Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tips to Dissolve Quirks in Writing First Person

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One of my favorite Christmas songs is "Mary Did You Know?" Mark Lowry asks great questions in this song. Wouldn't it nice to hear Mary's answers? Her first person response? Can you imagine reading the first year diary she kept for baby Jesus?

I've enjoyed seeing an increase in new books written in first person.  

While these stories have a knack for putting the reader in the shoes of the main character, this is a difficult, but not impossible way to tell a story. 

Today we'll examine what makes a first person story successful and how we can make our first person manuscripts shine.

1. Trim the word "I" words.

Manuscripts written in first person often have the word "I" littered on the page. This is by far the most tempting word to use in this format. Including "I" nearly every sentence seems the only way to move the story forward--but it doesn't have to be. 

Take a look at the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping."

The tempting way to write the same paragraph:

"When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold. I stretch my fingers out, seeking Prim's warmth, but I find only the rough canvas cover of the mattress…."


Let's dig a little deeper into the problem:

2. The same quality rules used for third person are also required when writing in first person.

One lesson we as writers learn is how to remove excessive uses of names, pronouns and other references to names. Do we really need a character's name/pronoun at the beginning of every sentence? Jenny opened the door. She walked down the steps and to her car. She looked at the backseat as was her habit after hearing recent news reports. Jenny…  

Not a fun read is it? 

It takes work to add threads of sensory clues and other story world to breathe life into the page! We polish our craft and learn--until we tackle a story written in first person and slip into bad habits. 

For example look how this paragraph from Covenant Child: A Story of Promises by Terri Blackstock demonstrates flow with only essential and well placed identifiers.

“But these Billion Dollar Babies wore Goodwill hand-me-downs. We ate dry cereal most nights for supper, right out of the box, picking out the raisins to save for our school lunches the next day. In my memory, we never formally observed a birthday, because no one around us considered that day worthy of celebration. We were worthless no accounts to most of the people in town."

Blackstock sprinkles appropriate pronouns without disturbing the flow or weighing the paragraph with "I".

Search every "I". See if the sentence can be reworked to eliminate the "I".  This doesn't mean substitute using "me", instead work the sentence to flow.  

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3. Remove Grocery list feeling.

The biggest contributor to choppy writing is the bundling of events. 

Here is what I mean:

"Really, Sarah. I walked to the store and picked up the next issue. I flipped through the pages and found his name in the title. I read the first lines. I couldn't believe he told the whole world what happened." I watched Sarah's face to see her response before continuing. "I picked up the stack of magazines and hid them behind other issues." I would have thrown them in the trash can if I saw one. I ran out of the store before an employee called me back.

While we can get a sense of the emotions and the setting in this paragraph, the list of the events creates a jagged feeling, not to mention violations of points one and two.

Take a look at this paragraph of events from Wildflowers from Winter by Katie Ganshert:

"He studied me over a pair of bifocals and clicked his pen against a clipboard, jotting mysterious notes whenever I talked or sighed or breathed funny. His name was Dr. Nowels, and he had a mustache the exact same shade as the dead mouse I found behind our trailer home the previous Easter."

Ganshert shows us not only a glimpse of the appointment, but also the doctor, and the MC's impression. Talk about a good example of flow and putting the reader in the moment 3-D!

The test of a well sounding story written in first person:

So, you've written your story, but crit partners and/or contest judges didn't seemed as impressed. What can you do when you're not sure what the problem is?

I know this may seem silly, but ride the wave with me on this one before shaking your head.
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First, imagine a child retelling your story. Most likely she will stand in front of you to insure eye contact,  move her arms as she speaks, and leave out "the boring" pieces. Her sentences will be short, but emphatic emphasis will be added for the explosive or other essential scenes. It will be a concise version of your story, shorter than a Reader's Digest version, but entertaining. At least you'll have the gist. As for story world…not so much.

Now, pull out a rocking chair and take a seat. Imagine your grandmother is the one telling the story written in your manuscript as it happened to her. Her back rests against the chair, she leans slightly to one side, and her eyes gaze off to the right. Before a word leaves her mouth she smiles and maybe laughs--not so much from the first scene, but at the overall story--because she is the only one who knows the ending.

You curl up in the chair next to hers and watch her expression. "What are you thinking?"

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Aha, you have opened the door for her to retell the event she lived. Her whimsical smile changes to the appropriate feeling needed for the opening scene. Her hand touches her chin and she begins the story. 

As Grandma walks through the pages of her past, she understands you were not there. She raises her eyebrows and retells her story. "The apple pie Mama made smoked up the entire house. I could barely breathe. Papa would never offend her with a scrunched up nose or utter a mean comment, but he didn't expect us to give up the ghost that afternoon, either. He popped out of his special chair and raced me to the living room windows."

Grandparents and seniors have an amazing way of spinning a yarn, and most of them are told in the first person. They tend to add interesting impressions, descriptions, dialogue, and sensory clues causing their story to flow and intrigue the listeners.

