Thursday, September 27

The Tendency to Blab: First Person Narrative and Show v.s. Tell

These days, first person narratives are becoming increasingly popular. To be Frank,* it's a bloody epidemic.

This is the story of my weird life, from my perspective, with all my personal feelings. Now before we get stuck in, I have to describe myself to you. In order to do that I shall stare at my reflection because it's been two minutes since I last saw myself and I've forgotten the finer details.

If you haven't written a story that started this way - 'Congratulations!' If you haven't read a story that started this way, 'Shut your face, you liar.'

I'm not sure how I reeled you into reading this post...but if I had called it 'Excuse Me Whilst I Oggle My Reflection' you might have decided that it sounded self-indulgent and a waste of your time.

Sure, knowing what someone looks like is great and all but if your first encounter with them has a literal reflection thrown in, you're not going to be hooked. Even if the character in question has a fake leg that doubles as a lava lamp, I'd rather learn this through an action sequence rather than in a "spied my strange and sexy leg reflected in a window while I walked down the street" moment.

The temptation to describe a character's physicality straight away is strong and plenty of writers struggle to find the medium, myself included. Yet, why is it all the more excruciating to read about in first person?

Ding ding ding, you guessed it. INFO DUMPING! There is a reason that term sounds exceptionally gross - because it is.

One of the reasons first person narratives can work so well is because they often (not always) read as intimate and immediate. You are inside the protagonist's head, their narrative flowing like a train of thought. It can be easier to relate to and sympathise with a character whose head you are in from the start. Except in those moments when you want to scream, 'TMI!' and throw the book against the wall in the ridiculous hope that the character will get some sense knocked into them...or just bee knocked unconscious.

No, not ever first person POV is going to stop to oggle their reflection three sentences in. However, if your character knows something, it is harder to be less conspicuous about it.

One one hand, you can have a character purposefully keep information from their reader:

'This summer was shaping up to be worse than the last.'

Reader: Oh my! What happened last summer?

Just make sure you don't turn hinting about back story into a forced attempt at intrigue:

An atrocious thing had happened to me last summer.

Susie kept trying to bring up last summer but I brushed her off.

Remember how I told you about that thing that happened last summer? Oh, I didn't? Well...I still won't. You'll just have to wriggle in your seats. It's called suspense!

Reader: I'm bored.

Your protagonist needs to know when to shut up. This isn't their personal unfiltered feelings diary. Even if it is a diary, it's a story first. I may not feel authentic to edit out all that raw rambling but it will make for better reading.

No self-oogling, no forced intrigue, no spewing out everything your character thinks onto the page. Just, no.

Polaroids plastered the wall. Neon par signs, skewered sunsets, rats on the subway.

I spotted an unflattering pic of me - with a view straight up the honker - and plucked it from the collage. The white paint was blinding in its absence. I flicked over the card and saw the scrawl on the back: Alex, Bryant Park, 01/07/11. Almost a year now.

The camera remained on his desk, dusted with neglect. I picked it up and racked the shutter. Dead eyes and gaping nostrils greeted me.

I placed the new photo on his bed, leaving the back blank and stuck the other one in my back pocket. I didn't know if the smell of cigarettes was a memory or a stale imprint that still lingered.

So that's my first person narrative that I wrote on the spot just for you lovelies. Let me know if you can spot where the character tells the reader things, rather than showing them. I did say there was a happy medium, didn't I? I'd be a screw-up if I ranted about the horrors of telling people things without adding that sometimes it is necessary.

What is your take on first person narratives? Do you write them? Are you sick of reading them?
*I prefer Fred.

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