Tricks for First-Person Stories

The selfie, first-person narrative taken to the extreme?

The selfie, first-person narrative taken to the extreme?

It seems I’ve made what might be considered a rookie mistake: choosing first person point of view for my first novel. (Or is it my second? Does fanfiction count? Either way, they’re both told in first person). According to this post on novelwritingadvice.com, most first novels are written in first person, but most published novels are written in third. Uh-oh, I thought when I read that.

I suppose my choice is understandable, since I come from a background of writing personal narrative nonfiction. It just seemed to make sense to carry what I’d learned from writing memoir-ish nature pieces over into fiction. Unfortunately, it seems this is a choice a lot of beginning fiction writers make because they think first person is easier, or comes more naturally.

I had no such illusions. First person presents the writer with quite a few challenges. First, too much repetition of the pronoun “I” can become annoying. (See, I’ve already used it twice in this paragraph. Oops, I mean three times. Wait, that’s four!)

A lot of this repetition can be avoided by varying sentence structure, which you should be doing anyway. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. A writing blog from 2003 advised writers to revise “I glanced at the clock” to “My eyes darted to the clock” or “The constant ticking drew my glance toward the clock.” To my mind, simple and active is usually better, so the original wins. The second conjures an image of eyeballs running over to the clock. And the third just seems unnecessarily wordy, making the ticking of the clock the active agent in the sentence. (And that could certainly be the case, but the meaning of the sentence has changed quite a bit from the original, just to avoid the personal pronoun.)

Imagine if this were another action: “I rushed to the kitchen.” Should this become “My legs carried me to the kitchen as fast as they would go”? Or, “The fire alarm drew me into the kitchen”?

But that example does point out another problem with first person: it’s always tempting to have the narrator see, smell, hear, or feel everything that’s happening in a scene:

I heard the fire alarm go off. I smelled smoke as I rushed toward the kitchen. I saw a blazing inferno ahead of me. I looked around for a fire extinguisher but could find none. I could feel the heat of the fire and taste the smoke. I heard baby Sophie crying from her room upstairs. I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing on end as I stood there, paralyzed by fear. Then I heard a fire truck’s siren and I felt a surge of adrenaline that pushed me up the stairs to get the baby.

That’s a lot of personal pronouns, but most of them can be removed with a simple fix: make the physical elements of the scene the actors.

The shrieking of the fire alarm split the quiet of the night. Smoke wafted down the hall as I ran toward the back of the house. The kitchen had become an inferno. Where did Liz keep her fire extinguisher, anyway? The heat pushed me back, the acrid smoke bitter in my mouth. Upstairs, baby Sophie gave a cry. The hair at the back of my neck stood on end as I stood there, paralyzed with fear. At last a fire truck’s siren joined the shrilling of the alarm, promising an end to this nightmare. I ran upstairs to get the baby.

(Damn, I hope I’m never trapped in a burning house with that guy.)

Another challenge with first person is that the narrator can only relate events that they experience directly. For instance, in the above example, the narrator can’t say, “Outside, two firetrucks turned the corner, their tires squealing.” Maybe he hears the squealing of the tires, the release of the air brakes as the trucks come to a stop, the pounding at the door, but he can’t see anything outside unless he takes time to go to the window (and why would he, with baby Sophie screaming upstairs?).

But even this can be carried too far, and writing in first person can become a whole exercise in epistemology, how we can know what we know. The aforementioned writing blog held that a first person narrator can’t just blush. “I blushed when Liz asked me why it had taken me so long to rescue the baby.” No, no, this writer believes, people can’t know when they’re blushing. This is where all those sensing verbs come from. To avoid this criticism, you might write, “I felt myself blushing.” Or, you could make it more sensory and write, “Warmth flooded my cheeks.” But I think people know when they’re blushing, and sometimes it’s okay to just say, “I blushed.”

goldfinch coverWith those mechanical challenges out of the way, we come to the major pitfall of first-person narrative: it traps a reader inside one character’s head for an entire book. This can be painful, as the 56% of readers who didn’t finish The Goldfinch know (and even some of us who did). Nothing can get through to the reader other than what the first-person narrator experiences directly. Even a third-person narrative with a single POV character has the advantage of bringing in events or scenes outside that character’s consciousness. The omniscient narrator can even become a character herself, as in Jane Austen’s novels. But first-person POV for an entire novel risks claustrophobia – the narrator better be darned interesting, or readers will throw the book against a wall click to the next novel in their e-reader.

