Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing in First Person

As a budding writer, when I was in classes and the instructor started talking about head-hopping and POV and such, I tuned out. I preferred writing in first person, and I didn't think head-hopping rules applied to me.

(These pictures have nothing to do with this post, but they're too cute to be kept to myself.)

And while writing in first person does curb the tendency to hop heads, there can still be sticky spots. I didn't know this until my first agent marked them in the manuscript for Me, Just Different. You're learning it now, so you won't have to go through the embarrassment of being like, "Oh, but I write in first person, so I thought... Yes, I see where I made the mistake... Okay, let me change that..."

I had a couple places where I ran into problems. One was in backstory. When I was writing about what was happening, I was fine. But if I was telling the backstory of a character, I tended to do something like this:

"I know this must be hard for you," I said to Sandy.
Sandy was ready to adopt Andrew in a heartbeat, but Carl, her husband did not feel the same pull Sandy did.  When several other families in our church expressed an interest in adopting Andrew, Carl pushed for it.

I then went into detail about Carl and Sandy's conversation. Which my character was not in the room for, so... why is she sharing it like she was?

But what tripped me up the most were the descriptions between dialogue. Note the part in red below:

“We’re not engaged,” I say. “We never were.  We talked about it but … he's with someone else.”  
“You’re not engaged?” Eric asks.  He sees my face and tries not to act so happy.  
I am trying to hold back tears. “No I’m not."

There's also some lameness going on in that exchange, but you'll have to put that aside and focus on the red part. There are a couple words that make this lousy writing, one being hte word "tries." I'm sure we've all experienced that thing where we share a piece of news and watch someone try to act one way when it's clear their feelings are the opposite. That's a fine thing to convey to the reader.  But the way it's currently written speaks about what's going on within Eric, not how it looks on the outside.

The other problem phrase is "He sees" which indicates that this is from Eric's POV ... which it's not. And the POV character isn't in Eric's head, so she doesn't know what he sees or what he's trying to do. All she knows is what she observes. Which is that he's looking at her, and that he is doing a poor job of hiding the fact that he's happy.

A better way to write the sentence marked in red is, "Eric must see my sadness because he replaces his smile with a frown. But it can't hide the glimmer in his eyes."

You might think this is getting too picky, going too far, and that's fine. But these are the kinds of things my agent and editor dinged when they read my manuscript, things I would have corrected had I realized I was doing them wrong.

I know you all will be saddened to talk about something other than POV technicalities, but next week we'll move on and talk about confidence issues and, depending on how long that takes, the use of flashbacks. And - yay - there'll be a new prompt posted on Monday.

Any POV questions left that I can answer?

Have a great weekend everyone!


  1. Great post :)
    I was wondering how you find writing in present tense, because it's something that I've never tried before. I head hop quite a bit, but I'm trying to be more aware of it as I go on with my writing :D

    - Paige

  2. Those pictures are too cute! :)

    Thanks so much for delving into the problems of POV. I feel like I am so much more prepared for my editing because I know what I'm looking for. Before I always knew that I needed to stay consistent in my POV, but I didn't know what were some red flags that I needed to watch out for. :) Now, I do. :)

  3. Thanks for this! I've probably made a lot of those mistakes too. Now I know how to spot them! :)


  4. In first person POV, can you switch POV for only a chapter, if it's really important that you see this part from someone else's POV?

  5. Your kiddos are Adorable, Stephanie. :)

    This is an excellent post for me to read right now because I'm attempting my first manuscript in first-person. I'm finding it to be soooo much fun ~ even for me, someone who said she would never, ever be able to write anything but third. Go figure! And all thanks to that writing prompt and the first-line that wouldn't go away... :) I'm also attempting my first time staying in ONE POV the whole way through, which is also turning out to be easier than I thought. :)

    I look forward to reading your answer, Stephanie, to Becki's question. But I can't help but mention that I've never read POV-switching in first-person done well. (This may reflect badly on my reading material, of course.) Still. I always find myself with a bad case of whiplash and "Whoa...what?" when the "I" I've been following through a story suddenly changes to another "I."

    Can't wait for more info on flashbacks. They fascinate me. And another writing prompt! Ooooh, goody!

  6. Rowyn says (scrolling up and down and up and down and up and down), "Aww, they're so cute! They look like Xoe and Me. Mommy, what's a Go Team Writuhs?" ;-)

  7. Rachelle, Yeah, that's my concern. The problem is that there's this one part where one of my primary characters finds out something about the MC, who's narrating the novel, so I'm considering switching to her for a section or something, so that we can get the full impact of this announcement. Well, I'll keep experimenting with it. I appreciate your observation, though.

  8. Becki, I like that you say you'd stay with this other character's POV for a section. I read a book recently and the POV radically changed to a new character for one teensy-weensy chapter so I got double whiplash!! :(

    And please don't think I'm saying it can't be done. To be unwriterly and use a cliche, there's a first time for everything. :) If anyone can do it, its someone who is putting as much research into it as you are!

  9. Finally getting some time at my computer to answer questions!

    Paige, awareness is the first step to recovery! I really like first person present tense, and it's predominately what I write in now. I don't see much of it outside of YA, though.

