The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs!

As both a reader and an editor, I see more and more first-person narratives these days. It likely has something to do with the old guard – the “gatekeepers” – not influencing as many books, as the indie publishing revolution continues.

Once upon a time, while shopping my manuscript for Forgive Me, Alex around to agents, I encountered a number of agent websites on which they stated flat-out, “No first-person narratives accepted.” Such blanket “rules” frustrated the dickens out of me – right up there with “No prologues” and “No present tense narratives.” Still, in order to satisfy the gods of literature, I set about making my novel a third-person, past tense narrative, as instructed by the literati.

Then, about 100 pages into my manuscript, it occurred to me that much of it was flat, without emotional depth—lacking the impact, the punch in the gut I’d hoped to create. The answer? Simple: Change it to a first-person narrative, and just don’t submit to those agents who posted their dismissive warnings.

However, that decision spawned quite the learning experience, and it has particularly jumped out at me as I’ve been editing more first-person narratives. Indeed, the literary agents’ frustration over such pieces, the thing that clearly caused them to throw their hands up and surrender, and to apply those blanket rules, grew clear as air to me.

Let us call them “I-Bombs.”

Almost every first-person narrative to cross my desk has languished beneath a series of I-bombs: I did this. I went there. I thought this. I felt that. I heard another thing, and I did that other thing. I, I, I, I, I, I, I….

Yikes. Medic!

“I wanted to tell you this story in which I was the star, but…. Enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Yeah, that’s how those stories read: narcissism on parade. When I encounter 45 “I” on the first page, it goes right to the REJECT pile – whether I’m wearing my editor’s hat or my reader’s hat.

You may be asking at this point, “How do I write a first-person narrative and not use ‘I’?” The answer is simple enough: you don’t. The issue is the frequency with which you use “I.” Just as third-person narratives contain a bunch of “he” and “she,” first-person narratives necessarily contain a bunch of “I.” Precisely because of this, you must be vigilant to justify every single “I,” and to seek viable alternatives whenever possible.

Perhaps because we’re more likely to become the character-narrator in a first-person narrative, our minds get stuck in “I”-mode, and we revert to telling how everything affects “I,” rather than showing the story, allowing it to unfold in a series of scenes focused not on “I,” but on the people, places and events surrounding “I.” When you write, “I remember when John said he wanted to kill me,” you’re telling the reader of the character’s experience, rather than allowing the reader to experience it right along with the character-narrator. That shared experience between character and reader is the essence of a great read.

Most first-person narratives, laden with I-bomb after I-bomb, devolve into a telling, boring, look-at-me-world bit of torture that causes many readers to scramble.

My advice? Make your default approach a third-person narrative, and change it only if you decide it just doesn’t work, that it must be a first-person narrative.

Then, remember the primary commandment of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell. And please, beware the I-bombs.

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Added May 2014: The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! (Part 2 – Practical Examples).

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15 responses to “The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs!

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  4. Thanks for the post, Lane. One of my writing teachers said that, in her experience, most beginning writers tend to use the first-person narrative, then “graduate” to third-person close and end up at some kind of the third-person omniscient. In her opinion, third-person omniscient was the most “mature” narrative style. Having edited a few first-person manuscripts—and tried to write a few, myself—I think my teacher created a false paradigm. All forms of narrative come with their own challenges and benefits. The writer has to rigorously evaluate each choice he or she makes in a manuscript, evaluating whether it brings the reader into the story or pushes the reader away. Ultimately, writing fiction comes down to this: make the veil between text and the reader transparent as possible.

    • “Ultimately, writing fiction comes down to this: make the veil between text and the reader transparent as possible.”

      That’s great stuff, John. Can I steal it? 🙂

      I think that’s a rather more eloquent way of making one of my points: let the reader “experience” the story “as” the characters do.

