Tag Archives: narrative mode

First-person Point of View #amwriting

A month ago, I mentioned the problems I was having with a short story I had been working on. I couldn’t seem to get into my main character’s head. So, I rewrote it in the first-person present tense narrative mode, but because I was unused to that mode, it felt like I had written a walk-through for an RPG (geek-talk for role-playing game).

Apparently, it read that way too.

But after a lot of help from my writer friends, and a lot of rewriting, I got into the swing of things. Finally, the story drew me into my character’s mind, which was what I had wanted all along.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. One thing I had to keep in mind is that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything so the narrator cannot be omnipotent. At first, this was difficult for me. When I chose to have the reader experience the story as the protagonist does, I had made a fundamental change in my style of writing, and my finished product has required several rewrites.

After all, in real life, we aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing. Any lawyer will tell you, even eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

We each see and interpret things from our own perspective. The human mind is hardwired to fill in the blanks—this is why eye-witness accounts of a single event will often vary so widely.

That lack of information is why I now love writing in this point of view for short stories.

What I had to figure out:

Who is the best person to tell the story? I could easily have told it in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story. It didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted it to be when written in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. She had to tell her own story.

What was the inciting incident? That was also difficult – deciding where the story actually began was the first step to getting it on track. Because this story is intended for submission to an anthology, I have a specific word count to fit the story into, and the anthology’s theme must be strongly present throughout. After reading the first draft, a writer friend pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

They were right. Thus, I had to scratch the first half of the story and begin at what I had thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What does she actually know? She isn’t omniscient, so she can only know what she has witnessed. That was also a problem for me, as I know everything. Just ask me. But I had to figure out what she really could have witnessed, and then work only with that information.

What does my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the truth is that her quest is to find herself as a human being, as much as it is to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line in this tale, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

I am once again approaching the finish line on rewriting this tale. The submission deadline is still several months out, so I’m not rushing. I still have to rework and condense a few things at the front end of it, but now I know what changes I want to make. Writing this story has been an awesome adventure for me, and once this is ready for an editor’s eyes, I might attempt writing another in the first-person point of view.

Sometimes writing a story with a finite word-count limit and a specific theme to adhere to is as time consuming as writing a novel. But finding ways to work within these constraints is making me a stronger writer, so even if this isn’t picked up by the publication I hope it will be, I will have a good marketable story.

I’m grateful to have the company of talented authors to help me brainstorm sticky problems.

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First-Person POV #amwriting

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.

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