If you’re writing in the first person, present tense, I feel like the voice should always be well-situated in scene

Young Boy with his Arms Crossed and Wearing a Bandana

First-person present-tense is the default in young adult literature nowadays. I have no problem with this. Different genres have different defaults. Like, why do Victorian novels need to have warm, all-knowing, opinionated narrators? Nobody knows! But it is a fact of the times, and it’d be silly to complain about.

What I will complain about, though (as I did a few weeks ago on Twitter) is when you have a first-person present-tense narrator and the entire novel is just free-form musing that’s only loosely situated in scene.

This is not a problem that’s limited to YA. I think the worst offender I’ve ever read, in this regard, was Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. It’s a fantastic book and was a deeply formative reading experience for me, but it was also f***ing confusing. I had no idea, on any given page, when or where we were!

In YA novels, the confusion usually starts on page one, with an opening that goes something like:

[I’m a cool kid YA novel narrator. You may think it’s a little hokey for me to be so knowing and self-aware, but you’ll grow to love me, reader, because I don’t take you for granted, and my all-knowingness allows me to elide the hokey parts of a narrative–for instance, when I meet the love interest I can just say “And that was our meet-cute!” rather than pretending, for another fifty pages, like that wasn’t the main love interest of the novel. That, though is ahead of us. Right now I’m just an average senior at an average high school in a city you’ve probably never been to, unless you had a connecting flight through there.

Mr. Gottfried is lecturing at the board and he points to me, saying, “What’s the answer to this question, narrator?”

And I say, “I don’t know. I was too busy explaining my life to my invisible audience.”]

This, to me, is confusing. For the rest of the book, I’m going to feel unmoored. Am I experiencing scenes that are surrounded by musing? Or musing surrounded by scenes? The former is aggravating, while the latter is merely precious.

Literally all you need to do in the above example is flip things around:

[Mr. Gottfried is lecturing at the board and he points to me, saying, “What’s the answer to this question, narrator?”

And I say, “I don’t know. I was too busy explaining my life to my invisible audience.”

I’m a cool kid YA novel narrator. You may think it’s a little hokey for me to be so knowing and self-aware, but you’ll grow to love me, reader, because I don’t take you for granted, and my all-knowingness allows me to elide the hokey parts of a narrative–for instance, when I meet the love interest I can just say “And that was our meet-cute!” rather than pretending, for another fifty pages, like that wasn’t the main love interest of the novel. That, though is ahead of us. Right now I’m just an average senior at an average high school in a city you’ve probably never been to, unless you had a connecting flight through there]

And, voila, we immediately understand what’s happening!

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