  5. Hi Lane, I had the exact same problem with my most recent manuscript. I’d literally written 3/4 of it in 3rd person past tense, but it felt like it wasn’t right, it was off or something. Last January I totally redid it to first person and viola it clicked! In query mode now that I’ve edited etc, so we’ll see xD

    • Thanks, Cheryl, and best of luck with your book. A well-executed first-person narrative can be a lot of fun, indeed. The trick is in that execution. This is, of course, true of any narrative choice. There just happen to be a couple of different pitfalls when attempting the first-person, and chief among those culprits is the I-Bomb.

  6. Lee Child, on writing, asks; do children ask you you to show them a story? I have an issue with the mantra, show, don’t tell. In my opinion it ranks alongside the editors who advise you to write in the 3rd person, past tense!
    I agree with Child, most of the time the reader wants to be told the facts, the narrative, the situation; they don’t want to work it out for themselves.
    Using dialogue to expand and paint a picture is fine as long as the whole story is not told through convoluted dialogue.
    Descriptive passages are welcome in most well written books. Show, don’t tell discourages just such simple and effective techniques and should not be so often repeated.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Robin. Every book contains plenty of telling; many contain too much of it. Once again, it’s about frequency. In a first-person narrative, because of the mindset we adopt, we fall into the trap more often than we should.

      When a reader feels as if she’s a part of the scene, seeing/hearing/feeling it unfold right along with the characters, the reading experience is much more vivid.

      Perhaps we’ll just agree to disagree on this. One size does not fit all.

      By the way, as a huge fan of Lee Child (Jack Reacher is one of my favorite characters), and having read about a dozen of his books, I can tell you that he does a good job of mixing it up, providing a satisfying mix of showing versus telling.

      • P.S. My advice about focusing on third-person narratives relates to the difficulty of writing a first-person narrative that snaps. Beginning writers, at least, might find it helpful to learn the essentials through a third-person narrative, and then move on to first-person once they’ve mastered the craft. Seasoned writers will likely have fewer issues.

        Still, as I said to Suzanne, I like first-person narratives when they’re done well.

  7. I think it depends very much on the genre. There is plenty of first person present tense narrative in YA fiction. In fact, I think my third person narrative novel is at a disadvantage here since the preference seems to be for first person immediacy. I have never seen exclusions for first person present tense on any agent site – YA agents mostly. I have, however, seen exclusions for third person omniscient.

    Of course the ‘I’ bombs and filtering would still be a problem but I reckon preference for or against first person narrative depends on the genre.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Suzanne. I think one of the reasons you see so much first-person in YA is that so much of it is self-published. This seems to be the default narrative choice of most new writers.

      As a writer of literary thrillers, maybe I’ve seen those agent notes because of the specific genres they represent. Not sure.

      Still, I actually like a first-person narrative, when it’s done properly – intimate in way that’s harder to achieve in a third-person narrative.

      Sadly, most first-person narratives I’ve seen need a lot of work. One man’s opinion. 🙂

      • P.S. I tend to agree with agents about the omniscient narrator; not a big fan of all the head-hopping.

        In addition to strong first-person narratives, I prefer third-person from a rather tight POV, one that often “feels” like a first-person narrative.

      • I actually tend not to read self-published work, or at least the numerous errors tend to turn me off within the first few pages, but there are some excellent traditionally published first person present tense narrative such as Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns and let’s not forget the mega-selling The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Perhaps it’s books like The Hunger Games that champion a certain narrative style, which other authors then flock to emulate. Either way, first person, past or present, seems popular and here to stay in trad published YA.

        As a writer, I used to hate writing in first person present tense until I actually tried it. There are certain stories that it works well in, particularly if you want to maintain tension and that sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s definitely not a narrative style I’d use very often, but it certainly has a place if done well.

        • Agreed, Suzanne. Absolutely.

          The point of my article was really to focus on the last 3 words of your comment: “if done well.” Excessive use of I-bombs is one of those things that violates those 3 words. 🙂

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