Tips For Writing A First Person Narrative

12 Nov

Most books and stories are written in the third person. In other words, they are written as if the characters are being observed by an all-knowing being. This perspective allows the author to look inside the characters and describe what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what they’re motivation is for the way they act and so on. The writer can know when one character is being deceived by another, or when something happens beyond their sphere of knowledge that has ramifications for a certain individual.  This is a powerful position and it allows many separate elements within a story to be woven together in a seamless manner that allows the reader to know more than any individual character about what is happening.

However, there is another perspective a story can be written from, that of the first person.  In these stories, the author, and indeed the reader, can only see the world through the eyes of the individual who is narrating the book. This can make for a compelling tale, since the reader discovers things at the same time as the main character, and can feel as if they are going through the same events. While first person narratives are rare in some genres, they are very common in others.  In particular, many of the best post-apocalyptic stories are written from a first person point of view.  This is because it’s narrative format is well-suited for telling stories of survival and turmoil.

Yet, writing a first person narrative can be very different from writing from a third person perspective, and if you’re familiar in writing from the third person point of view, it can be difficult to shift into writing from the first. In particular, while the reader is all-knowing in terms of the narrator, they can only find out about what others are thinking or feeling by their actions or if they talk about it.  This means that you have to be very careful about how information is revealed, and the whole story must be played out by the actions and interactions of that one key person. So how do you go about writing a first person narrative? Here’s my top six tips:

1. First person narratives are best kept relatively simple and linear.  This means you need to avoid many of the multi-faceted elements than make stories told from a third person perspective so compelling. Remember any explaining of complicated back stories or personal histories has to be done through speech, and if you make them too complicated, it will interrupt the flow of your main story.

2. It is usually best if you keep the cast of characters small.  Every time you introduce a new character, they will have to explain where they came from and who they are. This can get tedious for the reader if it happens too frequently, particularly if the character is not pivotal to the main story arc. I remember in one story I was working on, I ended up cutting the number of named characters in half after the first draft because introducing new people kept slowing the action down.  Instead, I just used existing characters in the same situations. This kept the story moving along, as well as allowing me to develop these characters in more depth.

3. The narrator is not a mind-reader. The only way he or she can know what someone is thinking is if they tell them. The same goes for events that happen out of sight of the narrator.  They cannot know what has happened unless someone tells them. This means the narrator must be in ever scene, although you can have scenes within scenes where another character describes to the narrator what happened elsewhere.

4. While writing first person narratives, it’s very easy to get suckered into using very passive language. For example, if the story arc calls for two people to move, it’s easy to write something like this: ‘We decided we should head north and we set off in that direction.’ This might be how you’d describe what happened if you were telling someone about it, but it’s hardly the most gripping writing style.  Instead, you need to work hard to keep your story in an active voice.  One of the best ways to do this is to use speech. In the above example, you could have a section of dialogue that tells the reader how the decision to head in a specific direction came about. Something like this:

I looked around desperately, trying to work out where we should go next, then I saw it, a small break in the trees up on the ridge to our north. ‘Up there, do you see it? It’s a way out.’

Bob lifted his binoculars and scanned the path that lead up to it ‘I don’t know, it looks too dangerous to me.’

‘You got a better idea?’

‘No,’ Bob scratched his beard and thought for a moment before carrying on, ‘But I still don’t like the look of it.’

‘We’ve got no choice. If we stay here, they’re going to find us, and then they’re going to kill us.’

Bob stared silently at the ridge as if waiting for something to happen.

‘Well, I’m going for it.’ I walked a few paces forward before turning back, ‘You coming?’

Bob said nothing, he just picked up his pack and followed as I led the way up the hill.

5. When you’re describing how the narrator is feeling, you need to vary the way in which you reveal this information. If you always use the same method, your story will soon get very boring. For example, if you continually use ‘I felt…’ phrases (as in ‘I felt sad’, ‘I felt run down’, ‘I felt frustrated’ etc) your story will quickly become monotonous.  Instead, you can use a variety of different ways to reveal the narrator’s inner emotions, such as, ‘I kicked the door in frustration’, ‘John’s assessment of the situation, while accurate, left me feeling thoroughly depressed’ or ‘As I walked through the ruins, a sense of desolation settled over me’.

