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Monday, February 06, 2017

A Simple Trick to a Stronger First Person Narrative

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I recently answered a question about writing first person, but over the weekend I had a thought that put it in much simpler terms. First person has always had a strange “I’m telling the story, yet I’m living the story, too” vibe that can make it tough to write well. But just like any other point of view, knowing where your narrator is can help you decide how to write it.

The narrative distance scale slides from close to distant, but with first person, it’s a slightly different scale. I like to think of it as the “reflective distance.” Instead of distancing your narrator from your reader, you’re showing the distance from the narrator and the events of the story.

(Here’s more on narrative distance)

The reflective distance is basically how much time has passed between the events and when the story is told. The longer the time, the more reflective distance affects the narrative. This is why some first person narratives feel very in the moment, and others feel retrospective and told from afar.

Let’s look at the three basic points of the first-person narrative distance. These three points cover the potential scale from close to distant, but feel free to slide that scale to fit your own style and voice:

The “In the Moment” Distance

This is when your narrator is telling the story as it happens. It’s immediate, often present tense (though it can still be past tense), and the narrator has no prior knowledge of anything that is happening. It doesn’t feel reflective because the narrator hasn’t had time to think about what happened or what it all means.

Imagine you’re telling a friend about something that just happened to you (or for a longer tale, one that you’re updating your friend on as it happens). The details are fresh, you’re still feeling the rush, and you haven’t had time to process it yet. You don’t know your own motives in any depth, so you certainly aren’t sure about anyone else’s.

(Here's more on knowing who your narrator is)

The “Recent Reflective” Distance

This is when your narrator is telling the story after she’s had a little time to digest what happened. It’s still feels fairly immediate, uses past tense, but there’s little to no assumption on the motives of other characters. She’s had time to think about her own motives (so you might see some “I did this to do that” type tells), but events still happened recently enough that she hasn’t had spoken to everyone else to find out what they thought and felt during those events.

Imagine you’re telling a friend about something that happened within the last week. The details are still pretty fresh, but the emotional rush has passed and you’ve thought more carefully about what happened. You drop the stuff that didn’t matter, focus more on the things that did, maybe add in a few details that you know will help clarify the story and make it better.

(Here’s more on retrospective first person)

The “Storytelling Retrospective” Distance

This is when your narrator is telling the story long after it’s happened. It’s all based on memory and conversations with the other people involved. There’s a sense of detachment to it, because the narrator has had time to consider how all the story pieces fit together and who did what when. She knows her own motives, and possibly even some of the other character’s motives.

Imagine you’re telling a friend about something that happened ages ago. You remember the details and the parts that make for the best story, even if you embellish a little. You can reveal the right hints at the right time because you know they matter and how. You’ve had the time to understand what it all means and why it turned out the way it did.

Who you’re telling the story to is just as important as where the narrator is. Think about where you want your narrator and what situation they’re in when they “tell” this story to friends. Did it just happen, or is this a well-hone tale of adventure?

What reflective distance do you enjoy? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Excellent rules. Especially, I like what might be the implied boundaries between them:

    For "Moment"-style it's all about your own needs and what you did in that moment--and if something happens then to show there's another perspective or you might be wrong, it's danged hard to pull yourself up short. (Same as in real life.)

    In "Recent" you're becoming aware of that incident's other sides; you might wonder if you were wrong or (if talking to a friend) be willing to let them tell you what you missed.

    In "Retrospective" you've seen what it actually led to and some "sadder but wiser" hints along the way might be half the story.

  2. I like reading books that are immediate. I guess that's why I'm trying to do it myself!

  3. Great post. I use the as-told-to-me-by-that-guy when necessary.

    You know: The guy pulled his automatic and shot me. I went down, unconscious. Two of the guys jumped at me to stop the bleeding, Gormley said. The Team began to return automatic gun fire. The bad guys dropped like flies. Gormley himself took out four of the insurgents, stitching red patterns of .223 slugs across their bodies. Henson lobbed a grenade overhand, taking a skin burn from a round doing so. But the Red Jihad members, all of them, are, at best, either in hell, or trying to convince 72 virgins that Allah has said they have to do this.

    I didn't find this out until two days later when I woke up at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, full of pain, drugs, and no food.

    The guys were gathered around my bed, laughing and talking as you do when a tough head nurse has stuck her head in and told everyone except me, "If you don't keep it down, you'll have to leave." Of course, everyone toned it down, giggling and talking as low as they could because everyone everywhere is scared of head nurses.