Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, November 12, 2007

1st Person Narratives: Conversational, yes. Chatty, like ohmigod no.

Confession time: when I was a kid I really didn't like books written in the first person. Little Nathan Bransford was quite the literal fellow, and he just didn't get the whole first person thing (also he was very short and the girls in his second grade class patted him on the head and called him "El Chiquito" which was HUMILIATING).

I really couldn't wrap my head around who was doing the narrating. Was I supposed to believe it was the author? Was the narrator supposed to have written it all down? Was the narrator supposed to be talking to me? What in the heck was going on? What if a 1st Person narrator died in the end? THEN who was supposed to be doing the talking?

Luckily I outgrew both my aversion to 1st Person and the people who called me El Chiquito (who's El Chiquito now, EL CHIQUITA??), but only after I came to accept the essential weirdness of 1st Person. What is 1st Person anyway?

Well, it's a spectrum, obviously. It can be an imitation of someone definitely telling a story to someone else (THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST), it can be someone definitely writing something down (THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO), it can just be a story told from someone's particular point of view (TWILIGHT), or it can be sort of a hybrid (THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN).

But whatever it is, a first person narrative is unique in language. Whatever form the narrative takes (and it should be consistent), it's not like a real person talking or writing. There's no real-life equivalent. It's something else entirely.

Have you seen a transcript of an actual conversation? I have. IT'S BORING. It's confusing. People don't really make sense. They include a whole bunch of "I means" and "Ums" and "likes" and it's quite annoying to see on the page.

Good first person writers crafting a unique voice create the impression that someone is speaking and the illusion that it sounds like the way someone would talk without it actually being real life dialogue or how it would sound if someone were actually telling a story.

So one common mistake writers make with 1st person narratives is an excess of chattiness of the "I mean" and "No, really" and "like" variety, especially when it comes to young adult literature. Yes, that's how people (and kids) talk. It's even how they blog (GUILTY!). But excess chattiness over the course of an entire novel becomes exhausting - would you want to sit and listen to someone tell a story for six hours? Let alone someone who said "like" after every other sentence?

To be sure, the occasional "I mean" and chatty turn of phrase can be used to great effect in the right hands, as both Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz demonstrate in particular -- a taste of real life can go a long way toward showing what the character is like and infusing a voice with a unique flavor. But only in very, very small doses. It's ok for a 1st person narrator to sound conversational, but not overly chatty.

So as you're writing, keep an eye on those, um, "So"s and "I mean"s and "like"s. Don't write what real life sounds like; write better than real life.






44 comments:

Stew21 said...

this couldn't have come at a better time for me. The novel that has consumed my time for the past several months is first person. I recently asked the question at AbsoluteWrite about conversational/casual narration.
I confess my heart skipped a beat when I saw your post title here. Happy to say though, I believe I passed the test. My character is not "chatty". Whew!!!

Thanks for the wisdom, Nathan!

Sophie W. said...

I will admit that one of the major motivating factors behind writing my Nano novel in first person was using "like," "um, yeah," "but, whatever," and "you know" to jack up my word count. I was planning on taking them out in the next draft, but they'd help in November, right?

Yeah, this lasted about five pages before I got too disgusted with myself to continue.

Melanie Avila said...

Nathan, this post comes at the perfect time. I've just started editing my first-person memoir and I worry my tone will be exhausting for the reader, exactly like you said. So far I've had positive feedback but it's helpful to hear these suggestions.

Josephine Damian said...

You like, totally know that when, I like query you, I'm gonna address my letter to El Chiquito!

As opposed to, you know, Agent Nathan. :-)

Ok, serious question: Courier or Times New Roman in MS? What does an agent want?

Nathan Bransford said...

Josephine:

http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2007/02/formatting-your-manuscript.html

Dennis said...

Elmore Leonard, in an article I recently read, said the majority of new writers write in 1st person, and he discouraged this approach due to some of the reasons Nathan outlined.

BTW...Leonard also said never use anything other than the word "said" when writing dialogue.

"No 'asked,' 'responded,' 'exclaimed,' or whatever," said Leonard.

Nathan Bransford said...

Dennis-

I'm with Elmore Leonard. You might check out this post as well.

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks for this post. I am in the throes of writing my first first person novel and I needed to hear some of these points.

Scott said...

