My first novel was written in the first person. I’d say somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of my short stories are as well. For a lot of people, writing in the first person can be one of the most challenging ways to write. For others, it can be much easier than third person. For me, it depends on the story. I do find it easier than third person, and will often default to first person if there is only one point-of-view character. It is important, however, to pay attention to some of the common pitfalls of writing in the first person.
But in this post, I’m looking at a different type of problem I see in first person narratives, both in my own fiction and at Theme of Absence. This problem is in the dialogue, or more specifically, the way the dialogue and thoughts are presented.
When a story is told from the first person, you can’t write the dialogue the same way you’d write it if it is told from the third person. For example, the phrase “I said” should be used sparingly in a first person narrative. In a third person narrative, the common phrases “he said” and “she said” are fine to help with the pacing of the story or to clarify who is speaking, but not in a first person story.
Well, think of it this way: In a first person story, the narrator is telling you the story. If someone is telling you a story, he’s not going to use dialogue tags after he says something. “‘Close the door,’ I said,” is something you’ll never hear the guy sitting next to you in the bar say.
Perhaps even worse than said is the “thought tag.” You should never, ever write something like this: “Why did that happen? I thought.” Ugly, ugly, ugly. In a first person narrative, the entire story is showing what the narrator thinks. No observation or question from the narrator should end with “I thought”, as it’s totally unnecessary, completely redundant, and quite frankly, is just unrealistic prose.
There is light at the end of this short editing tunnel, at least. And that is that these two mistakes are easy to fix; just delete most instances of “I said”, or replace them with an action or description or whatever. Then hit ctrl-f and find every instance of “I thought” in your manuscript. Delete every one of them.
And that’s it. Writing in the first person can be fun and challenging at the same time. Just follow those two quick steps and keep your dialogue and narrative crisp and clean.
What other problems have you seen in first person narratives? What do you do to fix it? Leave a comment and let us know!