6. When writing from the first person perspective, don’t imagine you’re writing a diary that describes what the narrator did. That style of writing it too passive and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever read someone’s diary, rather boring (they’re never the thrilling read you think they’ll be!).  Instead, imagine you’re trying to entertain someone with your story over a couple of beers. You’d use very different, and much more active, language than if you were writing a diary, and this is closer to the style you should be aiming for in a first person narrative.

So, those are my tips for writing a story from the first person perspective. I hope you find them useful. If you’d like to read a couple of short stories I have written from a first person perspective, you can find one here and another here.


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Advertisements

25 Responses to “Tips For Writing A First Person Narrative”

  1. Eva Alordiah 21/02/2016 at 09:33 #

    This is probably the only article I would ever need on this topic!!!! Ogmf course I am kidding, as my self, the one that constantky nags me about researching more and more would have it no other way than if I read up on some more. But from what you have laid out here, and simplistic too and all well detailed, I have learned so much! Thank you so much for writing this, I have just opened the short stories you linked in the post in new tabs and I am heading there after I hit gbe ‘post comment’ button. Subscribing too!

    • Colin M. Drysdale 02/03/2016 at 20:56 #

      Hi Eva,

      Thanks for your great comment, and it’s always good to hear people find my posts useful and interesting. Sorry to take so long to approve/reply to it (for some reason I didn’t get the notification that this had come in until today!). I hope you enjoyed the short stories you checked out too.

      All the best,

      Colin

  2. Stephen 19/03/2016 at 21:45 #

    Thank you for this piece. I’m 17 and I write all my sci-fi in first person narrative. I love it cos I get more power to throw my characters thoughts and feelings at my readers, making them {the readers} cry,groan,worry,fling the book away and pick it up,laugh,smile. Glad I stumbled on this.

    • Colin M. Drysdale 20/03/2016 at 00:19 #

      Hi Stephen,

      Gad you found this post useful. It’s basically what I wish someone had told me when I was your age – along with the advice of just keep writing and practicing, and don’t let anyone put you off.

      Personally, I like writing and reading first person narritives as it has the power to invoke emotions that third person narritives can struggle to do. which sounds like the same as you do.

      Anyway, good luck with your writing, and keep at it. One of the things I love about the internet (and apologies if this sounds a bit partonising – I really don’t mean it that way!) is that it lets people share their writing in a way that was impossible when I was growing up. Sharing what you write really is the best way to learn, and I wish I’d had the confidence to do it when I was seventeen.

      All the best,

      Colin

    • Manish 24/07/2016 at 07:42 #

      Hey Stephen can u write any short story of 200-210 words in first person narration

  3. Muzamil Syre 29/04/2016 at 09:08 #

    I loved the way you put the things about First Person narrative. I feel intrigued to ask a question, as I want to write a novel, it’s plot is ready, but the POV needs to be sorted out. I am confident you are the right person to respond to this. I shall be grateful. The question goes: Writing a novel, if the story starts with a narrator, who’s got a manuscript with him to dig into it for certain reasons, and finds that the manuscript is the detail of the person in coma he had found the manuscript with, what must the writer opt? First Person for the first narrator? Or for both narrators? Or could make use of Third Person for either of them? Which one would be more appropriate?

    • Colin M. Drysdale 29/04/2016 at 09:47 #

      Hi Muzamil,

      Thanks for letting me know how much you enjoyed this post. It is always good to hear that people find my posts useful.

      In terms of your question, it’s good that you are putting a lot of thought into the POV a this stage of the writing process. In these sort of novels where you have a story within a story, the most important thing is to make sure that it is clear to the reader which story is being related at which point. The most obvious way to do this is to use the first person for one story and the third person for the other. Typically, people would use the third person for the main story (i.e. the “narrator’s” story line, and the first person for the manuscript they are reading (this would usually be a journal or diary of some kind). However, it would also be possible to use the first person for the narrator, and then the third person for the manuscript he’s reading, but unless the manuscript is a book or story, it might seem a bit odd (and especially so if it is a journal or diary).

