Lane Diamond

Author, Editor, Publisher, Coach

Tag: I-Bombs

The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! (Part 2 – Practical Examples)

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

This post is a follow-up to one I did some time ago: The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! If you haven’t read that one yet, this would be a good time to do so.

I’ll not repeat what I said in that post. Rather, I shall move right on the some practical before and after samples, identifying both the problem and at least one potential fix. I’ve used actual examples from pieces I’ve edited/reviewed/read, so as always, I shall not mention any writers’ names, so as to protect the not-so-innocent.

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BAD: When I was young, I pointed out the inconsistencies as if I caught him cheating at cards, which he also did quite often.

Notes: The new opening below is a simple turn of phrase to not make it appear all about “I” at every moment. The second key change was making it not about “I” catching the cheating, but about “he” doing the cheating. Focus on the characters and actions around “I,” making it about them as much as possible, relying on the fact that we’re in the POV of “I,” and trusting the reader to react as “I” would want them to react.

BETTER: As a youngster, I pointed out the inconsistencies, as if he’d been cheating at cards or something—which he did quite often.

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BAD: I used to think I could make a living as a skier, but then I realized that I was wrong.

Notes: This option, with its 4 “I” in just 20 words, is all telling and rather… well, dull. The second option takes us deeper inside the character’s true motivations, and concludes with a striking self-admonition (and commentary) in the form of monologue.

BETTER: I’d imagined skiing bringing me wealth and fame. Yeah, money and girls—a life to make most folks bristle with envy, at least the guys. I’m such an idiot!

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BAD: I hear a sound from behind the garage, and I wonder what it might be. Maybe I should investigate.

Notes: Blah! Ick! Phooey! Where to begin? 1) It’s all telling; nothing actually happens. 2) Yeah? Well, we wonder too, so please give us something. What kind of sound? A prowler? A dog? An alien invasion? 3) The narrator suggests doing something, but again… nothing actually happens. Seriously, haven’t you always wanted to read a book in which nothing actually happens? No? Shocker! In fact, elsewhere in the story, the author suggests (again weakly) that the character is fearful of a stalker. Okay… so…? It’s time to engage the reader.

BETTER: I spin around as a loud crash echoes from behind the garage. It seems those tottering, beat-up old garbage cans are still good for something. I waste not a second in bolting for the back door, zipping inside the house and throwing the deadbolt firmly into place. Next stop: the phone and a 9-1-1 call.

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BAD: I thought I’d be able to figure out how I got here in the first place, but I still couldn’t believe I was lost.

Notes: “But enough about me. What do you think about me?” That’s how these I-Bombs often feel, as if it’s just all about “me” and nothing else matters. Also, this violates almost every rule of Show vs. Tell, failing to bring the reader into the moment. Remember those 3 words: “in the moment.” The best fiction brings a reader in and allows her to experience the story right along with the characters, as it happens. Ah yes, 3 more important words: “as it happens.” In this particular scene, the author attempted—and failed—to paint the character’s fear at being so completely lost. She simply didn’t paint the scene for us at all.

BETTER: How did I get here? For that matter, where the devil was here? What a ridiculous situation, to be so utterly lost. I glanced around again, mindful of the knot growing in my stomach—churning, rumbling, threatening to seek escape at any moment. I spun around and… nope, no toilets out here. Well this is just great!

Another Note: I’m a huge fan of the writer’s directive to “make every word count.” However, you must create the story for the reader. This is a classic case of under-writing. As an author, you can’t keep critical secrets. It’s not enough that you see the image in your mind; the reader must see the image in her mind. So share!

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BAD: I thought I might make her understand. I thought I could appeal to her feminine wiles. I thought I’d probably get lucky, in the end. I guess I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

Notes: At this point, it seems as though I shouldn’t have to say anything. You should be jumping all over this and in your best Arnold Horshack voice (for you fellow old-timers out there), yelling, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I know it, Mr. Kotter.” Nonetheless….

First, if you’re writing a first-person narrative, make it a point to use the Find function in MS Word, and type in “[space]I[space]”, and check the box that says “Highlight all items found in:”. This will highlight with a black box every instance of “I” in your manuscript. In time, you’ll want to do the same for variations: I’ll, I’m, I’d. Then, with the selections highlighted, scroll down and look for instances where those black boxes appear like a swarm of flies. Yep… time to revise.

In the case of the example above, the word “I” appears 10 times in 38 words. Umm… no. Just no.

BETTER: She’d come around in time. After all, how could she resist my manly charms, my smooth moves, my irresistible… well, me?

She didn’t respond at all. She just turned around without a word, and left.

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BAD: I saw smoke rising over the downtown district.

Notes: This is the simplest of all remedies, and it falls smack under the heading of “Show, Don’t Tell.” The first-person narrator, the character, is telling the story, so if he conveys some action, we know it’s because he saw/heard/felt it, etc. So just paint the picture for us.

BETTER: Smoke rose over the downtown district.

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I hope those examples will help guide you in trying to eliminate your own I-Bombs. Of course, my alternatives above are just a single example, in each case, of how you might fix the problem. Ultimately, your own style and voice will dictate the fix, and that’s fine. Just fix it! No carpet-I-Bombing allowed. 🙂

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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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