The standard antidote for this claustrophobia is to use the “split perspective” of memoir in first person narratives: the story is being told by an older narrator looking back at her younger self, even if she’s only older by a few days or weeks. The older self and the younger self amount to essentially two characters for the reader to live with, and also offer possibilities for dramatic irony, character growth, and foreshadowing.

Developing this split perspective takes effort, which is one reason first person is not necessarily easier than third. First, you have to decide how far in the future the narrator is telling the story. Is it immediately after the events of the narrative? Or is it many years later? Second, how much has the narrator changed since the events of the story, both because of those events and because of anything that has happened after?

John Irving used this technique in In One Person, starting with the very first paragraph:

In One PersonI’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination.

Immediately the reader gets the sense of a much older person (he reveals on the next page that he is now nearly 70) looking back at his teenage years. The older narrator breaks in frequently, constantly reminding the reader of his youthful naiveté: “At thirteen, I detected little of my aunt Muriel’s consternation…” In fact, I found that Irving jumped back and forth between older narrator and younger protagonist a bit too much.

Donna Tartt also uses split perspective in The Goldfinch. She starts with her narrator Theo as an adult, trapped (for reasons we don’t yet know) in a hotel in Amsterdam. The next chapter takes us back to memories from when he was thirteen, on the day he lost his mother:

I was thirteen. I hate to remember how awkward we were with each other that last morning…

Again there’s the impression of a person looking back at a younger self, one who has grown to view his actions at that age with some regret. At the same time, there’s the immediate foreshadowing of his mother’s impending death, for reasons that are still mysterious to the reader. This is excellently done, making this opening section of the novel one of the few that has any narrative drive. An older narrator wracked with remorse, his younger self still naively unaware of the approaching tragedy as he walks with his mother through the streets of Manhattan, the reader expecting that tragedy to strike with every step — it’s all very compelling.

I used this same technique quite a bit in The Song of Deirdre, making it clear early on that Deirdre was telling her story at a point many years in the future, looking back on her teenage self. The first example happens in Chapter 1, when she first encounters Alduin, the dragon-god:

Deirdre in SovngardeMany stories have been told of that day, when Alduin swept down upon Helgen out of the clear blue sky of a summer’s morning. But most of them get it wrong. Some say I summoned Alduin to Helgen, that I called him down on my captors. Or worse, that I brought the World Eater back to Skyrim to wreak my revenge on the Nords. But no one called Alduin – he just came. And the truth is, no one in Helgen was more surprised or frightened than I.

At the point of this first encounter with Alduin, Deirdre is an orphan of no renown held captive by the Imperials. But this statement hints that she will one day become great enough to have people telling stories about her, and even believing she could somehow control a dragon-god. In fact, I have a very specific idea of when, where, and even how Deirdre is writing her story, and it’s long after the end of the present tale. There are a few clues about her writing situation in the Editor’s Introduction, but the full revelation of what has happened to her won’t come until Books II and III, if I ever get around to writing them.

In my current super-secret writing project, it was more of a challenge to provide this split perspective, because the narrator, Elizabeth, is telling her story right after the events of the novel, which take place over only a few months. Although she is profoundly changed by those events, any hint that she has had time to reflect on that experience would constitute a spoiler. To give you an idea of why that is so, I suppose I have to spill the beans about my novel’s topic: it’s inspired by Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman,” introduced to me by the wonderful Loreena McKennitt.

If you’re familiar with that poem, you know that it tells the story of Bess, an inn-keeper’s daughter, who falls in love with a highwayman and sacrifices her life to save him. Now, my Elizabeth is a vicar’s daughter, not an innkeeper’s, but she does have long black hair. Part of the suspense for readers familiar with the poem will (I hope!) come from their uncertainty over whether Elizabeth will suffer the same fate or manage to find a way out.

When I began writing, I pictured Elizabeth sitting in her room in the Old Inn, writing down her tale for her father’s benefit as she waited for the highwayman. I truly didn’t know which outcome I would choose. Now there are two versions, so it’s all very much still in suspense.