I didn't like first person as a kid either. And by "as a kid" I mean "into my thirties."

I used it once, though, for a short story written from the POV of a psychopath. It was effective (that story couldn't be told the same way in third person, no matter how close), but it was also so scary being in that head that I didn't go back to first-person for a long, long time.

But my second WIP felt a little bit bland, like it was really lacking something in the narrative voice, so as an experiment I tried switching it to first person, and it came alive.

So now I'm a first person convert, at least if it's a story that works best that way. I still prefer third for most stories, and especially for long works, though.

Jay Montville said...

You know, I never thought about the excessively chatty first person narrator this way (I think because I have a weakness for third person limited, so it neve occured to me to write in first person). But your advice is also excellent for dialogue as well, especially in YA novels. I love the occasional "like" or "um" in teen dialogue because I think it gives feeling of veracity, but there's a thin line between "veracity" and Totally, Like, Annoying. This is a super reminder.

Dennis said...

Interesting, Nathan, and...uh, even more interesting that you used a bit of dialogue from Top Gun as your example?

Miri said...

Another clock-in for perfect timing! I'm trying my first first-person endeavor since the bad fanfiction I wrote in fifth grade.

Luckily, my character's absurdly formal and has never even heard the word "like" used in the contemporary context.

First person is, I think, harder to do well, and sometimes it will make me put a book back on the shelf. But some of my favorites are at least partially in first person. (Bartimaeus, for the win.)

Jenny said...

Here's a book on the topic of Point of View that's coming out this spring. It's written by my favorite writing teacher.

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley.

I read a pre-pub version of this book and found it extremely helpful in figuring out whose point of view to use in a given scene, how to shift points of view effectively, and what the strengths and weaknesses are of the various points of view you can choose from.

Alicia always gives wonderful examples that stick in your mind and help you remember the lessons she's teaching while you are writing.

David M said...

Don't you think J.D. Salinger ruined a generation of would-be authors with "Catcher in the Rye"? It's filled with enough conversational crutches -- "If you want to know the truth" etc. -- that it fooled me into thinking it wouldn't take much effort to write like that. Then I'd write a page or two and I'd remember that I'm no J.D. Salinger.

Nathan Bransford said...

David M.-

I definitely think that's a factor. When you read CATCHER you think, "Wow, that sounds just like a teenager talking. I should write like people talk."

Of course, it's not really a teenager talking -- it's an illusion of reality, a unique, authentic-sounding voice matched with a narrative. It's extremely difficult to create and do well, and there aren't many who can pull it off.

Kimber An said...

I've always been anti-First Person myself. In the past year, I've been privilaged to read the novels of authors who do it well and that has changed my opinion. First Person is fabulous in the hands of an author gifted for it.

I'm not one of them.
;)

Loquacious Me said...

I'll join the ranks of the authors whose hearts froze upon seeing the title of the post. I'm very glad to see that you don't absolutely loathe first person narratives. (since, sometime in the conceivable future, I'd like to query you with mine.)

Just skimming through a few pages, I'm relieved to note that I have very few "ums" and no "likes". Though, I may have a few too many "Yeahs". Pondering that.

cynjay said...

I'm a first person writer all the way.

I like books in both first and third, but the thing that makes me crazy is POV shifts for no good reason. There are a few good books that have multiple points of view for a reason, but the majority I read are because it's the lazy way to go. Pick one POV and stick to it.

Karen Duvall said...

I embrace both viewpoints, both as a reader and a writer. First person can be more challenging since you're forced to tell the story from only one viewpoint. When I've written 3rd person and have been so deep inside the character, I sometimes find myself using the "I" pronoun.

The only viewpoint I have a tough time getting into (though manage to get comfortable within a few pages) is first person present tense. That's too close. Even third person present tense bugs me. It's just... weird.

Hey, Jenny, I'm with you regarding Alicia Rasley being my favorite writing teacher, though Donald Maass is pretty high on my list, too. Alicia does tend to elucidate certain things and those stick with me forever. The one that readily comes to mind is: Your character's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Big time light bulb moment.

Heidi the Hick said...

"There's no real-life equivalent. It's something else entirely."

I love that. It's true. I have been writing in first person present tense for the last couple of years and I enjoy it- I feel like I can get into character and really tell the story. BUT I'm aware that it's a construct.