      You can also get away with using the first person for both parts, but it becomes much harder to make it clear to the reader whose voice is speaking at any one point. This can be done by writing in a different style for the two people, for example writing in formal English for one and informal or regional English for the other. Be warned, though, that this is very difficult to get right (many people try this, and many fail – but you shouldn’t let this put you off having a got at it, just make sure you’re willing to change if it’s not working for you). Similarly, you can also use chapter breaks to switch between narrators, and head each chapter with the name of the character, or the time period (e.g. Peter’s story, or 1963 and so on). This makes it very clear who is speaking when. You might be tempted to try to do this differentiation by using different fonts for the sections being narrated by different people, but this is something that you can probably only get away with in a children or YA book, and not a novel aimed at adults (adult readers quickly grow weary of such things).

      Anyway, I hope this helps, and remember that the critical thing here is going to be making sure that the reader knows which story is being told at which time, so you need to get this right, as well as the POV (which does make things a little more complicated – but it can also be very satisfying when you get it just right!).

      All the best,

      Colin

      • Muzamil Syre 29/04/2016 at 10:08 #

        Hello Colin, I really feel humbled having read your reply, a full-fledged reply. Thanks for everything. It’s really helpful.

        In fact, the narrator is kind of an officer who got a job to inquire into someone’s life, who is in coma, through the help of a manuscript, in addition to other things, found with him. This manuscript is kind of a novel in itself. The narrator (detective) has to read the novel before furthering his inquiry, so he tells things in first person. While the manuscript of the novel is the story of a few characters, but the main character being the narrator. I started with the narrator (detective) with the third person and the novel narrator in first person. I didn’t like it. So I changed it completely: detective in first and novel narrator in the third. But now I feel as the story moves (I have just started with a few chapters) that most of the events, rather almost all of the events are connected with the person who is narrating the novel, so putting it in third person doesn’t make sense OR maybe my idea is wrong. At a few places, where there were romantic scenes in the novel being narrated, I felt it important to notice that the third person worked well because it opened the thoughts and feelings of both characters. Besides, this novel, which is being narrated is narrated because the person who wrote it had no other option but to write his story himself so that he could communicate the same to someone special. In that sense, it occurred to me that perhaps it would be suitable in the first person. I am not sure. You can guide me well. At present, I was thinking that I should put both the narrators in first person. The detective has a little to do, which I could use in present tense, while the novel narration, which is the main story, be in the first person, past tense. I am still not sure about this. I am asking this because I feel two first persons in two different narrations might spoil the connectivity of the reader. Could I really use different tenses to separate from each other? Or if you suggest, I continue with the novel narration in the third person, which I am already doing?

        I shall be highly grateful, dear Colin!

        Best Regards

        M. Syre

        .

      • Colin M. Drysdale 01/05/2016 at 20:08 #

        Hi Muzamil,

        I like the idea of using the present tense for the detective and the the past tense for the manuscript as this would make it very clear as to which bits are which, although it will be hard work to get this just right so it doesn’t come across as a gimmick (I’ve read a few books that have used different tenses for different POVs and that have come across that way).

        However, I can also see the issue you have about wanting multiple points of view within the novel for certain scenes. Here’s a possible solution to this: Use the first person past tense for the detective, then use the third person for the manuscript of the novel, and then add a third voice in the first person present tense. This would be the person in the coma’s comments, notes and edits on the draft of his manuscript.

        This would make it a bit more complicated, but it might provide a very pleasing way of providing all the points of view you want, and to give the person in the coma a unique and clear voice (rather than just getting to know him through the manuscript). For example, you could have something in the manuscript crossed out and have the coma man having written a comment like ‘This wasn’t what it was like between me and Samantha. For us it was more intense. I need to re-write this’. This would add a really nice additional level to the story. Of course, this is just my thoughts, and you might find that it doesn’t work for your specific story!

        As always, I hope this helps.

        All the best,

        Colin

      • Muzamil 02/05/2016 at 13:48 #

        I am really humbled, Colin!
        Thanks for everything. This new stuff is really some food for thought.

        Since it’s pretty important to me at this stage, and especially because I feel you are the right person to help me steer the course of this story in the right direction, I felt an urge to respond to your comment; otherwise I wouldn’t have consumed much of your time.

