Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Controversial First Person

I used to write a lot for anthologies, and most of them would suggest against writing in the first person.

But I have found myself a) liking reading in the first person b) liking writing in the first person.

So what's the problem?

It's quite simple really. It's hard to get right.

Knowledge is Power

When writing first person you, the reader, can only know what the protagonist knows. This poses extreme problems in fiction writing. It changes the tone of things dramatically, and also the flow of the story.

And don't get me started on exposition.

Firstly: tone.

A typical set up: Boy is held hostage by generic bad guys, girl is racing to the scene, bazooka in hand.

Within the third person, generally we will see both these points of view, we'll sit on the shoulder of the boy (he's terrified, they're going to kill him) and then in another scene, the girl (shes arming up, jumps into the ferrari and races to the scene).

Our excitement comes from "Will she or won't she reach him in time". A fairly standard Hollywood race against time.

Now, first person.

I'm held hostage by bad guys. I have no hope. I can't escape. They're going to kill me.

Downer isn't it?

The change of perspective has altered "action" to "horror".

Just this scene along can brutalize a manuscript. And without generating a false tone and playing the hostage situation lightly (which is hard in itself, but also extremely distracting), it cannot be avoided.


You can't write boring scenes into a manuscript. Well, you can, but that would be an unpublishable manuscript. No one wants to read boring.

So if you find your protagonist with nothing to do for a period, what do you do? Skip it?

Gareth opened the door and shot a glance back at me. "You wait here," he said, "and I'll go and try to scrounge together the ransom."
I nodded silently as he left. Sighing, I went into the kitchen and filled the kettle with water and made coffee. Gareth would be gone for at least a day. I put the TV on and started flicking through channels...

This scene, taken as waiting will fill several thousand words.

No, of course, you skip it.

Which has to be handled with care.

Time passing has to be addressed. The character may be aware that time has passed, but the reader has to be told.

Gareth opened the door and shot a glance back at me. "You wait here," he said, "and I'll go and try to scrounge together the ransom."
I nodded silently as he left. 
When Gareth got back he opened the door and had a huge sack of money.

Wait, what?

A good way of doing this is to just place a couple of lines to explain.

After Gareth had gone I sat a watched TV until my eyes became heavy, and then I headed to bed, wondering how he was doing.

When I awoke, the sun was already streaming through the windows. I looked at the time and was startled to find I had slept through the night unbroken and until nearly lunch time. Gareth would surely be home soon.

Which leads into: Exposition.

What the Hell has Gareth been doing for the last few hours. Well? Ask him then.

"What happened?" I asked, "How much did you get?"

And then there is the answer. 

In real life the answer would be between 5 and 30 minutes of conversation.

 At, say 130 words per minute spoken, that's (counts on fingers) 4000 words.

The following conversation is a chapter long.


Cut that shit down to the needed information. I don't care where Gareth slept or ate in that period unless he can tell me in one really small sentence, or I need to know for plot's sake.

Hold on.

That's it.

The answer should include information for the plot.

Remember: all the words should move the story forward.

And maybe next time, I'll blurb about dialogue.

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