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Writing Tips: The first person point of view

When using the first person, it’s important to understand that this character plays two roles: that of the storyteller and that of a player in the drama. These two roles jostle side by side as the narrative progresses. 

The storyteller stands at one remove from the unfolding drama, which enables them to describe characters, set the scene, note actions and reactions as the players strive to get what they want and struggle with antagonists, both internal and external.

The storyteller shapes the drama. They introduce each chapter in such a way that the reader tenses with interest.

But the storyteller’s role overlaps with that of the player in the drama. They know where the story is going and signal it in different ways, while at the same time they pretend the events they describe are as surprising to them as they are to the reader.

The second part, where they are surprised by the unfolding events, is the player at work, while the first part is the storyteller. 

When a writer sits down to write a story in the first person they have to ask themselves several questions. The first is: what advantage do I gain in using the first person that offsets the benefits I lose? The lost benefits are telling the story from several point-of-views, and thus knowing what is going on with the other main players. 

The second is: how should I frame this story? A confession is a first-person account with an implicit frame. The narrator has done something destructive that makes them feel the need to confess. Lolita is an example.

Also note that the power of the confession would be diminished by using the third person and several point-of-views. A memoir is also a first-person account with an implicit frame. Jane Eyre is an example. 

The third question involves two takes on narrative time. If a narrator is telling a story, they are telling it from a certain point in their lives when the events they describe have already happened. And yet they are describing those events as if they are unfolding as the story does.

Sometimes that after-the-event knowledge infuses the narrative. A confession, like Lolita, is saturated in knowledge after the event.

Sometimes a fiction that imitates a memoir uses this technique and sometimes it doesn’t. Jane Eyre does not use it.

The writer has to ask themselves how reflective they want their narrator to be. If it’s important the reader know the narrator is telling their story in full knowledge after the event, as in Lolita, then the story will switch between the events of the past and the events in the present, as the storyteller tells their story.  In Lolita, Humbert gives us glimpses into his state of mind and his method as he tells the story of his involvement with Dolly.

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her blog. 

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