1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    What's your experience with 1st Person Retrospective?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Catrin Lewis, Jun 3, 2016.

    I'm talking about the kind of story where the 1st person narrator tells the tale of their younger years from the perspective of their older, wiser self and never lets you forget it. Have you read any books that successfully use that POV? Is anyone here writing one like that?

    Is it possible to write from that POV without throwing in lines like, "I thought such-and-such was going to happen, but I soon learned different" and "Our life was hard now, but it was about to get much better"? Or is that part and parcel of FPR and the reader has to make the best of it?

    I think it's a real tension-killer, but maybe that's just my problem for preferring a more immersive point of view.
     
  2. tumblingdice
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    tumblingdice Member

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    I'm writing a short story in 1st person retrospective. Basically, I ruthlessly mock my younger self during the entire thing, although it's subtle enough as not to alienate the reader (or so I hope!). I think lines like "I soon learned different" are very cliché and like you said, it kills the tension. With this type of story you have to keep the reader in the moment even though you're narrating from the future (does that make sense? lol).
     
  3. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I seem to harp on about this all the time on the forum, but Memoirs of a Geisha is the first one I think of. It begins by telling you the protagonist is dead, and recorded her first person memoir when she was elderly.

    The story is so immersive that the author reports people asking him what Sayuri is doing now. He has to break the news that a) she's fictional and b) she's dead anyway. And it DOES include "I didn't know until many years later, but..." and such phrases. It gripped me, and many other readers, from beginning to end. Even though it's something like 190,000 words.

    I don't think those phrases are tension killers anyway. It just makes me want to know how life is going to get better for the protagonist.

    In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams tells the reader directly at one point that there is a deadly missile heading for the spaceship but the only ill effect will be somebody getting a bruise on their arm. He says he will maintain intrigue by withholding information of whose arm it is that gets bruised. Was that scene then boring? Nope.
     
  4. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, I know it can work.

    But how often should the device be used? As much as twice a chapter?

    And in this case, I'm dealing with an historical novel, written about a pivotal event that the target readership will know about. So, to use your example, everybody already knows whose arm gets bruised.

    When I say the device is (to me) a tension-killer, I mean something like . . . well, say it purports to be a memoir of the American Revolution written from the POV of a Continental soldier. Early in the novel, there he is, freezing his tush off at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78. And he closes his account of that experience by saying, "In the midst of our suffering, little did any of us know that less than four years later, the British commander Lord Cornwallis would be surrendering his sword to General Washington and our independence would be won."

    Well, phooey. If you're going to do that, just take me to Yorktown and save us both the next thirty chapters.

    I suppose it could be argued that readers will stick around to find out just how that was pulled off. But for me, if I'm reading an historical novel I want to be immersed in the characters' experiences as they unfold, not be continually reminded how it all came out.
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2016
  5. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Depends how long a chapter is. :D

    I think to put a number on it is silly, not to mention pointless. If it works, it works. If it jerks the reader out of the story all the time, it doesn't. You won't know until you try and ask for feedback.

    Well, I might know the overall outcome but I don't know what happens to your particular soldier, do I? That's where the tension comes in.

    With the example you gave, I can't imagine why you'd need to put a sentence like that in if you didn't want to. I mean for me it works, because suffering is all the worse when it's futile. But if you feel it sucks the tension out of your novel, why would you need to write something like that? Why would you EVER need to write something like that in such a novel?
     
  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    To Kill a Mockingbird? It's been a while since I read it, but I seem to recall at least some 'looking backward from adulthood' moments...
     
  7. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, well, it's not my novel. It's one I'm beta-reading for one of my best IRL friends. I want to get my mind around how this FPR point of view is supposed to work, lest I go spouting off like an ignoramus and damage our friendship.

    And with the events she's treating, historians do know what happened to the POV character. That's my friend's stated purpose in writing the novel, to propose what may have led up to the pivotal event in the character's history. It's a good event, but for me, all the retrospective anticipation is taking the edge off the struggles the MC is going through before that.

    I dunno. Maybe I'm not the target readership and need to say so.
     
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  8. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that's a valid critique - the point of the future narration should be to enhance the main story, not detract from it. Like, with To Kill a Mockingbird, having the story told by adult-Scout allowed the narrative to be more sophisticated than it otherwise might have been. But if the narrative format just distracts from the story, I think that's a totally valid comment to make.
     
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  9. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Definitely tell her! Sometimes as a beta reader I know or think my own preferences/prejudices are colouring my reactions. I still give them (both the reactions and my caveats) because that's the point of beta reading.

    If it's killing tension, it's killing tension. As you say, it CAN work, but in this case it isn't--at least for you.

    If I was writing such a story I think I'd use the reader's knowledge for humour. Like having Anne Boleyn always rubbing her neck when she insults the King...
     
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  10. Mike Kobernus
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    Mike Kobernus Contributing Member

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    I have published a novel, which is in 3rd , past tense. Until it goes into 'memory mode' when it suddenly becomes first person. It works well, giving a stark division between the flashbacks and the present.
     
