Third-person omniscient is my usual mode to write in, but I am currently writing a short story in first-person present tense, and it’s not going well. When we write in third-person omniscient mode, the story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.
As authors, we want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head.
First-person point of view is fairly common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.
One way to create intimacy is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by attempting to replicate the thought processes as well as the actions and spoken words of the narrative character.
This device incorporates interior monologues and inner desires or motivations, as well as pieces of incomplete thoughts that are expressed to the audience but not necessarily to other characters. Consider this passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses:
“A dwarf’s face, mauve and wrinkled like little Rudy’s was. Dwarf’s body, weak as putty, in a whitelined deal box. Burial friendly society pays. Penny a week for a sod of turf. Our. Little. Beggar. Baby. Meant nothing. Mistake of nature. If it’s healthy it’s from the mother. If not from the man. Better luck next time.
—Poor little thing, Mr Dedalus said. It’s well out of it.
The carriage climbed more slowly the hill of Rutland square. Rattle his bones. Over the stones. Only a pauper. Nobody owns.”
In this narrative mode, we see the POV character’s rambling thoughts, as well as witness their conversations and actions. Stream-of-consciousness is a tricky device to do well, and the only time I have employed it was in a writing class.
When they want to tell a story though the protagonist’s eyes, many authors employ a simple first-person point of view to convey intimacy. “I walked to the corner, thinking about what she had said.” The narrative is more structured than stream-of-consciousness yet flows quickly from the pen. As a reader, I prefer structured prose to unstructured, which is why I’m writing my new short story using a first-person POV.
I like the fact that stories in this mode are told from the view and knowledge of the narrator-character, and not of other characters. The author must keep in mind that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything.
In real life we can’t be all-seeing and all-knowing—witnesses are notoriously unreliable. By allowing the reader to discover information as the protagonist does, a story can be engrossing. Best of all, the narrator may not be honest with the reader. As in Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, she might withhold secrets, offering small bits of information in subtle ways.
So I know I am right not to settle, but it doesn’t make me feel better as my friends pair off and I stay home on Friday night with a bottle of wine and make myself an extravagant meal and tell myself, This is perfect, as if I’m the one dating me. ~~ Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
As I mentioned before, my intention with my current short story is to put the reader into my main character’s head. The problem I have as I read the first draft is this: written in the present tense narrative mode, it feels like a walk-through for a “choose your own adventure” book.
First-person point of view employs the unreliable narrator, which I do like. While this story has to be told from the main character’s first-person point of view, it might not be best to tell it in the present tense. I will keep the point of view but will change the narrative to a more reflective tense, rather than present tense.
For me, writing is as much about rewriting as it is writing new words. When something feels awkward, I rewrite it. If it still feels awkward, I set it aside for several weeks or even months. When I come back to it, I’m able to see what needs to be done more clearly. Sometimes that means it must be completely rewritten again. That struggle on my part is just part of the process.
Sources and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed May 7, 2017).
Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach
Quote from Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, published 2012 by Random House.