Since I decided to write my Secret Novel in first person, I've been rereading some of my favorite first person novels. There are two major approaches to first person:
Immediate First Person: Sometimes this means first person present tense, which is as intimate and immediate as it gets. However, even first person past tense can feel very much "in the now"; the narrator tells what she felt at the moment she is describing, nothing more. She doesn't "cheat" by implying she knows more about what happens next any more than the reader. If she misjudges someone, this is revealed only when she herself discovers it.
I turned around when I heard the shot, crying, "Edwin, don't!"
My eyes fell on the smoking gun first, then the body, and in my shock it took me a dozen heartbeats to make sense of the French manicure on the hand holding the gun, or the fedora hat soaking in a pool of blood.
Gloria met my eyes. "That's right. I was the one who went to the pawn shop last week. You never suspected. You dismissed me -- just as Edwin did."
Retrospective First Person: Many first person books, however, take the opposite tact. They are written as faux memoirs, in a retrospective mood, in which the narrator of the events slyly or absent-mindedly refers to future events. This kind of narrative voice can compare past knowledge and emotional states with future ones (the "present" of the narrator).
When I first met Gloria, I dismissed her in one glance as a mouse. She spoke only in monosyllebles at that first dinner. Her husband Edwin boomed over the platters of greasy food, and continued to rattle the empty glasses long after the wine ran out. I paid scant attention to his tirades after the first half hour.
"We have to get together again," he promised when I finally begged the waiter to bring the check. He pumped my hand and clapped my back at the same time. "This was marvelous, we have to do this again sometime."
I would have wasted less dread on the prospect had I guessed that would be the last time I would see him alive.
There are dangers of telling too much, becoming too conversational and chatty in any version of first person. Either method, handled well, can work. The question, as always, is what works best with this story?
How does one determine whether a sense of retrospection or a sense of immediacy is preferable for a story?
In my blog about first person vs third person, I recieved some wonderful tips from the commenters.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this too.