1. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    First-person writing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by lostinwebspace, Aug 5, 2011.

    Anyone have any tricks to not use so much "I" in first-person writing? I have a story that I wrote in first-person, but it uses *wwaaaayyy* too much "I". I've gone over it twice and each time I widdle away more and more of those sentences, but it's still far from saleable. I've thought about changing it to third-person, but the character works better this way. Any suggestions... any common sentence structures that work... any ideas?

    And, to ask a question, is it just the sound of the repeated "I" that makes the work amateurish or is it the egocentricity? I want to know if the use of "my" and "me" contribute. I know, I know. Everything in moderation, which includes "my" as much as "I," but I want to know what I'm up against here.
     
  2. Fullmetal Xeno
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    Fullmetal Xeno Protector of Literature Contributor

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    To be honest, First Person writing is one of the hardest things to tackle. I write most of my stories in Third-person so im afraid i might not be much help.
     
  3. J.P.Clyde
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    J.P.Clyde Prince of Melancholy Contributor

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    I write a lot of my stories in first person. When I use first person I move forward the story with a thought, rather than just action. If you find yourself in a loop of "I walked to the counter and stared at the clock. I then went to the refrigerator..."

    I suggest something more like, "Walking to the counter, I took the time to muse myself with the passing time. There was something universally interesting that at this time I was experiencing a whole different time line than someone else. Completely forgetting why I had originally gotten up from the couch, I continued to staring at the clock. A gleaming teal light behind bold numbers. "

    I move the story with thought and not always action. Because first person stories getting very boring when it is, I did this and then I did that. I punched the man in the face.

    Just think about it. What do you do everyday? Do you mindlessly with no thought get up to the refrigerator and make a sandwich?

    First person has always been inside the character's head driving the story.

    When you get up to make a sandwich do you think about the actions you're performing? I certainly don't on both accounts, I don't mindlessly not think. And I do not think about the actions being performed.

    I instead think of other things. Or even narrate different things in my head.

    You can cut down a lot of "I" with replacing words. Instead of, I walked. Start it off as, After sitting to long I finally stood up off the couched and made my way to the kitchen.

    I hope I helped. I am not really good at explaining my processes when it comes to first person.
     
  4. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    I still keep going back to what Cogito posted on my blog on 1st person narratives--in 1st person it's too easy to keep it all internal instead of using the external action AROUND the 1st person narrator to keep the story moving.

    Even with thoughts, there can sometimes still be too much "I." The narrator can be a very good observer, and tell an external story in his/her point of view without sucking the reader into some kind of emotional and "me-focused" vortex. It's just so easy to write the turbulent emotions and individual actions of the narrator in 1st person, that it's hard to remember that the story is happening "AROUND" the individual, not necessarily just within the individual. Even Catcher in the Rye was a narrative that, despite being stream-of-consciousness style, was definitely still externally-focused in many ways.

    I hope this makes sense.
     
  5. J.P.Clyde
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    J.P.Clyde Prince of Melancholy Contributor

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    I never said take away the action. I just said not to make it robotic. I write very stream of conscious. Philosophical horror.
     
  6. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    I write almost exclusively in first person. My main characters make a lot of observations that don't require sentences to start with "I." Other times they describe action going on around them. If you're starting sentences with things like "I noticed," "I remembered," "I knew" etc, try eliminating those phrases completely and see how the sentence looks.

    One other thing: this issue may not be as noticeable or problematic as it seems to you. Try reading a book that uses first person and see how they handle it. We usually breeze over "I," just like "the" or "said". To someone else reading your story it may not even be a problem.
     
  7. Darran
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    Darran Member

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    Hi,

    I also write first person so understand your dilema. A couple of tricks I use: try and use stream of Consciousness, also observation i.e. show not tell using showing, in a way takes it from first person (I) hope that helps :)
     
  8. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find first person a heck of a lot easier to write than third person because I can quite literally become the character. The words flow much easier. I would write all my stories in first person except for it's one unforgivable weakness. You can't change POVs, and some stories are so much better when told from multiple perspectives.

    Anyway, it's important with first person to never forget the show vs tell principle. Many sentences that begin with I are telling, when you should be showing.

    I felt nervous and alone in the crowded party.

    vs

    My stomach tingled as the room churned with strangers.
     
