The Problems of First Person Narrative
There are many articles about which is better when writing fiction, 1st or 3rd person. And most of the time they end up making quite generic points and then put the decision back in the hands of the writer without any real reason to choose one over the other.
The two main points tend to be: 1) Both can be made to work if handled appropriately (which, frankly, could be said about anything) and 2) 1st is trickier to get right than 3rd.
Which is true, yet most first time writers are drawn to 1st person, while the majority of published books are written in 3rd. So why is it trickier to writer in first person? And how can you overcome these difficulties?
Different Rules for Different Writers
Readers do not treat all writers the same. This may seem obvious but a reader does not approach the latest best-seller from a well-known author with the same mind-set as they would a writer who has no track record. This means well-known authors tend not to be held to the same standards as someone trying to get people to read novel number one.
Not that those standards are necessarily better or worse, they’re just not the same.
However, much of what we think of as good writing and good storytelling comes from the books we read. And most of these books are from the established authors we all know and admire.
But if they can write in a way that less experienced writers might not be able to get away with, is it worth using these authors as role models? And exactly what, if anything, can we learn from them?
Story Structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis
More than 2000 years ago Aristotle deconstructed drama in his Poetics. I only just came across it (well, the abridged version), but better late than never.
His ideas on what makes a good story boil down to pity, fear and catharsis, which more or less constitutes beginning, middle and end.
Greek notions of theatre back in the day weren’t exactly varied (I believe they only had three television stations—primitive times) but I think his core ideas still hold true today.
How to Unstuck a Story
At some point we have all reached some kind of impasse when writing a story. It might be a specific problem the character finds himself facing which you can’t figure out how to resolve, or it could be a more general structural issue and you’re not sure what should happen next.
Both of these types of problems can be sorted out with a little patience and a moment of inspiration. You think and think and think and then the answer comes to you. Usually. Sometimes, however, the answer does not come. Everything you come up with seems not quite right.
When this happens you should remember two things. First, no matter how unsolvable your problem may seem your brain has the capacity to solve it. You know this from experience, from all the times you’ve been in this position before (whether in writing or in real life) and you have that eureka moment and you know exactly what to do.
And secondly, just because your brain can give you the answer doesn’t mean it will. It’s one of those inexplicable evolutionary traits that don’t really makes sense. Sometimes your brain just doesn’t want to help you and needs to be poked with a stick. Well, here are some sticks to give it a little push in the right direction.
Where to Start Your Story (Exactly)
There are basically two ways you can start a story. You can have all guns blazing action or you can establish the ordinary world of the character before things change.
Both approaches have their pros and cons and a lot of it depends on various factors to do with your story and what you consider to be right for you as a writer. But the problem comes when you show your first chapter to someone else and they don’t react in the way you’d hoped, making you lose confidence in what you had thought to be quite a good scene that set things up nicely.
Questions arise such as maybe the other approach would be better for this story, for this genre, for you as a writer. But the truth is these are the wrong questions. So if the start of your story isn’t attracting the kind of response you want, what are the questions you should be asking yourself?
When A Scene Isn’t Working
There comes a time when you have to face facts. You’ve tried to convince yourself that scene where your main character goes back to her old house and stares at it for four pages is a good scene, an important scene where the reader learns things they need to know, but… it just isn’t a very interesting scene.
You know this because none of the people who’ve read it have ever said anything good about it. Quite a few have said bad things about it. And most have not mentioned it at all. You could take their silence as a sign they’re okay with it, but do you really want to write a story that’s just okay?
So, something’s got to change.
Waiting For A Story To Get Going
Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).
Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.
Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.
If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.
Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff
Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.
People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.
There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.
There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.
Interesting Characters: You are what you eat
Story is viewed differently by the writer than it is by the reader.
A writer knows what kind of person he is writing about, and uses that to inform what that character does on the page.
A reader knows what a character does and uses that to understand what kind of person that character is.
Both are looking at the same thing, but from different ends. The thing they are both looking at is this: what people do reveals the truth of who they are.
But truth and fact are NOT the same thing.
There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don’t tell.
This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However, you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won’t automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what’s on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.