A Conversation About Pushing the Envelope Of First Person
“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me—not forever, but periodically.”
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
“Got a walk-in client today. Named Fitch. Guess it’s what I get for being the only psychic detective agency in town.”
The Scargill Cove Case Files by Jayne Ann Krentz
Got your attention didn’t I?
“You talkin’ to me?”
Well, yes, as a matter or fact, I am. So let’s have a chat about one of the more technical aspects of our craft. We’ll review Point of View in general and the zero in on ways to stretch first person.
So let’s talk about first person.
“But it’s so limiting! The reader only sees what the narrator sees, knows what she knows. It’s stifling!”
Valid point. However, there are ways to stretch the boundaries of the first person Point Of View, aka, POV.
“I wouldn’t use first person if you held a gun to my head.”
Don’t quit reading! These examples will help articulate your thinking about POV.
“So, tell me, it’s been a while since I studied this stuff What exactly is point of view? Why is it important?
How many different kinds are there?
Okay, let’s start with a brief review of Point of View. This will help when we get to ways to stretch first person.
What Point of View Is
Simply put, Point Of View is the answer to who’s telling the tale, or, the narrator.
One way to identify the point of view is the pronouns used: in a first person story you will see “I,” in second person “You,” and in third “She/He.”
“Wait a minute. The author tells the story.”
Hmmm. Yes, but . . . The author puts on a mask before setting pen to paper. In third person it may be neutral, reciting events, but it’s there. Remember those pronouns.
Types of Point of View
Third person seems like it’s simple to describe— you (the writer) just tells the story. “Valerie opened the door, not knowing that it would lead to horror, narrow escapes, and the love of her life, though not in that order.”
Third person comes in two flavors: limited and omniscient.
Third Person Limited
The writer tells the story through the eyes and mind of one person. “Valerie thought, ‘Can this hunk really be Oswald Thorogill, class nerd? What a difference ten years can make!’” The tall dude just stood there smiling.
We can get inside Valerie’s head, but Oswald is only revealed through his actions. We don’t know why he’s smiling. This is important. The author is not allowed to get inside his head. If Oswald’s happy to see the head cheerleader at the reunion you have to show it. Maybe he says,“Valerie? I remember your pom poms.”
Third Person Omniscient
This POV is really powerful. You (the writer) can get inside anybody’s head. However, you need to watch out for head-hopping.
"Head hopping?’ Now you’re making up terms.”
Nope. In the above example if I’d said, “Valerie thought, ‘Can this hunk really be Oswald Thorogill, class nerd?’” and followed it with, “Oswald thought, ‘Perfect. I drag myself to this stupid reunion and the first person I see is that snotty cheerleader.’” That would be head-hopping, and following that with, “Across the room, Bethany thought, ‘That skank Valerie’s done it again. Who is that guy and why does she get to talk to him? And that skirt is totallyinappropriate.’” That would be major head-hopping. The problem is it can confuse the reader. Who are we supposed to care about?
For details about this writing sin, look at other essays on this site: Lisa Hall-Wilson's Writing Deep Point of View Like a Pro, or her How to Use Deep Point of View without Tying an Anchor to the Pace of Your Novel, or her Emotional Layers: The Gateway to Deep Point of View or Janice Hardy's How Filtering the Point of View Affects Show Don't Tell.
“You need to exercise caution when inserting the circuit card to avoid bending any of the pins.”
I’ve never used this for fiction and frankly don’t see how I could, but for nonfiction it turns up all the time, particularly in user manuals. Unless you are some kind of mutant genius you probably won’t use this.
Which brings us to . . .
“I still think it’s stifling and nothing you’ve said makes me think different.”
Stay tuned. That’s about to change.
First person is easy to understand — the narrator simply tells her story. In the first example, Stephanie tells the story.
When a story is written in first person POV the narrator is telling the story, not the writer.
In a first person story the reader is dropped into the mind of the narrator. (Notice I don’t say “Main character.” More on that later.)
With this POV, right off the bat you have an idea what the narrator is like. See the above examples. Those are two different women, aren’t they?
“I see that, but isn’t that voice?”
That’s different, though there’re both filters through which the reader experiences the story. Voice, if you’re lucky and do your job well, is delivered not only via the person you choose, but through everything in the story. Maybe another essay . . .
“Okay, I think I’ve got it. Third person limited, third person omniscient, second person, first person. But, first person, geez, the readers only see what the main character sees, only know what she knows.”
Good point. But there are ways to stretch that limitation.
