Monday, September 12, 2011

First Person POV Demons

We don't hear near as much about the craft of writing in 1st person point of view as we do of the more popular 3rd.  I've searched the world over for it in my endeavor to learn the art and the pickings were slim and often not as in depth as I would've liked.   

Let's start with the first obvious problem we run into when writing first person.  "I itis"  How the hell do we start sentences without using the pronoun I?  I'm a horrible learner which forces me to be a thorough "explainer" of what I've learned, and the only way I know how to do that is by "showing". 

Example of sentences beginning with "I" and various ideas for fixes.  Good news: There's a lot.

Example: I thought about what he said, and he was right, I had a demon.

Possible fix: That one thought kept running through my head. You have a demon. 
Possible fix: You have a demon.  The thought whispered through me. Was he right?  Maybe.
Possible fix:  Dan's words pulsed through me with dread.  You have a demon... you have a demon... you have a demon.
Possible fixYou have a demon.  No, no, no.  Had to get the thought out of my head.

There are times when using "I" has better impact, more punch.  So, it's about strategy.  Use your "I"'s wisely.  Just like with any word, you don't want to over use it and you don't want to misuse it.  There's a program out there that highlights overused words and I find tools like that just super duper.  There's a lot to think about when writing, and counting "I's" is not a chore to burden ourselves with.  Let machines do the dirty work if you can so that you can be free to think about keeping sight of the forest while in the trees; keeping hold of theme and arc while creating those scenes that take us from point A to point B.  But that cool tool I'm thinking of, is called Auto Crit.  Here's a link: Very cool tool (lets you try it for free)  

I asked myself a question when I couldn't find much on how to write first person.  Why isn't it very popular?  It is becoming more popular, but still, there are many readers that don't care for it.  Well, maybe we should find out why and see if we can't remedy that. 

One of the things I hear is, "I don't like being stuck in the head of one character that long."

And that brings us to lesson number two in first person writing.  How do I create the freedom a reader feels in 3rd person writing?  Answer: Diversity. 

I don't care how great somebody's voice is, after a while, the greatness wears off.  It get's old. 

It's funny that inner monolog and strong voice are some of the driving elements in first person that make it good and yet, it's those very elements that can kill it.  Too much of a good thing, you know the rest.  The magical key is MIX IT UP.  You hear of comedy relief, well, we need, get me the hell out of this head relief.  People will begin to feel trapped and uncomfortable.  It applies to all first person writing in every genre.  So, action, humor, drama, inner reflection, horror, description, information,  SPREAD IT OUT.  Writers are readers and we know that we're diverse creatures and love diversity.  Even when reading within a strict genre, we like diversity.  

Stimulation in reading comes on many levels but it all boils down to "making it real"  How do you do that?  Trick them into thinking they're actually living the event. 

And how do you do that?  Well, how do humans experience things?  With our six senses.  Yes, six, but don't overuse the sixth one. 

Writing the six senses comes down to craft.  How to put those words together to form the sentence that will scare the doo doo out of the reader.  Or make them laugh, or cry, or drive them to intimacy (my favorite).   Always consider what your motive is when writing a sentence and choose your words accordingly. 

And yes, it boils down to a sentence.  Each one is the vehicle that takes your reader for a ride.  Each one evokes emotion, and the writer decides what emotions the reader will feel.  It's just a matter of plotting the emotional manipulation.  The sentence sets a pace, applies a pressure, tickles, bites, strokes, soothes.  Long ones  can lull, make you think and contemplate and feel.  Nice when you're headed up the hill on the roller coaster. 

But the sentences should begin to shorten when you approach the top of the hill, the words will get crisp and direct, and when you crest and plummet the readers to their death, even more so.   A good read in any genre is like a giant roller coaster ride, and no roller coaster comes with just one hill, but many.  Big ones, small ones, curvy ones, hidden ones, spooky ones. 

But each one has an up, a peak, and a down.  Each one comes with a certain speed and feeling.  The up is filled with anticipation of what you sense is coming, the crest is where we brace because, there it is, certain doom, and then the down or the rush.     

Now consider that momentum when writing each scene.  And remember that each scene, (Greg meets Sally) is just sentences combined together to create an experience.  In Greg meets Sally, the experience we want to give is going to be excitement, humor, suspense, romance.  How do I manipulate the reader to feel these things.  Sentence length, word choice, authentic dialog, interesting characters. 

How do I make it real?  By pretending you're telling a story to a blind person.  They can only see what you show them, and the better you describe it, the more real it is to them.  

