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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

#10 - Writing A First Person Novel (HOWNTWAN)

This is the tenth article in the semi-comedic series, How Not To Write A Novel (HOWNTWAN). The first article in the series can be found here: What's Your Story About? Keep reading during the next couple months for the rest of the series.

10. Writing A First Person Novel

It’s the easiest thing in the world; writing a story in the first person. After all, it’s what we know. We live our lives in the first person. So, how does it go?
I went to the store. On the way I passed the house on the corner where Stephanie lived. One day I hoped I would get a chance to meet her properly, instead of just peering through the window as I was known to do from time to time, in the vague hope she may be staring back at me.
Sounds fine. A good start to the story. Surely we can keep this up for a while and hope it doesn’t become too repetitive. Except that a lot of first person stories do. Every paragraph seems to start with the word ‘I’, and the tone of the story seems a little monotonous. It’s difficult to keep a first person story full of tension and drama, and also to understand stories from other’s perspectives.
Let’s consider another first person snippet - this time some dialog:
I pushed open the door, gritting my teeth as it creaked a little, and peeked inside the room. Steve was sitting in the armchair, just as I had expected him to be. “How’s it going?” I asked.
He turned his head to face me. “Alright. Just a little tired, you know.”
“Tired?” I asked, a little unsure as to why he would say that.
"Well, you know, after the last couple of days. The police and everything.”
I nodded and walked over to sit down in the chair next to him. “So, what are your plans now?”
“Don’t know truthfully. I’m really not thinking straight.”
I felt sorry for Steve and I reached out a hand to take his. “Yeah, I guess it’s all a little worrying.”
I had never been arrested in my life and to think that Steve was now a suspect in the murder of his wife certainly evoked many different kinds of emotions for my best friend.
Is there anything wrong with this passage? Not really; it’s self-explanatory and the reader understands how the narrator feels towards Steve, and the situation he is in. The problem is that you don’t really get a chance to understand how Steve feels about it all. Is he really coping okay? Is he sad, or is he angry inside? It’s all assumption; the writer’s assumption. Writing in the first person only gives you the ability to give one person’s perspective. On everything.
Now let's turn to the problem of the plot. Most every first person perspective book involves the narrator taking a journey, or lots of journeys. After all, you’ve got a lot of book to fill, and there’s only so many ways you can describe a daily trip to the local bar. You can’t jump to another character, you’ve got to write only about your perspective, on every single page of the book. Therefore it makes sense that a book that has a journey in it, gives the reader time to explore the world with you, and get to know your character better.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying never write a first person perspective novel. There are times when it can work. Hunger Games is a very good example (and yes, even that book has had criticism leveled against it - and the movie version showed scenes that weren’t from Katniss’ perspective). Also, memoirs and life stories can work when written in the first person. But a complex political thriller? Probably not.

Writing a complete novel from the perspective of the first person means you will always have to make compromises. Are those compromises worth it? Only you can answer that, but generally first person novels are a hard sell for the reader. A reader wants to experience a full set of emotions when they read a book, and get inside the heads of everyone to a certain extent. First person perspective books don’t give the reader that opportunity. But, hey, why should you, the author, worry? You are happy in your day job, and are just doing whatever comes naturally. Writing in the first person is easy, right?

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  1. I wish you would check out my novel and let me know if it fails, for the reasons you have outlined. (Av. @ amazon: 'The last days at White Cloud Air'). Also, have you read Mailer's 'Tough Guys don't dance'?