Brace yourself, this is a big topic…
Since choosing Editor as my career, I have learned many things within the writing, editing and publishing industry. One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that some writers give advice on subjects they do not know enough about. This causes ongoing problems within the writing community, especially when a trusted voice is wrong.
Not all authors within the community give poor advice, there are many who have been regarded as wise in their knowledge of their industry, but the issue is too frequently seen for me not to attempt to rectify.
Before I get into the topic of this blog post, I want to stress something very important: if you are looking for editing advice, please seek this from an editor not a writer. Most editors are more than happy to discuss their work when they have the time, so please do not hesitate. This stops you from taking poor advice and stops editors from having to fix silly issues.
So, being that narrator of your story sets the tone and voice for the entire manuscript, narration is a crucial topic. Let’s get a few facts straight (plus fun examples!).
First person is fairly simple to understand. This form of narration uses the pronouns: I, we, me, and us; and is the most natural to write as we verbalise stories the same way (I bought a car the other day!).
But there is a common misconception going around that first person always follows the main character, which is not necessarily true. While this is the most common form of first person in the modern day, it is not the only form of this narration mode. However, I will discuss this in a following post—this one is already going to be large enough!
This narration mode is mostly used for emotion-based stories because you allow the reader into the head of a character, which shows thoughts and introspection. It is as if a friend is telling them how they felt about an event: They were elated with the first kiss, their chest warm. But if their friend’s family is stolen in an act of revenge, they would feel distraught, angry and anxious. (This may not be relevant, but I don’t know that you haven’t had a friend whose entire family was kidnapped because they messed up!)
First person lays everything bare for the audience. Or…it doesn’t, depending on how much of a monster you are. The unreliable narrator is for another blog post, but it deserves a special mention here—it’s my favourite narration device!
Here is an example of first person:
The corridor is dark and my shoes squeak along the linoleum, I don’t dawdle because I know she is waiting for me. She won’t tell me her name, but dresses in long, flowing skirts, so I find her intriguing. Who is she?
I reach out and tenderly brush the doorknob, my destiny is waiting on the other side. As I step through, the door creaking behind me, she turns. Her blue eyes and blonde hair are radiant. How can anyone be this beautiful?
Like an ethereal spirit, she glides towards me. The door clicks closed as my breath leaves my lungs. My heart races.
Her hand, like a summer cloud, caresses my cheek before the world goes dark and I descend into a maddening sleep, her touch like fire on my skin.
First person is easy to read and easy to write, but this narration mode does have its cons:
But, never fear, I have solutions to the problems you might experience!
Limited view of the story:
If you find that one viewpoint limits your story, consider a secondary viewpoint. Be careful of adding viewpoints if it isn’t necessary to your story, the addition may give away too much information.
Unlikable narrator = uninterested reader:
Give your character a relatable goal or allow them to save the cat (Blake Snyder); have them do something kind to a down and out character or something else that makes them likeable. If the reader doesn’t like the narrator, they can still sympathise with them. (Your character is flawed; the reader shouldn’t love them at first. More on this to come in the future as well!)
Think about it like this: Katniss isn’t very likeable at first—or at all. She is moody and arrogant, but when she volunteers after Prim’s name is called at the Reaping and must fight for her survival in the Games, the reader gains respect for her.
Can lead to telling over showing:
Being that this viewpoint is natural in speech and writing, you may be inclined to tell the reader rather than show them. If you find a sentence like this: Sadness enveloped my heart; change it for, My chest tightened and tears stung my eyes. This shows the reader how the narrator feels.
So, get out of the narrator’s head and show the reader the surroundings using senses: What can the narrator hear, see, smell, taste or feel? Make the reader taste the blueberry muffin (but don’t write an entire book about the muffin! Unless you want to…then you do you).
What genres first person works well with:
A second person narrator relies on drawing the reader in through the use of You.
However, this is a viewpoint I don’t see many authors tackle—whether in their advice or in their writing—yet it is something I seek out to edit/read. Second person is enriched with the experiences around you, but it is also difficult to pull off and is better used sparingly so the reader doesn’t become disillusioned.
The best way to describe this viewpoint is: Do you remember those choose-your-own-adventure books? Like the Goosebumps? Where you decide your fate (depending on the options presented)? They are perfect examples because most of us read them as children and thoroughly enjoyed them (I know I did!).
Thankfully, this narration mode has become more popular as authors branch off into other literary devices because of a world saturated with similarity.
Second viewpoint stories can be narrated by someone else or by you with these simple steps:
(Get the joke? It never gets old!)
The fun thing about this viewpoint is when you get the hang of it, it’s an effective tool for surprising the reader. Consider this version of the example used in the first person section:
The corridor is dark and your shoes squeak along the linoleum, but you know she is waiting for you so you mustn’t dawdle. She won’t tell you her name and dresses in long, flowing skirts, intriguing your senses. Who is she?
You reach out and tenderly brush the doorknob, destiny is waiting on the other side. As you cross the threshold, the door creaking as you step inside, she turns to meet you. You focus on her blue eyes and blonde hair. How could anyone be this beautiful?
Like an ethereal spirit, she glides forward. The door clicks closed. The air becomes thin and your heart races.
Her hand, like a summer cloud, caresses your cheek before you descend into a maddening sleep, her touch like fire on your skin.
Second person narration can become personal very quickly, so make sure you use it to make an affect without freaking your audience out. (No one likes being confronted by their issues!)
