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Is Your First-Person Narrator Overpowering Your Story?
Stories told by a first-person narrator (i.e., “I went to school today” vs. the third-person narrator “she went to school today”) are increasingly popular these days, particularly in YA fiction. But this is often a narrative perspective that’s tricky to get right. The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which he overpowers the story, at the expense of the other characters and even the plot itself. Let’s take a look at some of the common pitfalls and how to avoid them. Beginning every sentence with “I.” The first-person narrator tempts writers into focusing on the narrating character to the exclusion of other subjective nouns. The result is a stultifying string of sentences that all feature the same subject. Mix and match subjects to electrify some life into your syntax. Wrong: I fled down the stairs, heart pounding. I could hear the zombified giant clomping after me. Ahead, I could see the cellar door offering me the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside. Right: My heart pounded as I fled down the stairs. Behind me, the zombified giant clomped after me. Five feet ahead, the cellar door offered the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside. Telling thoughts instead of showing. In the first-person narrative, everything you write is straight out of the main character’s brain. You don’t
need to clarify the character’s thoughts by placing them in italics or qualifying them with an “I thought” tag. Wrong: I couldn’t believe this was happening. Zombified giants don’t really exist, do they? I thought to myself. Maybe I’m dreaming. Right: This couldn’t be happening. Zombified giants didn’t really exist, did they? Maybe I was dreaming. Inserting lengthy narrative at the expense of action and dialogue. Firstperson narration offers the temptation to share with readers everything the character is thinking. But beware of lengthy narrative rabbit trails when you should be allowing action and dialogue to carry the story. Wrong: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked. I heaved a sigh. Kirsten had no idea how insane my life had become. She had no idea that zombified giants—huge and ugly and stinky—were after me. [Insert lengthy description of zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.] Right: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked. I heaved a sigh. “You have no idea how insane my life has become.” I threw my backpack into my locker, shot a surreptitious glance up and down the hallway, then leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “Zombies! Big ones!” [Insert witty, conflict-ridden dialogue that conveys the important information about zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.] Utilizing a first-person narrator can be an exciting way to create an immediate and intimate story readers won’t be able to turn away from. Make sure you aren’t stumbling over these common mistakes, and you’ll be more than ready to knock readers (and maybe some zombified giants as well) off their feet with your powerful narrative.
About the Author: K.M. Weiland grew up chasing Billy the Kid and Jesse James on horseback through the sand hills of western Nebraska, where she still lives. A lifelong fan of history and the power of the written word, she enjoys sharing both through her novels and short stories. Visit her blogs Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture to read her take on the writing life.