  9. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    1)I wouldn't recommend first person unless you're an expert writer. If you're an expert writer, you would understand how to do first person already. Also, there are twenty five people in the world who understand how to do first person, and the chances of one of them being on this forum is minimal, unless you've got an Improbability Drive tucked away in your sleeve. Improbable that you could tuck one in your sleeve, but since you're looking at the Drive in the first place.... oops, deviated from the topic.

    2)Use thought to move the story along. Instead of "I went to the kitchen. I made a sandwich. I looked at my brother sitting on the couch. I thought my brother was lazy." You could have "Strolling unhurriedly to the spotless white kitchen, I grabbed two pieces of bread and started piling ham and lettuce onto it, moving almost robotically. Spotting a figure lounging about on the couch, a frown creased my face. Lazy git." The ratio of "I"s from the first draft to the edited version is 4:1.
     
  10. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    This makes no sense.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Writing well in first person prerequires the ability to write well in third person. First person writing is just like third person writing, except more restrictive.

    The mistake most writers make writing first person is making it all about the character.

    Look outward, not inward.

    Those who think writing in first person is easier than writing in third are probably doing it all wrong.
     
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This is silly. I can go into the bookstore and find more than 25 authors on the shelf who do it correctly, and I know any number of amateur authors who are good at it (including a number of people on this forum). There are tricks to doing it right, sure, but it's not that hard. I wouldn't say it is more difficult or less difficult than third person, but you have to understand the POV you are using and do it well. To some authors, first person comes more naturally, and to others third person comes more naturally, but either one can be learned by applying a little effort.

    And after making this statement, you go on in point 2 to explain to the OP how to do it, so is it safe to assume you're one of the 25? :rolleyes:
     
  13. The-Joker
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    The-Joker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, I have to agree with Steerpike. First Person isn't necessarily more difficult than third. Third person forces you to observe the character as a mere thread in the fictional tapestry. True it prevents the writer from centering everything around the character, but it can present traps of its own. Sometimes we forget that the observation and experience should be filtered through the eyes of the MC. It's far easier to violate the POV restrictions in third person.

    In first person you can't make that mistake.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I see people slipping up on first person POV restrictions all the time, stepping out of the first person role to present information unavailable to the POV character.

    I stand by my assertion.
     
  15. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    El-oh-el.

    Honestly, I've seen writers screw up third person at least as much as first. Because you have to ask, is it third person limited or third person omniscient? Can you see into people's heads? Just one person's head? And then the writer might change their minds part way through, confusing the reader.

    In The Making of a Story, Alice LaPlante gives great advice on writing in first person. In fact, I believe she actually recommends it for beginning writers.
     
  16. AJSmith
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    AJSmith Senior Member

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    Interesting thread.

    I understand all...most of what has been said on this thread but it leaves me wondering about one thing still.

    Looking out more than in makes sense (for readability, so the MC doesn't seem too egocentric, keeping the focus on the larger plot), but at the same time, doesn't the small amount of 'looking in' allow the readers to better connect with the MC?

    I know that the reader can connect with the MC in third person perfectly well, but it seems to me that a reasonable dose of 'thought/feeling/motivation/internal conflict sharing from within can be a powerful tool as well.

    Also, is the skill of writing first person well not something that can be refined through revision?
     
  17. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    Sorry, I guess I wasn't explaining myself well. You can have action and still have too many "I" if the action you're narrating is mostly what the narrator does as opposed to the story itself and the character's role within the story. You can also still have stream-of-consciousness flow and yet eliminate your I's if your 1st person point of view is more like an eye on the outside work occasionally peppered with the narrator's opinion on it. Also, some writers like Ernest Hemingway would describe the external features of an environment in a way that set the mood for how the protagonist would feel. That's also possible.

    To a certain degree, I is just a part of the 1st person work. I'm not saying to eliminate "I" altogether, but just instead to realize that a story is many times bigger than just the narrator.

    Granted, never having read anything in the philosophical horror genre, I'm sure you can sift through my advice and decide for yourself whether it's helpful or not. :)
     
  18. Fullmetal Xeno
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    Fullmetal Xeno Protector of Literature Contributor

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    That doesn't make sense. That's like saying only 25 people in the world can write. Unless your using a ratio, but still. Theres plenty of people out there who can write.
     
  19. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    I also have had this debate with myself, whether I'm making a mistake about information, whether I am going to have 3rd person omniscient or limited, and what that looks like...