As with any narration mode, second person has its own list of pros and cons:
How can you fix the solutions? These might help:
Hard to maintain:
Just like with any other skill, you need to give each narration mode time to develop. If second person doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t try to force it, grab a book or two with examples and try emulating the style. Some great second person stories are:
Lengthier passages can be jarring to read:
When writing second person into a longer piece try to break it up with another viewpoint or character. Being that an entire story written in this narration mode can be maddening, give your audience a break by shuffling the narration modes around. Jay McInerney practices this in Bright Lights, Big City.
Could become unrelatable to reader:
This issue is hard to remedy as it entirely depends on your audience. Not everyone wants to be put in the shoes of a murderer or princess. If you are attempting to write this mode for your audience, first consider what they would want to read about and work with the ideas you compile from this.
What genres second person works well with:
As an endnote to second person, here is one of my favourite parts of Bright Lights, Big City:
‘You’ve got a little blow?’ she says.
‘Is Stevie Wonder blind?’ you say.
She takes your arm and leads you into the Ladies’. A couple of spoons and she seems to like you just fine, and you are feeling very likeable yourself. A couple more. This woman is all nose.
‘I love drugs,’ she says, as you march toward the bar.
‘It’s something we have in common,’ you say.
Third person has been popular since the first stories: Consider myths, legends, fairy tales and religious texts, such as the Bible. This could be because the narration mode works great with epic adventures—and the storyteller wouldn’t have been accused of lying: You don’t know a man called Jesus!
Third person uses the pronouns: He/him, she/her, it, they/them.
A third person narrator tends to be outside the story, but someone who sees the plot play out. They relay the events to the reader from a generally non-biased point of view. The main character is not the narrator, and the narrator is generally not in the story—they are an invisible outsider that we know little to nothing about. Think of third person as a camera on a movie set: they show what is happening to the viewer.
Take the example from earlier:
The corridor is dark and his shoes squeak along the linoleum, but he knows she is waiting for him, so he doesn’t dawdle. She won’t tell him her name and dresses in long, flowing skirts, which intrigue his senses. Who is she?
He reaches out and tenderly brushes the doorknob. His destiny is waiting on the other side. As he crosses the threshold, the door creaking, she turns to meet him. He focuses on her blue eyes and blonde hair. How could anyone be this beautiful?
Like an ethereal spirit, she glides forward. The door clicks closed. The air becomes thin and his heart races.
Her hand, like a summer cloud, caresses his cheek before he descends into a maddening sleep, her touch like fire on his skin.
While this narration mode is very versatile, the cons can be problematic:
Remedying the cons is easier than you may have thought!
Can lead to telling over showing:
As I stated in First Person, try to focus on the smaller details within the story to avoid too much telling. Set the scene just as your mother may have asked you to set the table—everything is placed just so for an easy meal (or scene!).
Multiple narrators can sound the same:
Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest problems when it comes to this narration mode. (If you are not offended by the idea of reading stories with homosexual characters, check out Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez for an idea of how to write multiple viewpoints well.) I suggest finding a great character reference sheet/document and filling out as many points as you can to get to know the motivations and stakes of each narrator. I have one such playlist on my YouTube channel—the FREE document I created will be available again very soon.
What genres third person works well with:
This is where narration can become tricky. An objective narrator merely relays the facts of what is happening around them to the reader. They do not express emotions, thoughts or opinions as this is the most bias-free narration mode you will find.
The narrator will have very little impact on the plot or story at all, they are merely an observer. While I mentioned that a third person narrator is like a camera, an objective narrator is more like a camera: robotic.
A great example of this narration mode is Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nick is an observer to the surface and underlying themes of the novel. He is privy to the lives of those around him, but never really influences the plot or characters.
Here is the reoccurring example from an objective narrator’s viewpoint:
The corridor is dark and his shoes squeak along the linoleum. She is waiting for him. She won’t tell him her name and dresses in long, flowing skirts.
He reaches out and tenderly brushes the doorknob. As he steps through, the door creaking, she turns to meet him. She has blonde hair and blue eyes.
She moves forward, the door clicking closed.
She runs her hand along his cheek and he falls into a trance.
The narrator knows everything, but they only present the facts or the actions of the characters (such as posture, dialogue, etc.). Why should you try writing an objective narrator? The pros definitely outweigh the cons!
What are the remedies for this small list of cons?
Very little interpretation:
With first, second and third person, you can create an entire world of rich and evocative experiences through the nuances of speech, thought, opinions and emotions, but objective narration does not call for any of this. So, what do you do?
Ensure the actions of the characters are portrayed well. Mention as many nuances as possible; posture and facial expressions are the easiest way to present information to your audience. Or bring out emotion in the dialogue, impact your audience with the words you use.
Hard to pull off effectively:
There is no real remedy for keeping your opinion out of a book. You’re writing the book because you have a particular point of view on the topic, but concentration and reading the words out loud should help. I recommend reading books that use this narration mode to get an idea of how to effectively draw the reader in and make them care.
What genres objective narration works well with:
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve read the equivalent to a short story (2700 words), so you deserve a treat! Buy yourself something pretty (or a new book with a narration mode that interests you!).
While this blog post is huge, it is not exhaustive. Future posts on limited narration, head-hopping, omniscient narration, breaking the fourth wall and writing multiple viewpoints will contain more information and resources for this topic.
Which narration mode is your favourite to use, and why? I prefer third person!
Writing Challenge: Write a short passage in a mode you are unfamiliar with (or dislike) and post it in the comments below.
Until next time, stay crafty!
Freelance Editor, Mentor, Author.