Your protagonist can tell the story after it’s over.
“Wait, almost all stories are told in past tense. Doesn’t that mean it’s over?”
Ooh, now that’s a good one. Yes, but to the reader — if you’re doing your job right — it’s happening now. In straight first person Valerie doesn’t have time to reflect that she should have worn a more appropriate skirt, whereas if she’s telling the story to her grandchildren she does. Stephen King does this in Joyland, his Edgar-nominated thriller. The narrator talks about events that happened forty years in the past. This allows him to make observations that he could not when the events took place. First person, but expanded a little. This reflective tone colors the story. It’s about a lost love. (Don’t worry; that’s not a spoiler. King’s hero tells you that on page one.) It lifts the novel out of the realm of pulp,thrillers. Robert A. Heinlein does it in The Puppet Masters, though it’s less important to the story.
You can add in documents. In our text, tweet, email-driven world this is acceptable, but it’s nothing new. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is composed of diaries and recordings and is really epistolary but still with that first person narrator. For that matter, the Jayne Ann Krentz tale is first person, and was delivered via postings on her web site, sort of a diary. Definitely pushing the envelope.
You can make your narrator unreliable. You’re immediately thinking of “The Telltale Heart,” but I’ll give you Gone Girl and (Is it fact? Fiction? Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?) Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I sure hope it’s fictionalized; the narrator isn’t unreliable — he’s drug-addled and proud of it.
Have a sidekick tell the story.
“Sure. Watson and Holmes.”
Right. One big advantage of this technique is the main character —think Holmes — can be less likeable than if he told the story.
“Sure I get it. I can hear Holmes saying, ‘Watson sees but doesn’t observe.’”
Here’s some writing trivia for your next cocktail party. The wonderful Travis McGee novels are all first-person, told by McGee. Rumors have floated around for years that there was one more story, called A Black Border for McGee where Travis dies and his sidekick Meyer tells the story. So far to my knowledge it has not surfaced.
“You reallythink I’ll tell that story at my next party?”
And, finally, you can just blow it off when it suits you. Yep, just chuck the whole thing. This one should probably be one with a warning label, but it can work. In King’s novel, Christine, the first third is first person, Dennis Guilder tells the story of the killer car, very straightforward, then the middle is third person with no transition or explanation and then Dennis comes back and narrates the last third. And it works. In Crimson Joy,Rhobert B. Parker‘s Spenser tells the story, except when the killer takes over at a few well-chosen intervals to tell his story. Use at your own risk; this writer assumes no responsibility for bad reviews.
“So after all this you’re telling me the rules, there ain’t no rules?”
No! Yes! I’m saying if you stretch your “Person” it needs to be deliberate. On purpose.
“So what now? I mean, you’ve talked about a lot of well, points of view, but what should I do next?“
Right. To review — third person limited, third person omniscient, second person, first person.
”Yeah, right, I needed that. But what do I do? What do I do now?”
You need to see which point of view you’re most comfortable with, internalize these different approaches, and then let all of that go so that when you write you just let it flow. Side note: if you’re new here, welcome, and — trust me on this — there’s no better feeling in the world than when the story takes over and starts to flow out of your fingertips as if you were merely a conduit for your muse.
Practice. Writing in many ways is like playing the piano. (That, along with voice, is the subject of another essay.) From experience I can attest that if you don’t practice, you don’t get better.
I suggest an exercise: write a paragraph in each of the four. For second-person I suggest skipping a story and writing the steps of a procedure. Making coffee, washing the cat (Step One: put on rhinoceros-hide gloves.), turning on your computer and navigating to your WIP. You get the idea.
Read. Thanks to the marvels of technology it’s easy. Use iBooks or Kindle, and download samples of some of the books we’ve talked about. Jayne Ann Krentz, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King. Remember in Christine he doesn’t switch to third person until a third of the way through, so I suggest Joyland for the wistful, reflective opening.
For more ways to stretch first-person, see “Out of Her Head” by James Scott Bell inWriter’s Digest, June 2004.
On the WITS Home page, search on first person or point of view.
And in the end . . .
The story you make is the story you take. Yeah, it’s yours, folks. And nobody else’s.
Thanks lot; I’ve enjoyed our chat and I hope to hear from you. Now get back to the keyboard. Type faster! Your readers are waiting.
“You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way . . . . ”
— Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit - Will Travel
Do you have questions about POV? Do you have answers? How has POV affected something you've written?
James Preston survived the Attack of the Alien Virus and went on to write the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.