You may have heard rules about not using weak verbs, but wait, even weak verbs have a purpose.  Because every word carries power to evict emotion if used properly, even weak verbs.  Maybe we want the schwingy "ing" verb to create a romantic, soft mood.  And when we want to get down and dirty, we know words that create that mood too.  And when we want to do both, cause that's always fun, we mix it.   

Example of the power of sentences and their structure: (note, I do not write horror)

Bad writing:
Sarah looked and saw the string hanging from the light.  It was moving, like somebody had just touched it.  She wasn't alone.  She suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.  The smell in the house choked her.  Death was everywhere, evil hung heavy in the air.  She heard a creaking noise to her right.  Terror slowed her steps as she wondered who are what was there with her.

Let's examine each sentence:

Sarah looked and saw

 (The biggest and easiest mistake we make as writers is saying things the reader already knows.  It's like little rocks on the tracks of the roller coaster ride, makes for a rough ride and will likely give you a headache after a while.  Readers don't realize that, of course, they just get the headache, look at the ride when they get off and think, what a waste of money, too much pain for the thrill.  Let's go to such and such park (other author) where the thrills are always great and the rides are always smoothe) The reader knows characters have eyes and they use them to look and see with.  Not to be confused with a character examining something, but you know the difference, so, for the most part, only show what the character is seeing)

  [better:]The string hanging from the light, moved"  (String, light, moved.  All these things could be better.)

[Like:]The string hanging from the lightbulb in the low ceiling, swayed in front of her.

 (Now we see more and I gave an idea of the length of the string by giving it's location in respect to the character.  In front of her.  We don't want to give exact or approximate sizes in number but rather where they appear in location to the character, who is the reader.  And the ver swaying is a more descriptive action, more description, more real.  But be careful not to sacrifice the tension for description)

 "She wasn't alone." 

 (Don't TELL that, but very slowly, let us DISCOVER that with her.) 

 "She suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach." 

(really?  Like gas?  What?  The more specific we are, the more connected the reader gets.)

 [better] She paused at the sudden smell. Like that room at Uncle Joe's farm where they slaughtered the animals. Except different.   Alcohol maybe, and amonia. That's what was different.

 "Death was everywhere"

 (notice you don't even need that because we showed it by identifying the smells)

"Evil hung heavy in the air."

 (Another spoiler.  Let's just "see and discover" what's there, it adds tension when we DON'T KNOW FOR SURE)

 [better] Fear tickled along the skin of her spine.  Get out of here.  The inner voice froze her steps. 

"She heard a creaking noise to her right"

 (Again, we don't need to be told when a character is using their ears, we know at all times they are, we only tell when they aren't maybe)

 [better] A deep creaking jerked her eyes to the door on the right.  "John?" Her voice trembled.  Large bloody fingers clrawled out along the door jam, middle finger pointing left, then right, before aiming at her.  A thick giggle rumbled on her left.  

Now all together:

The string hanging from the lightbulb in the low ceiling, swayed in front of her.  She paused at the sudden smell.  Like the room at Uncle Joe's farm where they slaughtered the animals. Except different.  

Alcohol, maybe...and amonia.  That's what was different.  Fear tickled along the skin of her spine. Get out of here. The inner voice froze her steps.  

A deep creaking jerked her eyes to the door on the right.  "John?" Her voice trembled.

Large bloody fingers crawled out along the door jam, middle finger pointing left, then right, before aiming at her.

A thick giggle rumbled on her left.


I'm sure a real horror writer could do much better because they practice the craft of choosing the exact words and combining them in the sentence to make us pee pee in our pants. 

But in conclusion, writing first person effectively is about givign the reader that first person intimacy, without making them feel like they're stuck in a bad marriage.  And the way to achieve the diversity of 3rd person is to MIX your sentences very well.  When in the narrative voice of the first person, where he's just telling the story, mix sentences in length and type and pace.  Don't go long using inner monlogue and don't do it too often.  Pace, pace, pace.  Vary the doses of dialog, action, drama, humor, description, and information, as equally as you can.  In fact, use diversity in anyway you can think of, get creative.      

Hope this helps.


  1. Hey,Girl, glad to see you're sharing everything you've learned the hard way about first person writing!

    Here's another tool folks might find useful - it counts how many times a particular phrase is used, and if I remember correctly, it counts repeats of single words as well.

  2. Azure...I came by to thank you for joining my blog, but a funny thing happened while I was here. I started to read and kept reading until the bitter end...and found a new inspiring author to fall in love with. You're writing is magnificent. If I only possess an inkling of your would be amazing.

    Keep it up and good luck with your writing, not that you'll need it.

    Oh, and thanks for the lesson the POVs. :)

    L. Filloon


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