Julie Weathers said...

Thanks for posting this.

I switched my fantasy from first to third and, although I dreaded it at the time, I'm much happier with it now.

It takes a lot of talent to do first person right and Diana Gabaldon's works are some of the few I really enjoy. Kudos to you who can do it well. I wussed out, because it's like just too hard, you know?

Which brings me to the next thing I'm pondering. Would it be best to use a spiffy nickname when I respond to posts or even anon007?

dr.dume said...

I don't write in first person (okay, I'm doing it now but that doesn't count). It limits the story to a single POV, which means I can't let the reader know something awful's about to happen to the character who thinks he's going to have a good day.

I like the idea of letting the reader know I'm about to do something terrible to the hero, but he doesn't know it yet, and the reader can't warn him.

Perhaps I'm just cruel that way.

Karen Duvall said...

It's true, Dume, that foreshadowing is a lot tougher to do in first person. But it can be done. It's just that the reader is only privy to the same info as the viewpoint character, and that can be very suspenseful. Both the reader and the viewpoint character get to experience the same clues, interactions, warnings, etc., but each will perceive them a little differently. It's thrilling to ride shotgun with the character through the story. First person is not the easiest viewpoint to master, but the challenge is half the fun. 8^)

Jenny said...

Dr. Dume,

If you know what you are doing, you can write in the first person and still let the reader know that something very nasty is about to happen to your narrator even if he doesn't.

It's done by having the narrator observe things in enough detail that the reader is able to draw one conclusion about what is going on even though the narrator may be drawing a different one. The contrast between what the reader is shown and what the narrator believes can create a suspenseful dynamic.

But it's challenging because if your narrator is too out of touch with the reality around him, your reader may say, "What an idiot!" and put the book down.

Anonymous said...

Off topic but I read a previous post you linked and saw this:

It's extremely rare for the query letter route to work -- I've seen thousands and thousands of query letters, and of those I've only taken on two as clients.

Well, that's encouraging.

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

That was a long time ago. I've taken on several more clients through queries since then and hope to have several more.

Jenyfer Matthews said...

What a timely post for me as well. Like, thanks for the insight. Dude.

(Sorry, couldn't help myself)

Kate said...

I'm so glad you posted about this!

I'm writing my Nanowrimo fantasy novel in first person after reading Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy. I must say, though, that I'm struggling a little.

Your link to the 'He said, he shouted' post was soooo good to read too. I thought using the word 'said' too much was wrong.. I know better now, although I would probably prefer to use an action rather than just use 'she said' ('Show, dont tell!')

So anyway, back to first person POV. I understand that by careful planning and writing I can make things appear to the reader without the character knowing (like - something bad is going to happen and if the character doens't move he's going to get shot, etc), and vice versa I can make the character know about something but the reader has to just follow along and wait to find out, but what I haven't managed to do well is be able to write about the history of a certain place, or write about events that take place when the main character is not there. Should I write 'I was told later that such and such happened etc,' and then describe the event, or what?

Basically, I'm struggling with the limitations of first person, because I want to show other things happening in the story, where the main character isn't present, but I want to do it without making the main character an evesdropping snoop.

Thanks Jenny for the link to the POV book - just what I need!!!

FrostIntoFire said...

This is timely, because I'm currently writing in first person for the first time and I'm not at all sure I like it.
I always have an impulse to write the first few lines of any new story in first person, but I usually resist it because I know I'm going to need to show more than one POV. This time I decided that the story didn't need more than one POV, and so I went with the impulse.
I'm finding it insanely difficult, although 'chatty' isn't my problem. Still, I'm going to press through to the end before I start any revision or rewriting. Maybe I'll start to like it and the practise is probably good for me!

Bernita said...

"Chatty" isn't my problem. Another thing along the same lines is a tendency to make self-descriptive asides and philosophical observations direct to the reader.
They need care or they can destroy both the pace and the narrative tone.

eric said...

I can't help but feel you're casting a, "I'm looking at you, kid," my way. Because, yes, guilty as charged. I'm cleaning it up, honest I am, but in the meantime, thanks for the confirmation that a little goes a loooong way. These damn punks teenagers today need to get their tiring idioms off of my lawn as well as off of my pages.

Lauri Shaw said...

These are good points, Nathan. Narrative and dialogue are two completely different beasts.

