuff gets generalized away, and the very important stuff gets that laser-focus, and we learn SO MUCH about Kat because of it. In the second book, the visit to District 11 is an amazingly powerful chapter (or more) long experience, and the other districts and some normally quite important life-events are summed up in a paragraph . . . because they were meaningless in her perspective. Again, it's where her attention is that matters almost more than anything else.
[End Edit]

I'm going to be re-reading Hunger Games for a LONG time trying to soak in all the lessons I learned about writing from it. I'm very much obsessed with it at the moment, which hasn't happened to me since Ender's Game. Even if (as with the Ender series) the rest of the series falls flat for me, that book will probably stand out for me and influence my writing for the rest of my life.

THAT is First Person Present done RIGHT! And quite honestly, I have yet to see it anywhere else.

[ December 15, 2011, 11:41 AM: Message edited by: Corin224 ]

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Robert Nowall
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Try some Damon Runyon.
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extrinsic
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First person present is a little on the hard to read side for a couple reasons. One, it's an extremely close narrative distance. Narrative distance involves orientation related to persons, times, places, situations, attitudes, and awarenesses. Katniss' immediate, personal now time is the orientation center of all the above. Danger close narrative distance, potentially voyeuristically creepy, but effective when masterfully done.

Two, first person present is an extremely subjective narrative voice, open to unreliability, bias, interpretation, and question. Building audience rapport and trust in Katniss' reporting and maintaining that connection is paramount for that voice to work artfully.

First person present has limits, though. No reporting events or times, places, or situations or from persons or attitudes or awarenesses not in the central viewpoint character's immediate personal perception. Losing touch with the central character's immediate, personal viewpoint is losing touch with the narrator and opening touch with the writer, opening narrative distance so far that the willing suspension of disbelief, secondary setting attraction, and participation mystique spells are broken.

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MartinV
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I'm writing in first person present right now. Didn't like it much either, until I saw it work well in Hunger Games. So I'm giving it a try. If it doesn't work, I can still change it to past later.
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LDWriter2
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First of all I want to say that I haven't read Hunger Games, don't think I've even seen the books in person-- maybe one of them. It doesn't seem my type of story.

But maybe I will a second look. If only because I can't picture First Person Present in my mind. I must have read at least a couple stories and/or book in FPP but I can't recall how it goes. Of course I may not have realized that was what I was reading.


I'm reading through a novel for Critters.org, it's in First Person but something doesn't seem right. I wonder if it's in FPP. I need to see how the tenses go when I read the next two chapters.

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Pyre Dynasty
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Why I don't like FPP is because the writing/telling of the story is important to me. I like to know where the story comes from. When I read, "I am slaying the dragon," I say, no you're not you are writing a story.
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LDWriter2
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Well, writing some stories is almost like slaying a dragon.

Or they may consider that by writing the story the dragon will be slain. [Smile]


Even though I get your point and I see why you would feel that way even though I'm not sure if I would.

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enigmaticuser
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I was just thinking that life happens in FPP and yet in my dreams at least, I always see it Third Person Present. Outside of "there I was" stories, I can't think of a real life instance of FPP. "So, I'm running along when out of nowhere the cop swings around the corner me with the bag of fresh basil. And I'm like 'he so thinks this is weed.'"

I'm with Pyre, I think the problem with FPP (have not read hunger games) and I'm not against it, but the downfall is that it seems foreign because I have very limited thoughts. I see a car, I don't explain the car to myself, I observe it. If you don't know what a car is and you were inside my head, the word would have no meaning.

But then, in my mind I see the image as well, I do not describe the image, but for the reader the image must be described. So FPP is by definition the narrator's interpretation of the FPP "I see in his mind, a gun, black, leathal device with a menacing 40 caliber spitter." Where Third is by acknowledgment someone else over the shoulder.

To be done masterfully, it would seem there has to be such a connection, such an invisibility of narration, that almost nothing is explained and the reader has to deduce almost everything or hold it already in common.