    I think this kind of sorting out happens with both POV's. What I had difficulty with is how to introduce my protagonist at the beginning without having the 1st person narrator do some kind of cheesy direct self-introduction to the reader complete with name. I've tried to have dialogue accomplish this instead, but it never really quite works. It's more efficient for me to handle the opening paragraphs in 3rd person than in 1st.
     
  20. Leah
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    Leah Member

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    I've read some really really really (can I stress "REALLY"!!!!) bad first person writing. It was painful. I had to put the book down, something I loathe doing.

    However, Marian Keyes - an irish chick-lit author did the first person writing so beautifully in "Watermelon" that it inspired me to give it a try. One of my rough novels is in the first person.

    I lost some of the writing however, so I am in the process of re-writing it but it's been fun. I can play with my thoughts a lot more since i'm actually feeling them, being the first person.

    Good luck!
     
  21. Radrook
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    Radrook Contributing Member

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    Here is an example I hastily put together to illustrate how to reduce the first person singular pronoun "I".


    Example with "I".


    From my vantage point I could see that the village wasn't as large as they later said it was. Here and there I could see beige and white tepees peeking out from between trees. On the further vista I saw a few squaws pounding clothing against the river's rocks. I could hear a dog barking nervously and I worried that it had gotten a whiff of our unwashed bodies. From the far bank I could hear the staccato of rifle fire. I also saw and a billow of dust rising like a specter where clear sky had been. Then suddenly I heard a horse snort and a shrill crie as if from hell itself. Then I saw Indians swarming toward us in the hundreds.

    "Let's get em boys!" I heard Custer shout.




    Example without "I"

    From my vantage point the village wasn't as large as they later said it was. Here and there were beige and white tepees peeking out from between trees. On the further vista a few squaws pounded clothing against the river's rocks. Several dogs barked nervously probably detecting the scent of our unwashed bodies. Then from the far bank came the staccato of rifle fire and a billow of dust rose like a specter where clear sky had been. Then suddenly horses snorted and a shrill crie as if from hell itself-and Indians swarmed toward us in the hundreds.

    "Let's get em boys!" Custer shouted.



    I exagerrated the first for illustration purposes.






    No one will assume egocentricity because the narrator is recounting something that he considers important and uses the word "I" "my" or "me". Please note that, pronouns, as are many other word, are neutral until they are placed within a situational context. The only way that we can convey egocentricity is if we tie these pronouns in with a context that indicates egocentricity or selfishness such as when Mr. Scrooge spoke of himself in the first person or the "Mobey Dick" character Ahab that was egocentrically and obsessively hunting that whale.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would eliminate the opening phrase as well. The vantage point is a given.

    Notice how much the writing looks like third persom? The only way it will reveal itself as first person is occasional "I" and "me" references in other passages, and the strict adherence to a single POV.

    This is why I maintain that new writers are better off mastering third person before attempting first person. You can work on sticking to a point of view on a scene by scene basis, if not through an entire story, and you learn to work around the "I/me" problem that plagues most first person novices.

    If, in third person, you do step out of the fixed POV, it's far less obtrusive than if you are truly writing in first person.
     
  23. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    excellent example, thank you for posting.
     
  24. Radrook
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    Radrook Contributing Member

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    Thanks for the feedback!

    I provided that first example as a flawed one illustrating the overuse of the personal pronouns. That's why I included the "vantage point" phrase. Please remember, we are dealing with a snippet here and snippets have to stand by themselves and don't have the whole context to explain the POV. So perhaps having that phrase included in that second example as well is not a bad idea.


    Thanx for the feedback.

    I remember reading a novel once in the first person POV and it had my attention until the middle. Then it just fizzled out. The reason was that the first part involved the protagonist explaining his difficulties in getting to an isolated outpost in the arctic. The second part involved his conversations with the outpost's personnel. These conversations were extremely boring. Furthermore, he failed to sustain or build the tension and the whole scenario went into a sleep-inducing lull. So it wasn't the POV that ruined the novel but the usage of that POV in the service of boredom. In short, POV is as effective as the writer that uses it.
     
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  25. Manav
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    Manav Contributing Member

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    I agree with this completely. When the 'I' is an observer, you can almost write it like a third person narration.

    The bar was dimly lid. John stood besides me and twirl his drink, his eyes focussed on Lisa. He watched her swaying to the music; laughing, giggling, whispering in the other man's ear. Look at me instead, John. He didn't look at me. He never. He went straight for Lisa's arm and pulled her away from the other man.

    Edit: didn't look at the posts above... I think everything has been covered. Sorry.
     

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