Your homework this holiday season is to listen to a first person story told by a grandparent or senior. (Not all grandparents are seniors, yet). Ask the person to tell you about their favorite Christmas or birthday or a positive even you know they've experienced. (If you need, there are oodles of seniors in nursing homes or even in your church who would love to help you with this assignment).

The second assignment is to ask a child or teen to tell you about their favorite Christmas or birthday. Key: you are not allowed to ask questions to help him say more than he first offers.

Observe the differences, including body language. What did you see and hear? 

Writing first person is very difficult but not impossible. 

Grab a rocking chair, and tell us your story in first person--like it's personal.

We love chatting with you here at the Writers Alley…here are some comment starters:

What do you enjoy most about stories written in first person? 

What special ingredient is nestled in the pages of a first person story that isn't found in a third person story?

If you have written a first person story, why did you choose to write the story that way. And can you share any tips?

Last, answer one of the questions from the song Mary Did You Know, as if you were Mary.  click here for lyrics


This blog post is by Mary Vee

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes contemporary and romance Christian fiction and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter


Unknown said...

As you point out, writing in first person seems to separate the wheat from the chaff as far as good writing is concerned. I like that in first person, the reader is able to get inside the head of the author, or the character. In writing memoir, which is first person, to keep the reader engaged, the writer has to focus on the use of strong nouns and verbs. It's interesting. I am not a voracious reader, and I lament that, but my husband pointed out to me, just this morning, that that is because I like 'give and take' in a story. That is what appeals to me in the first person point of view.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I love first person. I know it's not some reader's favorite, but for me, it's the most natural way to write. I'm also drawn more quickly to first-person novels than to third (although deep third has the same pull as first, when it's done right).

I'd add that eliminating as many dialogue tags as possible helps you stay close to your main character's thoughts, so you're watching the action, not the "he says, she says" type stuff.

All in all, it's a definite favorite of mine. Julie Cantrell is a shining example of a CBA author who is using first person to reach a wide audience. It's definitely something I strive for, as well.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Loved this, Mary. I'll step out on a limb and say I usually gravitate toward deep POV third person novels. Your thoughts here though, and your examples, are all good. They open my eyes a little more to good first person writing.

Some first person books I've read cause the character to come across as somewhat selfish in my eyes. I haven't read the books you shared here, though, so I'll have to do that.

Thanks for your tips!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I love your point. Readers expect give and take. They really do for all stories, but there seems to be a different vibe in the first person, wouldn't you say. Something even more personal than can be found in third person.

Thanks for mentioning the importance of strong verbs and nouns. Yes! This is crucial.

Great comments. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I love your point. Readers expect give and take. They really do for all stories, but there seems to be a different vibe in the first person, wouldn't you say. Something even more personal than can be found in third person.

Thanks for mentioning the importance of strong verbs and nouns. Yes! This is crucial.

Great comments. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Oooo Heather, words of wisdom AND a suggested author! Thanks!

Right along with the he said she said monotony is the she smiled, he winked, she ran, etc. These short phrases inserted to replace the he said-she said get just as boring.

Writing takes creativity, fresh phrases. Make them personal. We really don't go around repeating the same thing all the time when we speak. Neither do we repeat the same action all the time. Therefore writers need to fill the idea pages to spruce up their writing.

Thanks for stopping by and adding to our discussion, Heather.

Mary Vee Writer said...

You bring up an interesting concept. How to keep a first person story from sounding selfish.

The first example I can think of that may have successfully fulfilled what you are asking for is unfortunately non fiction. The Diary of Anne Frank. Still, perhaps reading works like this could help the writer to keep from portraying the character as selfish. What do you think?

Thanks for stopping by! Always love chatting with you.

Angie Dicken said...

I wrote my third novel in first person, and while it was a challenge since it was only one POV, I think it truly does get the reader deep in the shoes of the character. Because my character was so different than most of my proposed audience, I think first person was a great way to tell the story and connect the reader intimately to a foreign lifestyle. I've often wondered if being a newer writer had me gravitate toward first person? I don't have the itch to write this way anymore. Hmmmm...
Great topic, Mary!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Great post, Mary. I love reading first person if its done well. Jeanne here brings up a good point about too much introspection in first person POV. I've read one or two "psychological" novels where the suspense is mainly in the character's head. This is difficult to pull off. But when it does like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Poisonwood Bible, etc its done masterfully. Oh boy, to be a fly on the wall as Harper Lee was writing :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I don't agree. Not all new writers venture into the deep waters of first person. I think you were showing your gift for writing.

Using first person to intimately connect with a foreign lifestyle was a great idea. For example, if someone were to write a book about a character resembling Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr, or, say Schweitzer, I would expect it to be written in first person. Now I am wondering how Gone With the Wind would have read had it been done in first person.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Oh, I agree, to be a fly on the wall for these quality first person books.

I do agree, and hence today's discussion, there are some first person books that don't give us reasons to turn the second page much less go on to the next chapter.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Mary! There are few authors who pull this off well. When it is done well, you simply forget about POV and are lost in the story.

Mary Vee Writer said...

What a great way to explain this. Simply forgetting about POV and getting lost in the story. I love getting lost and losing track of time.
Thanks so much for stopping by today, Tina.
Always love chatting with you.