I shall have to read Hunger Games I think.

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KayTi
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I'm about to finish writing a novel that is first person present that didn't become obvious to me until about chapter 3 that THIS was what THIS story required and how I had to tell it to make it make sense. Thankfully there's only a few bits I have to go back and correct (because I flip-flopped on past/present in those first 3 chapters until I realized what was going on.)

It's a storytelling choice. Like many things, I believe if you make the conscious choice and understand the implications you're fine. (I always always always right tight/close viewpoints - either single POV limited third or straight first, so the limitation of only being able to see/understand what's in the MC's head is not a big deal to me. That's always the case.)

What's been interesting to me is how using FPP has changed my storytelling, and not necessarily in a bad way! I found I had to choose different words than what I might have normally selected, different ways of saying something.

Things like, "I have no idea where my energy is coming from. I feel the sword in my left hand like a leaden weight, the blisters on my palm slicing into my consciousness as I tighten my grip. It's just me and the dragon now. His red eyes regard me. I so desperately want to look away but I know I can't. The whole village is counting on me, but it's not them I'm worried about. All I care about is protecting my sister and she's in the hut the dragon's about to burn. And so I leap at him from my perch on the rock. Blood drips from my hand as the blisters tear. My mouth is open and I'm shouting louder than I thought my voice would go, screaming insults at the dragon, drawing his attention to me."

It's a fascinating experience writing this way. Definitely worth a try for a short story or a short writing exercise if you've never done it before, it forces a different kind of storytelling (and depending on what you typically write, you may find it to be incredibly difficult to stay in present tense. It was hard for me at first until my brain clicked over. Now I have to be careful editing other works until I'm done with this one or I risk trying to turn them over to present!)

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LDWriter2
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I'm going to have to look for "Hunger Games" as I said somewhere along the way, I don't think I have ever seen it in person. Read articles about it, seen it advertised on-line and in B&N E-mails, read discussions here about it but not seen it.

Maybe it sells out before I get to the store. [Smile]

But in either case I think I can just read a few pages or a chapter to get the idea of FPP.

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Corin224
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So, I finished the series Sat. morning and noticed something during my read.

Once I started paying attention, I realized there are many places in these books where that FPP voice slips into something else . . . not quite sure what, but definitely more of a narrative than FP. It works though, and feels fairly natural, and becomes MUCH more prevalent in the last two books. But it's not strictly FPP. If you want to study that narrative viewpoint, I think the first book is the one to look at.

Oh, and as a side note . . . I know writers are a sadistic bunch but good grief! I'm not sure I've ever seen a writer so thoroughly destroy their MCs as in this series. I was kind of hoping for more than an Epilogue worth of putting the pieces back together.

Brutal series. Decent, but the first book is definitely the one that shines.

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KayTi
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@Corin, your notes on sadism are precisely why I warn all the parents and kids I talk with (I'm known for reading tons of kid lit, and good friends with the school librarian) that while Hunger Games might be okay for an advanced 5th grade reader, most kids should hold off reading books 2 and 3 until they're older, teens at least is my general rule of thumb. You have to get to a place of perspective to realize that there are crappy situations in life that don't resolve into happy endings before this book series doesn't cause you to want to off yourself. Or so is my opinion. [Wink] But I'm SHOCKED at how many really young kids are reading it. My sister's son's 5th grade teacher read it ALOUD to the class last year (and has done so with her 5th graders for years she says!) While I have a 5th grader who might read it this year (and is an extremely advanced/mature reader) it will only be with loads of conversation and the option to put it down if it gets to be too much. And even then I've suggested since he first asked about the book a year or so ago that he wait because it is so intense.

Excellent, yes, but intense, oy! And lots of dark psychological places, which I don't know that a lot of kids would be able to handle (or even understand well enough to appreciate the story.)

