This round of writing-related Challenges of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is all about getting further into your protagonist’s head by switching up your point of view.
So here’s your mission, if you choose to accept it:
Write in first-person present tense in order to understand your protagonist better.
Writing in first person (e.g., I said, I did, I thought) when you’re not the “I” in question can be difficult. And writing in present tense is another great way to end up tearing your hair out in frustration, since we’re so used to telling stories as memories instead of actively unfolding events.
But while I don’t encourage first-time writers to tell their whole stories that way, drafting a single scene in first-person present tense can be an eye-opening experience.
Now, I should probably emphasize the first part of that last sentence. Because let me tell you, my fellow creative writers, unless you want a really big challenge – and for the whole year, not just the week – you do not want to try writing your whole story in first-person present tense.
Personally, I’ve been there, done that, and love the results!
Yet I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it was a head-trip writing that way, even as someone who had already composed seven to 10 manuscripts by then.
At the same time, it’s truly phenomenal how much closer an author can get to her main character when she really stops to look at things through her protagonist’s eyes instead of her own. So it’s worth the exercise to write out a single scene, or the first draft of the first chapter, under those guidelines… even knowing full-well that you’ll edit out the tense and person in the very next draft.
To illustrate the value of this challenge, let’s make up a story real quick from a third-person, past-tense point of view. And just for kicks and giggles, I’m going to take one of my own writing prompts that I post on Pinterest throughout the week:
Innovative Editing’s Writing Prompt #17 – The night was still young when that crooked finger bent at her, a beacon Becca very well knew she should ignore.
That’s the prompt. Now here’s a bit more of that set-up scene to play around with:
The woods in front of her weren’t all shadows yet, but the sunlight was definitely on its way out for the day, making the scene even more ominous. And so she shook her head. “How do I know you’re not just going to kill me once I’m out of screaming range?” The shrouded figure with its pale, pale hand chuckled. It actually chuckled. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you there’s no guarantees in life, you dear, sweet child?” It was right. Not just about what it had said but also what it had left unspoken: how Becca didn’t have a choice in the matter if she wanted to win him back. That’s why she inhaled deeply like it was her last breath ever – then took the first step toward it and wherever it was going to lead her.
Now, that’s not half-bad, if I do say so myself. But there’s a whole entire level of sights and sounds and feelings that I, as the author, could add to this story scene if I just laced up Becca’s sneakers on my own feet.
Here’s what happened when I thought about it in first-person present tense instead...
The woods in front of me aren’t all shadows yet, but the sunlight is definitely on its way out for the day, making the scene even more ominous. The hairs on my arms are standing straight up, my hands are shaking no matter how much I press them into my legs, and my brain is full-out shrieking at me to run. To escape. To save myself. Please, someone save me! I don’t run, but I do shake my head. “How do I know you’re not just going to kill me once I’m out of screaming range?” My voice doesn’t tremble, but that accomplishment is hard to notice when all my other capabilities are such a wreck. The shrouded figure with its pale, pale hand chuckles. It actually chuckles, the sound like a thousand writhing centipedes on my skin. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you there’s no guarantees in life, you dear, sweet child?” “Sweet” as in nice? Or “sweet” as in a tasty treat before dinner? I honestly can’t tell, and so the centipedes increase in number. But it’s right. Not just about what it’s said, but also about what it’s left unspoken: how I don’t have a choice in the matter if I want to win him back. That’s why I inhale deeply like it’s my last breath ever – then take the first stupid step toward it and wherever it’s going to lead me.
The new copy involves a wider array of senses and sensations that add depth to the scene, making it all the more creepy. As the writer, I was able to get further into my protagonist’s head by turning her from just the main character into the main character and the narrator. And as a result, I’m able to put the reader more firmly into the page.
Then, whenever I get around to working on my second draft (or third draft in this case, I suppose), I can simply change the person to third again and the tense to past, while leaving in all those new creepy details I otherwise might not have thought of.
Better yet, I’ll have jumpstarted a more involved perspective as I continue writing out the rest of the story.
Those results make this challenge worth trying out, if only for a scene.