Another reason to avoid chattiness is that a writer can get bogged down in the character's voice and ignore all the other important aspects of the story.

My own book, Servicing the Pole, has a first person narrator. It wasn't easy for me to show a strong protagonist and still convey inevitable human error. To serve the story, my narrator had to make mistakes. Sometimes she had to look ridiculous to other characters while not necessarily being aware of how she appeared to anyone but herself. Showing all this from inside someone's head can be challenging.

The thing to remember is that people are, above all else, fallible. Their perceptions are often incorrect. So when using a first person narrative, the story must also contain benchmarks for the other character's perceptions as well as for the reader's perception. These three are often not the same.

www.laurishaw.com

Anonymous said...

Anon-

That was a long time ago. I've taken on several more clients through queries since then and hope to have several more.


Phew!

John C. said...

Writing in first person has some great advantages, but plenty of equally challenging shortcomings. The writer can provide a direct window into the MC's head, potentially making character dev much easier. By the same token, the MC has to infer other characters' thoughts/feelings from their actions, and the writer may have to work harder to develop those NPC's into something more solid than window dressing.

I've written in first, but prefer tight, non-omni third for the most part. Some books I've read have a confusing assortment of thirds at times, ranging from omnicient-third (which tends to resemble head-hopping IMHO) to exclusive third, wherein only one character has the focus. Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear it Away has some odd shifts, for example.

As for "said", "asked", I used to think that variety was a good thing, but after countless hours reading and critting other writers' works, I've grown to dislike "sadisms", i.e. any verbs which substitute for "said" or "asked". After a certain number, they become intrusive and oftentimes ridiculous.

Also, a lot of writers tend to overdo the dialogue tags and beats, disrupting the natural flow. When I revise, I have to prune quite a bit since I tend to overdo those myself on the first run.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Thanks for the lesson in first person, Nathan. I've definitely found my voice there, but long to do it right.

Someone commented that “first person POV” limits the story. To me, it opens it up into a deeper characterization of the narrator. I don't find it limiting at all. I find it harder to believe that a 3rd person POV could know so much about each character. I am more of a personal person, who connects with the inner flaws of others. I believe the limitation is based on the reader's preference, whether you like character-driven books or plot-driven.

My all time favorite is "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. A masterpiece, in my humble opinion, of first person, six times over (5 characters and Africa). This story was not limited at all.

Redzilla said...

As a reader, I just get tired of 1st person in a way that I never tire of 3rd person. Makes me sympathize with psychics...always hearing peoples' thoughts in your head.

Linnea said...

Nathan said
'It's extremely rare for the query letter route to work....I've taken on several more clients through queries since then and hope to have several more.'
So, how DO you select clients if not through the query process?

Nathan Bransford said...

Linnea-

1) Referrals
2) Me reading something in a magazine or on the Internet and contacting the author to see if they have representation

John Levitt said...

Nathan --

My book is first person, and you nailed it. The first person conversation is not an exercise in realism; it's an artifice and a craft as much as any other technique.

First person is a very easy voice to write in. But it's extremely difficult to do it well.

Stew21 said...

1) Referrals
2) Me reading something in a magazine or on the Internet and contacting the author to see if they have representation

would you mind referring me from AW to yourself?
Or maybe contacting me on the internet and asking if I have representation?

;-)

Stew21 said...

1) Referrals
2) Me reading something in a magazine or on the Internet and contacting the author to see if they have representation

would you mind referring me from AW to yourself?
Or maybe contacting me on the internet and asking if I have representation?

;-)

PamelaP said...

Hi Nathan:
Another grateful for the timely post. Currently working on a 1st person, but toying with epistolary. Have you ever addressed the epistolary novel in your blog. I'd be really interested in reading your thoughts/comments on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Daphne Du Maurier is good to learn from for writing first person. And most of her books were suspense. It blows my mind how she gives away the ending at the beginning of My Cousin Rachel, but still has me at the edge of my seat. My favorite is Scapegoat, but Jamaca Inn has an evil albino, if you're into that sort of thing.

-lk

putzjab said...

Dear Nathan:

I know this question is coming late, but I've written a middle grade school story in first person narrative. The protagonist is telling a story about something that happened in his past. How do I write it without writing in passive voice?

Sincerely,

Lena

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