The first thing my agent ever said to me was, “Readers hate first person narrative.” I had sent her a thrilling escape-from-the-bad-guys romantic suspense set in Greece under the Colonels. And, yes, it was told in the first person.
Still she’d read the thing. And then taken me to lunch.
So I nodded politely and murmured that it seemed to have worked all right for Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, P G Wodehouse and Mary Stewart.
“Yes, but they’re great,” she said impatiently.
I couldn’t deny it.
“What you need to do is forget all this ‘I think, I feel’ stuff. Readers won’t buy it. Concentrate on what people DO.”
Living without First Person Narrative
Well, I thought she was talking rubbish but she was the expert. I was the unpublished writer. So I spat on my hands, did what I was told and a year later Mills & Boon started publishing me.
Their house style was set in stone – and 3rd person narrative And I could make it work. I found I enjoyed it.
When I revised my second book last year, I admit that I added about another 10% that I thought was missing (mostly the hero). But I never considered for a moment making Lucy the narrator.
Why? Because first person narrative would slow down the story. And undermine all the best funny bits, too.
PITFALL 1 of the First Person Narrative
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nobody cared too much about slow stories. A stagecoach travelled at about 5 miles an hour.
In The Importance of Being Earnest Miss Prism’s lost masterpiece was “a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.” Catch anyone reading a three-volume novel now!
PITFALL 2 of the First Person Narrative
But PG Wodehouse kept Bertie Wooster’s first person narrative whipping along at a cracking pace, I hear you cry. And he makes you laugh out loud.
Yes, he did. Because he was a genius. Make no mistake, that is very, very skilful writing. And he was a successful co-writer of musical comedies. His dialogue is spot on. His timing is perfect.
Even so, he had to hone it. Some of his early work is a bit laboured. It was only when he was absolutely certain that he had the style he wanted, that he went into first person narrative. Or, more likely, was lured into it by Bertram Wooster of Mayfair, blessings on his beautifully barbered head.
That agent was right there, I wasn’t in his class and never will be.
But in another aspect, she was wrong. It isn’t the plots that keep us turning the pages. It’s the wondrous dialogue. Bertie’s voice is not alone. We hear Gussy Fink Nottle, Aunt Dahlia, Anatole, Rosy M Banks… above all we hear Jeeves. Bertie, bless him, is a faithful reporter, even when, as he so often is, he is justifiably miffed with the lot of them.
And Pitfall 2 is that the first person narrator GETS IN THE WAY. At least, he or she can get in the way in the hands of an unskilled writer.
I’ve been thinking about the first person narrator partly because I’ve been ill and reading loads of new novels in a range of genres.
Several of them were told in the first person – and in every single one, even those I enjoyed and admired, there were places were the story plodded.
One had almost no dialogue at all. It was all the internal analysis and reflection of the narrator. In another, a literary job this one, I couldn’t get anywhere near the other characters. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was happening, only the narrator’s exquisitely sensitive reactions. It was obsessive. I could have screamed.
And I suddenly remembered that, when I was a child, I refused to read books that were told in the first person. I didn’t (and still don’t) know why I felt like that then. I just put them back on the shelf. Chemistry.
But I can now see exactly why some readers might have that reaction too.
I’m currently working on a final edit of a novel that started out as a first person narrative. It just felt natural. I went with it. Some good stuff emerged, too. But, but, but… I knew something wasn’t right.
And then I realised – the heroine sounded self-obsessed and borderline neurotic. She isn’t either. But she was in the spotlight the whole damn time. It wasn’t her fault. It was mine.
I came back to third person narrative.
And now my hero has a voice. The minor characters get to do their thing. My heroine isn’t telling the readers when and where to laugh any more.
Above all, she gets to behave like an idiot without lacerating herself for pages afterwards. Result!
Maybe one day I’ll write a first person narrative that I can be proud of. But I’ve still got a lot to learn.
Writing Tips to Test Drive your Story in First Person Narrative
- Dialogue balance. Just looking at the pages, see what proportion is dialogue. Remember that everything else is just ONE CHARACTER TALKING AT THE READER.
- Again, just looking page by page: how long are the paragraphs? If you’ve got 25 line paragraph after 25 line paragraph, your action isn’t very dynamic and your reader is probably losing the will to live. (NB This may not be true for literary novels. One that I’ve just read eschewed paragraphs altogether, just had sort of chapters-breaks. Irritated me, but it was long-listed for one of the prestige prizes, and it did have other rewarding qualities.)
- Read the first couple of chapters. How much time does your narrator spend actually doing something, rather than reacting, analysing, debating or generally faffing about thinking about himself? (We cover this in Liberta’s Workshop Sparkle 1. Have found it very useful, while editing!)
- Read it aloud. This is infallible. As your narrator havers between the gold dress and the black, wonders what this man means or that, all in the tiniest detail, second by second, you’ll get so bored you’ll throw it at the wall. These are probably the darlings that Stephen King wants you to murder, now I come to think of it. He’s right. Take a scythe to ’em.