        My protagonist is the man-in-coma. Story revolves round him. In a linear fashion. He is telling his story himself. Bcz he is writing all that occurred to him. In that sense I thought of giving him some genuine voice, which could possibly be in First Person POV.

        While the detective is kind of a tool to unearth certain realities. He is not the protagonist. Wouldn’t it be better if I use Third Person for his story?

        It’s what I have understood. I need your opinion and guidance.

        Kindest Regards
        Muzamil Syre

      • Colin M. Drysdale 04/05/2016 at 19:46 #

        Hi Muzamil,

        Thanks for the additional information on your novel. Given what you say, I’d probably go with a first person POV for man-in-the-coma, and a third person POV for the detective. However, I’d make sure that you use the ‘near past’ active tense for both voices (that’s probably not the official term for it, but it’s basically like describing to someone what’s just happened).

        I hope this helps, and good luck with your book.

        All the best,

        Colin

      • Muzamil Syre 06/05/2016 at 01:31 #

        Hello Colin,

        I am really grateful for your time and support. It was terribly important for me and you made it easier for me. Second opinion especially the one from experts is often beneficial and healthy. In your case it was from scratch. Not a second opinion only. Now I feel confident to go ahead with the story in a more comfortable way. Thanks for everything, my dear.

      • Colin M. Drysdale 07/05/2016 at 23:01 #

        Hi Muzamil,

        Glad to be able to help a fellow writer, but remember that my advice is just that: advice rather than fact. If it doesn’t work for you and your writing, then feel free to ignore it and do it your own way. Good luck with your book.

        All the best,

        Colin

  4. Scott 16/05/2016 at 03:31 #

    Oh my God seriously thank you for this!
    I’m writing a dark novel and it’s in the first person of a plague doctor. This seriously helped me with how I should go about writing the book. This gave me so much information that I can use in full, and again I’m super thankful for this.
    I still think it’s going to be difficult to switch from 3rd person to 1st person, but hey it’ll be a fun try!

    • Colin M. Drysdale 16/05/2016 at 11:05 #

      Thanks for letting me know that you found this post useful. Positive feedback is always appreciated! Writing in the 1st person can be tricky to get right, especially if you haven’t done it before, but it can be very powerful if you get it spot on.

      All the best,

      Colin

  5. Atiyab 19/06/2016 at 09:20 #

    You are a great writer and seems to be helpful too. Thanks for doing that for everyone Mr.Drysdale or do you prefer Colin. I am working on a sort of noir thriller , and will be very happy, if we can discuss a few things about it. It is my first long work and i have struck a narrative blockade. The POV have been decided, i have the whole picture of my story in my mind and have started on it. Can I have another way to contact you and discuss the issue. I would be very grateful. 🙂

    Atiyab Zafar

    • Colin M. Drysdale 19/06/2016 at 21:27 #

      Hi Atiyab,

      Great to hear that you find the contents of my blog useful to you. In terms of your own writing project, I’m always happy to offer advice, but only through the comments section of this blog rather than any other means. I know this isn’t the most convenient way of doing things, but it allows me to keep the separation between my day job (as a marine biologist) and my fiction writing, which is important for making sure that the bills get paid!

      All the best,

      Colin

      • Atiyab 19/06/2016 at 22:58 #

        Alright Colin
        Thanks for replying, I am stuck at a block which you will not like. I am working on narration through Journal and diary of two connected characters. Getting the story forward is not difficult in Journal writing, but the issue arises while writing narrative in Journal. You cannot have normal narrative dialogues in a diary or can you do that by going into third person narrative just for writing Dialogues?
        There is no doubt, that i will write it in the form of diary, I will make it across in the end, i am sure of that. My characters also seems sure about it.
        Cool, that you are Marine Biologist, i am studying Physics, so fiction is also my reserve personal getaway.
        All the best to you too.
        Thanks
        Atiyab

