First-Person Shenanigans

My new book, Follow the Crow, which is with the formatting and digitizing crew as we speak, is written in first-person present tense (FPP for the purposes of this blog). This was no accident. I crafted the story specifically so I could write it in first person, but it was a major departure for me and I think I learned some things over the course of writing the first book that might help you if you are pondering writing in FPP.

What is FPP, you may ask? Don’t worry, there are no stupid questions here. This is a safe place with animal crackers and chocolate milk. I, like you, often get confused as to what narrative style is what, and I’ve been writing for many, many years. So, for a refresher:

This is third-person omniscient (what is generally considered “mainstream” narrative style):

Jack watched the clouds gather above him. As the sky darkened he realized that today was a terrible day to walk to work naked.

Now, first-person present:

I’m walking to work and I look up and a raindrop hits me right in the face. I think to myself ‘way to go Jack, ya dumbass. You’re naked and about to get rained on again.’

Get it? Good.

First, you’ve no doubt heard that FPP narratives are awesome/horrible, that they delight/annoy the reader, and that they can completely uplift/ruin a book and propel/destroy your career as a writer. Get all that out of your head right now. A first person book will either sink or swim on its merits, just like every other book since the dawn of man. A lot of self-publishers shy away from FPP because it’s different and therefore might not sell well. I think that’s bunk (Hunger Games, anyone?) and you have to realize we self-publishers are terrified of everything. You mustn’t even make loud noises around us.

The obvious advantage of FPP is that it allows you to really get into the head of the characters. It also makes everything much more immediate. It’s perfect for mystery and suspense novels where you want the reader to experience what’s hidden just around the corner at the same time the character does. It provides a unique reader connection, but it’s not easy to write, especially if you’re like me and you are a hardline nerd worldbuilder that likes complete control over their story.

Some things to watch out for:

1.) Your tense will slip all the time.

In Follow the Crow, the first book in the Vanished series, I was finding past tense verbs peppered about present tense paragraphs even into the fourth edit. If you’re like me, your brain is wired to accept a past tense verb as normal and skips over it. This is bad. When tenses don’t align it’s jarring to the reader and throws them out of the story, and it makes you look like a scoob. So watch out for it.

2.) You really need to get in your character’s head.

I mean you need to become your character. I think the most difficult thing about FPP, particularly multiple point of view FPP (MPOVFPP for those of us into the whole brevity thing) is voice. When you write a character in first person, readers will immediately know if you sound like a phony. All it takes is a couple no way she’d think that’s or nobody would actually act like that’s to lose a reader.  When you have multiple characters in FPP you have to clearly define a separate voice for each. Your goal should be to write your characters such that your reader doesn’t need to look at a chapter heading or flip back through plot cues to figure out which character he’s reading at the time. I found that taking a break between voices helped a lot. If you write straight through you run the risk of characters bleeding into each other.

3.) Reign in the emotions.

It’s true that FPP lets the reader get close to the characters in ways that other narrative styles don’t allow, but that shouldn’t mean that every other paragraph you write is straight out of Dawson’s Creek.  Keep in mind that just because you are in your characters head doesn’t mean that you need to be writing what they are thinking all of the time. In fact, I think the most effective FPP writing is when it focuses on interactions. It helped me to keep in mind the old-faithful rule of writing: Everything you type should move the story forward.

I really enjoyed writing in first-person present. It’s easy to get stuck in third-person and forget that there are lots of ways to tell a story. Be sure to check back in after I release Follow the Crow when I’ll be able to tell you if my advice is worth a damn.

Happy writing!

-BBG 

Comments

  • I am working on my first novel and my brain wants to write in FPP, but I don’t because I’ve heard it’s not a good idea. Thank you for your input. I probably won’t start this story over but my next one will be in FPP. I love reading stories written that way as well! I will check out Follow The Crow!

    kat | May 6, 2014
  • Hi Kat! I understand your hesitation, I heard all of the naysaying about FPP as well, but I think a good story is a good story. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck on your novel!

    B. B. Griffith | May 6, 2014

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