Either way, I knew I could never include lines like, “I was only twenty…” or “Looking back now…” But even with a very short time between the events of the story and their narration, there are ways to work in a bit of split perspective. It only takes an instant for a person to feel regret, after all. So Elizabeth tells the reader at one point, “I could have given him an untruth, and much since then would have been easier, but my pride would not let me.” The ‘much since then’ refers to events over a few weeks, so I considered that this was neither a spoiler nor a false promise.

At another point, she says:

Oh, I was foolish! What can I say for myself, other than that one moment in the highwayman’s arms seemed to offer the only relief? The reader may find it difficult to credit, but I believed that if I kissed the highwayman fully and deeply, all of this turmoil would end – and if not, I knew no other way to end it.

The Highwayman illustration

The Highwayman by Ariandir on DeviantArt

This runs a little more risk of being a spoiler (or a false promise, depending on which ending I choose). Still, I think this is the kind of realization one can make over (what is from this point to the end of the novel) a brief, intense relationship, especially since it’s a first relationship for Elizabeth. But I also knew I couldn’t do this too often over the course of the book, or the reader would suspect that the narrator had survived long after the end of the story. (And again, I’m not giving any clues as to whether that would be a spoiler of what actually happens, or a betrayal of the reader’s trust when it fails to happen).

So, if you can’t use the split perspective, for whatever reason, what are some other ways to open up the world of the first-person narrative? One obvious way is to include a lot of action with a variety of other characters. Narrating an action scene from first-person POV is not that different from third-person. (And it may be that novels with a lot of action don’t really need this split perspective as much, instead focusing on the immediacy of the story. Think hard-boiled detective stories, or James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave spends quite a bit of time thinking about his youth, but always from the perspective of the main events of the story.)

Since The Song of Deirdre was always going to be a mammoth tome (or suck up a lot of electrons), I knew I had to find ways to get out of Deirdre’s head. It’s based on the videogame Skyrim, in which you play as one character, the Dragonborn. Everything that happens in the game, from the main story lines to the tiniest side quests, happens because the Dragonborn is doing it. You can have one companion, and in some cases more, but these characters never take the lead. To get more perspectives, I went non-canon, forming a group of five companions (Deirdre, her housecarl Lydia, and three college mages) to go on some of the quests, letting each character take the lead at different points. This not only took the focus off Deirdre, but, I hope, added humor.

But even this wasn’t enough. Deirdre’s story followed two main narrative lines, the Civil War and the main quest involving Alduin, and I also included another story line involving the College of Winterhold. That’s a lot of traveling around from one place to another, getting this object, gaining that bit of information, defeating yet another creature.

Deirdre and LydiaMy solution? Let other characters tell the story to Deirdre. This sounds like it could get complicated, but in practice I think it worked pretty well. Oral story-telling is basic to human communication, so replicating that felt pretty natural. Not only did this allow for the different story lines to happen simultaneously, but the narrative summary used in oral storytelling allowed the action to move more quickly. The drawback of this approach is that narrative summary tends to be more distancing than detailed scenes, so it should be used sparingly.

Here is a lighter moment from Chapter 15, before things turn too grim. Deirdre has just encountered her college friends, J’zargo (a Khajiit, or cat-person), Brelyna, and Onmund, on their way back from retrieving a set of books from Fellglow Keep. Thanks to J’zargo, the trio had to spend the night perched on a steep cliff, and the others are not happy:

“So,” I asked, “what happened in Fellglow Keep?”

Onmund took up the tale. “The mages were no trouble, but their leader – she was a different matter.”

“A powerful necromancer known as the Caller,” said Brelyna. “We knew that even the three of us could not hope to defeat her, and she had the books in her chambers.”

“This one enjoyed the look on Orthorn’s face when we traded him for the books,” J’zargo said with a satisfied purr.

“Orthorn?”

“The mage who stole the books in the first place,” said Onmund. “His offering didn’t appease the necromancers and they had him locked in a cell.”

“We thought to free him,” said Brelyna, “and he did help us get to the Caller’s chambers. But when she offered us the deal, the books for the mage, it seemed an obvious choice. He was the one who got us into the predicament, after all.”

“Have you had a chance to look at the books?” We had entered a pine forest now, and begun a twisting descent to the foot of the falls beyond the towers.

“Certainly.” Brelyna glared at J’zargo. “We had plenty of time, as we were stuck on that ledge all night.”