      • Colin M. Drysdale 21/06/2016 at 10:08 #

        Hi Atiyab,

        As you are finding, writing a novel based around a journal/diary can be quite complicated. It’s not something I have tried, but when done right, it can be very effective. The trouble is getting it right is difficult. Essentially, a diary/journal is reporting the events that happened to an individual/were observed by an individual. This means you can have third person dialogue if it is the narrator relating a conversation which they were present to hear. The difficult bit is building the bridge into the third person dialogue. For example, you can’t just say: Dear Diary, guess what Alice told Bob today? She said ‘…’ as this will sound very odd and will read like a child’s diary. Instead, you’d need to do something more subtle, and I can’t quite think how you’d do that at the moment. One of the more obvious ways might be to use a ‘flashback’ mode. In this, you would have the person writing the journal reminisce about a specific conversation/event and this would allow you to enter it without having to necessarily resort to writing it in journal form. You can then use specific break types or fonts to let people know what is diary entry and what is flashback (but be very careful not to get too much into fonts when doing this!).

        If you want to have a good example of a novel written in diary/journal form, I would strongly recommend reading ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir. This may give you a few pointers about how to handle things like third person dialogue within a diary/journal context.

        Anyway, as I said above, this isn’t a narrative form I’ve had much experience with, so I’m a bit limited in the advice I can provide, but I think it can be done successfully (and I think ‘The Martian’ proves this to be the case), it just takes a bit more work to get it all to flow properly.

        I hope this helps, and sorry not to be able to provide any more concrete advice in this case.

        All the best,

        Colin

        PS Cool that you’re studying physics. It’s not something that I every got into professionally, but I take a keen amateur interest in it, especially the quantum end of such things!

  6. Neil Cheesman 18/08/2016 at 22:20 #

    Hi

    very interesting…
    I am currently on my second novel/novella and wondering how I can add more depth to some of the characters – in a detective story written in the first person.

    • Colin M. Drysdale 19/08/2016 at 14:49 #

      Adding depth to characters is usually just a matter of filling in more of their backstory in some way so that the reader understands their motivations better. This can be done by having them do something unusual in a specific circumstance, so that another character has to ask why they did it, giving the opportunity for you to fill in more about the character. Similarly, you can have them converse with another character to bring out their backstory (this is often the best way in a first person narrative). However, you have to make sure that your backstories are complex rather than two-dimensional. For example, a bad guy shouldn’t only have a bad past, and good guys only good ones. Similarly, good guys need to have character flaws that make them act (or fail to act) in specific ways, and bad guys sometimes need to have a kernel of good in them that leaves the reader wondering why they turned out so bad. This is a very brief outline of how to flesh out your characters, but hopefully it will help you on your way to producing rich, interesting characters for your novel.

      All the best,

      Colin

  7. WriterAtHeart 19/08/2016 at 08:49 #

    Great tips but I must point out the first point is not a rule of thumb. You can just simply have your MC tell her/his past story right to the reader of make her/him remember it in a flash back. As for the other characters, you either make them a POV or have them tell your MC their story. Which both apply to 3rd and 1st point of views

    The second point, the number of characters depends on the story itself. Some stories have lots of characters like Game of Thrones or Monte de Cresto, others have a relatively small amount of characters. If the writer discovered many useless characters in the story (usually by asking themselves: why the hell did I write this dude?) A useless character can be spotted when you notice that another previous character can replace it (Same as you did with your story.)

    The other points are golden! Thank you for this blog.

    • Colin M. Drysdale 19/08/2016 at 14:42 #

      Hi There,

      Glad you liked my tips, and all I would claim is that they are my tips rather than any sort of hard and fast rules. It’s always interesting to hear when and where other writers disagree with me on this, and I guess that’s the type of thing that keeps every writer’s work unique!

      All the best,

      Colin

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How To End A Zombie Apocalypse Story | Colin M. Drysdale - 28/10/2013

    […] Fade To Black: A ‘fade to black’ ending is where either all the characters or, in the case of a first person narrative, the narrator of the story dies, usually at the hands of a zombie horde. While this type of ending […]

  2. Why I Write First Person Narratives | Colin M. Drysdale - 20/05/2014

    […] So, hopefully this provides, for those who might be interested, some insight as to why I write so much from the first person perspective. If you’re a budding writer and want to try working from this point of view for yourself, you can find some handy tips (including how to avoid falling into the ‘we’ trap) can be found in an earlier post on this blog, which you can read here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s