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LDWriter2
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Corin, on a thread somewhere around here, we have discussed how some of the newer writers do seem to be sadistic when it comes to treating their MC. I haven't noticed it so much myself but one or two here have stated that there is a large number of new writers who do this.

So the writer of Hunger Games--I forget their name at the moment-- is not alone. It almost seems to be a new rage with certain writers.

I may be subconsciously avoiding those books because I really don't like that type of plot.

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Corin224
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*chuckle*

I wasn't really meaning sadistic in a negative sense. I mean stop and think for a second, you have to ENJOY putting your MCs into tough situations which test their emotions, their resolve, their intelligence, and watch them fail repeatedly until they finally get to the end. If they succeed the first time out, that's a horribly boring story. The good writers are the ones who get a kick out of putting their characters in at the very least intense discomfort, if not outright pain, but then watching them succeed.

Just go watch a few TV shows (though sitcoms aren't the best example) and take a look at the storylines of the lead characters. How many spouses have left? How many affairs? How many deaths in the family? How many bullets have they taken? How many of them have been kidnapped while their partners track them down?

THAT was more what I meant by writers being "a sadistic bunch". And a story like Hunger Games can't possibly succeed without the characters experiencing a lot of very real trauma. I'm ready for that when I pick up a book about two dozen kids being forced to fight to the death. And the first book is nearly perfect, IMHO. Still not kids material, by a LONG shot, but it's spectacular.

My thing is that by the end of the third book, every one of the "Victors" has been broken, especially the MC. And when I say broken . . . physically, mentally, emotionally . . . absolutely destroyed. Okay, I can go with that, but if you're gonna give me some semblance of a 'happily ever after' it really oughta be more than a few paragraphs in the epilogue.

It's still a moving story, it rings far too true to be dismissed out of hand, and it has affected me profoundly in a way that most stories never even come close to doing.

But I couldn't possibly recommend it anybody I know. Perhaps the first book, but . . . even that, I'm not so sure.

Don't get me wrong, though. I admire Suzanne Collins deeply. For one, it's the type of story I wish I could write (maybe not so extreme, but powerful) and after watching the trailer for the movie, it's clear she knows how to translate her vision to the screen. Her and OSC are the only two writers I've ever heard of getting Producer roles in the movie versions of their books, which is exactly the path I dream of my career taking. You could do worse than to use her as an example, and looking at her resume, she has definitely earned every bit of the acclaim she's getting.

So please don't take the sadism comment as a condemnation. Far from it. Just don't expect a happy story if you decide to read it.

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MartinV
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quote:
Originally posted by Corin224:

Oh, and as a side note . . . I know writers are a sadistic bunch but good grief!

You're telling me! Check my blog and you'll see my review of Hunger Games. And I thought I was a seasoned sadist when it comes to my characters!
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LDWriter2
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Corin, I may have misinterpreted you comment or taken it too literally. You're right about putting your characters through a lot of heavy stuff. Even though I know of a couple successful writers who keep the danger and trauma down a little compared to a lot of writers.

But I took that comment about the epilogue to mean that she is a member of the cliche who seem to traumatize and kill their characters for no reason. There is no happy ending or even a hint of one because the hero lost and was killed.

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Corin224
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@MartinV - I've been giving people basically that same review. Book 1 - spectacular . . . no reservations. Book 2 - I couldn't put it down, but it just felt epic and heavy and wan't exactly fun. Book 3 - A serious exploration of just how far humans will go to inflict pain on each other . . . and how much they will suffer for the sake of a loved one. Rewarding, riveting, impossible to stop reading, and deeply miserable and saddening, simply for the sheer truthfulness of it all.

@LD - Definitely not just killing off the MCs or torturing simply for the sake of "a tragic ending". It's a very rewarding story, but just downright horrifying, every step of the way through the final book. It's certainly not for the faint of heart.

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LDWriter2
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I can see how it would be powerful and horrifying at the same time. I have read stories like that which weren't all that bad.
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