I was pretty happy with how that turned out, so I decided to use it again in my Highwayman novel. One of the main characters, Rebecca, has to tell her story to Elizabeth, and it takes up a fifth of the novel. Obviously, this runs the risk of what used to be called bald exposition (these days it’s called a “data dump”), if not done well. But my novel is set in the late 18th century, when all sorts of narrative contraptions and stories-within-stories were common. A few decades later, Emily Bronte had Nelly Dean telling most of Catherine and Heathcliff’s story to Lockwood in Wuthering Heights. So I figured I had a precedent.

Of course, since the story is told over four chapters, I couldn’t do all of that in dialogue. So it’s essentially in third person, with Elizabeth breaking in to ask questions every now and then. Here’s a bit of how that came out:

highest-life-ball-400Two seasons Rebecca’s father sent her to London with her governess, herself a distinguished widow with good connections, but at the end of it her prospects were less bright than they had at first appeared. Though the fortune that would go with her was sizeable, it had not been enough to attract a bachelor agreeable both to her father and to herself, despite all her accomplishments befitting a young woman of good upbringing.

“My father could not understand it,” Rebecca said, “seeing in me all the talents and beauty necessary to the attachment of any young noble; while I thought myself perhaps too tall to suit the vanity of most gentlemen.”

In the end, her choices were but two: a superannuated earl of little charm or warmth, with a greying, balding head under his wig, and Lord Aysgarth. The latter was a man just past thirty and ruggedly handsome. He spoke with a northern accent that bespoke the winds whipping down off the high fells, like something out of a popular romance. His manners were none too polished, but he always appeared kind and attentive, solicitous of her father’s health, and of a polite address when in her presence. He talked much of Swanford, his grand estate outside York, with its large manor house and grounds laid out by Capability Brown. He could even show pictures of it in a gazetteer of the northern counties.

“I tried to convince myself I could love Lord Aysgarth, for my father’s sake,” she said. “In truth I only wanted to marry our near neighbour in Kent, the curate’s son, who had followed his father’s profession and whose highest aspiration was to attain his own parish. But father would have none of it. ‘My daughter will not live in poverty and make a mockery of our ancient family,’ he said. James and I even talked rashly of running away to Scotland together – many are the times I’ve wondered how my life might have been different had we done so, though I’m not sure it would have been happier.”

I was feeling quite smug with this solution to the problems of first-person narrative when I noticed other writers use it too. The Goldfinch is filled with stories from the people Theo meets. And thank the gods for that! If not for Boris’s stories of living in the Australian outback, and to a lesser extent the stories of Pippa and Welty’s family, I would have lost my mind. At the same time, those stories distract from what can only loosely be called the novel’s plot, eviscerating any narrative drive it had by that point. “Longeurs,” one critic called these dead stretches — “nobody likes longeurs anymore!”

Longeurs are fine, but only if something else is there to pull me along — a character with some agency (or just “relatability”), fine prose, keen insights, or even just any hope that there is a plot to return to. Knowing that eventually the story should come back around to Theo in that hotel room, apparently involved in a murder, was just too slim a reed to hold onto for many hundreds of pages. Especially after having been burned in that respect by David Foster Wallace, I was ready to expect a similar trick from Tartt. (I really need to write a separate review of The Goldfinch, instead of just making snarky comments, but I keep pounding my head against it without much success.)

Apparently you can make a whole novel out of stories like this. I came across Rachel Cusk when she dissed my favorite novel of the year, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, calling it “middlebrow” in her Guardian review. “Wait!” I cried, “I thought post-modern pastiche meant we were supposed to appreciate the blending of high art with low art, which, you know, just about averages out to middlebrow.”

So I decided to check out Cusk’s latest novel, to see what she considers “highbrow.” Outline apparently consists of the stories told to the narrator by the people she meets on a trip to Greece. The narrator is herself a writer — you really can’t get more literary or self-reflexive than this — who is going to Greece to teach a writing workshop. Judging by the first story in the sample I downloaded, the style is very abstract, lots of narrative summary and insights about life shared between strangers. The prose didn’t light up for me, and certainly couldn’t compare to Waters’ lovely sentences and imagery. (I’ll withhold further judgment for now, because I’m waiting to get it from the library.)

But hey, now I know I’m using a highbrow literary technique in my lowbrow fanfiction and new “alternative adventure/romance.” And that’s okay, because I’m only shooting for “racier than Jane Austen, better written than 50 Shades of Grey.”

Your thoughts?

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