    Clarebear, so glad these posts have been helpful!

  10. Becki, I've never seen it done well - to change for a single chapter - but that doesn't mean it could never work. In The Help, there are 3 narrators, and they're all done in first person, but it works for 2 reasons:

    1. The author specifies the name of the POV character at the chapter change.

    2. The voices are done remarkably well. You would never read a "Minnie" chapter and think it was "Skeeter."

    But the author did something very unique. At a function where all three narrators were in attendance, she used an omniscient narrator for that just that scene. It was a great choice and worked very well.

  11. So it's like Rachelle said, there's a first time for everything. Using my example above, had someone asked me, "Hey I want to write the whole book in first person using 3 different narrators, except for one scene about 2/3 of the way through the book where I want to switch to omniscient. What do you think? Oh, and it's my debut novel." I'd have been like, "I don't think so. Try something more conventional."

    Different stories need different things, and sometimes you can't tell until you try it.

  12. Thanks, Stephanie, that's really helpful. I'm going to write it several different ways, to try and capture this character's emotion, because she thinks she knows everything about the MC, but then finds out his biggest secret, and there are so many emotions running through her head that you sort of have to see it from her POV for it to make total sense. Maybe I should change the whole book and make it with two narrators. Oh, well, I'll get my second draft done and then we'll go from there. :)

  13. Your kids are adorable! I think the animal-costume-suit was popular this year. I have a few other friends who dressed their kids up in them :) I like them, especially Mckenna's butterfly there. It looks like she could use it as a jacket for dress up!

    On to POV, 1st person present comes most naturally to me. You really only see it in YA?  

    I was pretty much wondering Becki's question,too. Except if like every other chapter switched?

    POV is what I'm trying to figure out for my WIP. I know first person present is most natural for me BUT I get this feeling when I work on my plot that it'd be better with more than on POV.  The pull is what I said before I like 1st person the best and have the most fun with my MC like that :/

    There's series of books by Christa Banister,  the Sydney Alexander series.  In them, she writes mostly from Sydneys 1st person perspective but then scenes will change say something like "across town..." and go into 3rd person (I think?) of a different character for a  scene. Let me add, you quickly know which character. And then it'll go back to Sydney is 1st person.

    It definitely worked for these books and I liked it.  I wonder if it'd work in my WIP but since it's my first MS I'm afraid I don't know enough of how to do it correctly. I mean, Christa has a journalism degree and has freelanced for many years, she obviously knows what she's doing! But me? I'm not so sure.

    @becki, that's sort of like my WIP. One of the secondary characters has a secret the MC doesn't know. I wonder about POV's bc I'm trying to figure out how to build up to the secret.

  14. GREAT answer, Stephanie. That's really how The Help is? WOW. Now I'm going to have to read that book just to study her style. :)

    Becky, I love that you're going to write it several different ways. I've never tried that before, but I like the sound of that! :) (Man, I'm busting out the cliches today!)

  15. Tonya, I suppose so, but at least you're seeing it from the MC's POV. That's way easier than having to see it from the secondary character's POV. Sorry, don't mean to give you a "woe is me" story, I'm just trying to figure this all out. Also, I've seen books written with alternating narrators done very successfully. One particular series that I really like that was written like that is the Red Rock Mystery series (, written by Jerry B. Jenkins and Chris Fabry. Kind of interesting that it's two men, because I think they pull the girl's POV off pretty nicely.
    Rachelle, wish me luck! :)

  16. Becki, are you doing alternating narrators? Or one narrator but with a single scene in an alternate POV? Because alternating narrators is widely accepted. Just wanted to clarify.

    Sorry I'm slow responding today. I'm sitting in the airport so I'm doing everything on my phone :)

  17. Well, I would LIKE to do it with just a single scene in an alternate POV, but if I need, I'll go back and change it to two narrators, or something.

  18. Thanks so much! I didn't even notice my head hoping. Now instead of saying 'she was confused' I know to say 'she looked confused' (even though those are both really bad sentences)... Did you just feel an earthquake in Kansas? I felt it all the way in St. Louis, even though it's epicenter (or whatever it's called) was in Oklahoma.

  19. Caroline, we've heard other Kansas Citians say they felt it, but we didn't. My husband was disappointed since he's never felt an earthquake before.

  20. Thanks so much for your kind words, Tonya! I think it's fun to mix things up from time to time and put your unique stamp on things. While it's not always ideal to write with multiple point of views, I think it does give the reader insight that he/she may have not had otherwise...that's why I experimented with a slightly left of center approach. Rules are made to be broken (in my opinion), and if you do it right, it can be really fun.

    Happy writing all,

  21. Now I want to go look back over what I have written...
    I can see how little mistakes could have slipped in. I really like first person. It seems easier. maybe not so much now :P What do you prefer to write in now? Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Cause You Are!)

  22. Writing in first person comes most naturally to me. But I think I could get the hang of third with a bit more practice :)

  23. I don't think I've ever written like that when I'm in first person, I usually literally put myself in my character's place when I'm writing in first person. I hope I haven't written like that lol.