  11. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Past tense seems to be the preferred regardless of POV. So it is far simpler since we always have memories, as opposed to being in the present. Though the present is so short in terms, one can only but recount the past. So to history we shall go, for the future is now, and the present we will recount. :supergrin:
     
  12. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Preferably not past perfect and past continuous? :wtf:
     
  13. Diane Elgin
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    Diane Elgin Member

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    I've just finished reading 'My Brilliant Friend', the first part in a series by Elena Ferrante which uses the old version of the narrator to talk of her upbringing in a poor, Italian neighborhood. Knowing that it spans a series and that it's about her relationship with her best friend, threats of death to them hold no weight so scenes like that don't appear. However, the cast of side characters who all have their own personalities and lives are up for the chop and the hardships and conflict inflicted upon the characters keep you. She seldom refers to future events, but rather uses the mature, learned voice of elderly Elena to comment on the greater context of life in that time which an adolescent Elena might not understand or be able to articulate.
     
  14. joeh1234
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    joeh1234 Active Member

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    The classic Catcher in the rye, is first person but I always felt the final chapter explaining why he is telling the story is a bit of a cop out. I just finished reading The Affair (Lee Child) and it is wrote in first person but makes no reference as to why he is telling the story but every now and again he reminds the reader it is set in 1997 by saying things like "This was 1997 remember pre 9/11" when describing loose security at the pentagon, and that particular book is one of the better ones in the Jack Reacher series.
    I am currently writing a 1st person narrative and do use the cliché's you mentioned sparingly and it seems to have a good flow when they are used as it provides context to the state of mind of the main character.
     
  15. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    While I sort of considered the project a failure. I once did a story like that. Actually my first story, or first actual book. Getting it critiqued is why I joined this site.

    The funny thing is even after all this time, I never understood why it failed. I mean, many people related the restrospective style as being a reason, and I suppose they may be right, I just didn't understand it.

    I never used phrases like that. Or I don't recall using them. And to be fair, some people did enjoy the story.

    The basic story was about a bad woman who was dead and in a sense about to go to hell. She was looking back on her life and what she no regretted in context. The way I did it was well, bounced back and forth. As in one chapter in the present with her moving closer to hell, then a chapter bouncing back to her past generally pertaining to what she was just thinking about in her current life.

    I think that counts as retrospective. One issue I sort of had by not using the phrases you think of as a tension killer(I agree by the way) is that some things didn't quite make sense until later. Like my girl was shown having a sweet and sour side. Whhich jumbled people, but that was the point, she is rememberin her past. How she went from sweet to sour. The end is that explanation. So I try not to give it away.

    Not sure if that helps. Just my initional thoughts.
     
  16. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, yes, I remember that project. Not sure I saw the actual text, though.

    Yeah, I guess that would very much count as 1st person retrospective.
     
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  17. Romana
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    Romana Member

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    Retrospective works as long as you don't give too much information.
    The Kite Runner did a good job at using first person retrospective to build suspense. You go through the whole first part reading on eggshells because you know something horrible is going to happen but you don't know when, and you don't know exactly what it is. The author never spoils the actual tragedy, making it a horrible gut-punch, because the reader develops an idea of what horrors are going to come to pass, and then those expectations of horror are surpassed.
    Like with that excerpt, where the author flat out tells you what "Little did they know."
    to be effective, retrospective has to leave suspense.
    "Faced with such suffering, how could we have anticipated the celebrations to come?"
    it doesn't say what celebrations, or why, and makes the readers ask those questions.
    of course, with a historical novel, those questions are a little easier to answer...
     
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  18. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Interesting discussion.

    I've been working hard at not putting in any of those adult-looking-back lines, mostly because I don't want to limit readership to older people by doing so. I don't even know if that's a consideration, TBH.

    But also, I feel like it would take away from the narrative style I've established. I want the narrator to be seen as young and inexperienced. He's never been outside the small town he lives in (at least, not long enough to learn anything of significance) and those lines that comment from the present would, I think, destroy that illusion.

    Any time I do find myself writing something like that, I'm really only jumping forward to a point where the story's over. And it's always to kick tension up a notch, so I keep asking myself if there isn't another way to do it. It's also possible that the tension is so inherent in the scene that the reader will already jump to their own appropriate tension level and make the line redundant.

    And even if I do leave the line in, I worry that I'm giving away some unintentional attitudinal thing that will hint too hard at the ending, giving the whole game away.

    I don't know if I'd come down hard on one side or the other of this discussion, but I think I'm leaning more toward not using this device.
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2016
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  19. Sack-a-Doo!
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    To me, this kind of thing sounds like a good opportunity for irony, contrasting the reader's knowledge with the character's.
     
  20. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good point.
     
  21. JennaPeterson88
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    JennaPeterson88 Member

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    Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy books open every chapter with a passage from older, bitter Fitz reflecting on his younger years. It's only a couple paragraphs each chapter, though, and the rest is from the younger Fitz's perspective. It works well, but if the whole thing were in older Fitz's voice, I wouldn't have finished the first book.
     
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  22. Buttered Toast
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    Buttered Toast Active Member

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    Has anyone mentioned The Raven poem by Edgar Allan Poe?
    I know it's a poem but I love his first person view :)
     
  23. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I've read several books written in this manner, but none that commented on events in the story itself. The novel I'm pitching at present is written partly in this manner, as my narrator is recalling as an adult events that occurred when he was 13. I did include references to his having aged since then, but only to make it clear that he was narrating as an adult.
     

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