First Person Narrative Pitfalls

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on May 11, 2009 0 Comments

As many of you know by now, I publish a little speculative journal, The Bards and Sages Quarterly. I recently realized that I was sending the same rejection comments time and time again. So I decided to go through the rejected manuscripts and try to pinpoint some of the areas in which writers are losing control of their stories. Perhaps the biggest culprit I’ve encountered is the first person narrative. Some of this I’ve addressed in other articles, but I wanted to give a more focused and detailed explanation on this particular issue which generates a lot of rejections.

Now I love well-written first person stories. The problem is that, more often than not, they are not done well. First person stories are incredibly difficult to do well for a number of reasons. So in the interest of helping you improve your publication chances, here are some of the key problems I have noticed in the stories submitted to the Quarterly.

A soliloquy by itself is NOT a story: Yes, Hamlet’s soliloquy is a masterpiece, but if Shakespeare hadn’t written the rest of the play around it, we wouldn’t still be reading it today. Elegant internal monologues are wonderful as part of an actual story, but if there is nothing to your work except your narrator sharing his or her internal thoughts with himself/herself, your story will be rejected because your story does not exist. One of the big problems with first person narratives is the tendency of the writer to simply monologue the character’s thoughts and forget that they need to actually tell the story.

Worse, such monologues often degenerate into borderline nonsense. Instead of telling the story, the narrator simply rambles on about his or her desires, wants, loves, hates, or whatever else comes to mind. We recently rejected a horror story in which a lovelorn ghost kills the object of her affections. It was a 1500 word story, and 1450 words of the story was the ghost rambling on about how much she loved this particular character and how beautiful he was and how she wanted them to be together. Then in the last paragraph she uses some unexplained power to get him killed in a car accident. No build up to the murder. No explanation. No warning. Just 1450 words of monologue and a 50-word execution.

Stop talking already and tell the story!: Another issue with the first person narrative is that it becomes very easy to fall into the telling, not showing, trap. The narrator spends the entire story dictating the narrative instead of engaging in the art of storytelling. A recent fantasy story rejection involved a goddess who spent the entire story telling us how she got revenge on a human that wronged her. But instead of allowing the story to develop, the narrator had to go on and on about how smart she was for coming up with her plan, and how stupid her nemesis was for betraying her, and yada yada yada. A narrator that loves the sound of her own voice is poor choice for a storyteller. And unfortunately first person narrators, if not careful, become too enamored with themselves to tell the story.

Uninteresting narrator: In order for a first person narrative to be effective, the narrator has to be compelling. With a third person narrative, you have more flexibility with how you present various characters in the story. But with a first person narrative you can’t get away with a bland narrator. If your narrator is the hero, then he or she needs to be interesting and someone the reader is going to care about. If your narrator is the villain, he or she needs to be deliciously villainous to the point that the reader can’t wait to see him get his just desserts. Horror writers, take particular note of this point: NOBODY wants to read yet another first person story about a serial killer/mass murderer/vampire/monster etc who just goes around killing for no reason other than “OOO, I’m EVIL.” It’s boring. It’s lazy. It’s getting rejected.

While interesting characters are an important element of any story, they are of particular value in a first person narrative. If the narrator doesn’t have a personality, the reader will lose interest in the story quickly.

Omniscient first person narrators: When writing from the first person, your narrator does not have access to the thoughts of other characters. In order to convey information, it must be done through the narrator’s eyes. For example:

I sat across the desk from Miranda. She said nothing as I explained my problem. She was too busy lost in her thoughts, thinking about Edward and their last conversation. She missed him and was afraid for his safety. She wanted him to return to her quickly, but she knew he wouldn’t leave Lord Vaxtor’s estate until he had found the cause of the mysterious illness that was killing the peasants.

Unless the narrator is psychic, there is no way she knows what is going on in Miranda’s mind. This sort of narrative is fine with a third person story in which you can have an omniscient narrator, but when writing from the first person you have to remember that the narrator doesn’t know what is going on in the heads of the other characters. The first person narrator needs to provide clues and information without the benefit of mind reading. Consider this rewrite:

I sat across the desk from Miranda. She said nothing as I explained my problem. She stared blankly at the portrait of Edward that hung above the fireplace. Her eyes seemed vacant, as if her mind was dealing with other thoughts.

“Is everything alright?” I asked, though from the look on her face the answer was apparent.

“Edward left last night for Lord Vaxtor’s estate,” she said. “He’s determined to get to the bottom of the illness that has been killing the peasants.”

“I don’t doubt he’ll discover the cause quickly, Miranda,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.

In the second example, the narrator shares his actual experiences with the reader.  The information conveyed is the same as the first example, but instead of playing mind reader the narrator does so by using visual stimuli and dialogue.

WHO is the narrator talking to? And more importantly, how is your narrator narrating?: This is the one that snags a lot of writers. If you are going to use the first person, you need to be clear whom the narrator is addressing. Just last week, we rejected three first person stories where the narrator died at the end. Was the narrator writing to us from the grave? Or maybe telling the story to other dead people? Not saying that isn’t possible, but the stories were not written to justify either explanation. We recently rejected a first person narrative where the narrator is turned into a crocodile at the end. Last time I checked, crocodiles don’t type. Nothing in the story justified this ending, or explained how a crocodile was telling a story.

That’s not to say your narrator has to live (or even remain human). But as the writer, you need to be clear as to how the narrator is going to complete the tale if he or she dies at the end. And even if there is never an explicit explanation, you as the writer have an obligation to make sure the story is so well crafted that the reader doesn’t ask. In short, if you have told a good story, the reader won’t notice the issue. If the reader is noticing the issue, you didn’t tell a good story. You can’t just kill off the narrator as a literary trick without doing the work first to make the reader accept it.

 

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