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The Curse of First-Person Narration

September 20, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 24, 2014

Did you know that stories with first-person narration face a curse? It’s not that every story told in the first person falls under the curse, but a great many manuscripts, especially those of first-time novelists, flirt with it.

What kind of curse, you may be asking.

Many of the first-person manuscripts I see start off as tales and remain as tales rather than turn into novels. Once upon a time, I was a . . . fill in the blank. I was an explorer setting off to pursue my dream. I was a boy without a dream. I was a man in search of questions.

I lived in a small village. A teeming city. At the dawn of a new century.

And these kinds of things happened to me . . .

I wanted to do great exploits, but my family, my village, my circumstances held me back. My mentor always told me to seek the grail, seek redemption, seek my roots. Someone else told me to find myself.

Such stories go on for paragraphs, maybe for pages, maybe for chapters, simply telling us about the lead character’s life. We don’t see that life unfold in action. We don’t hear dialogue voiced—it’s always something such as The wise woman warned me again and again not to step outside the village at night and never when the moon was full or My dad told me I’d never make it as history teacher.

Our narrator speaks, or rather thinks, but just as a disembodied voice. We often have no idea where he is when he’s relating these stories of his past. We have no setting, no sense of time or place. We have no picture of the narrator doing anything that he describes in his tales. Nor do we have a picture of where he is as he tells them.

We don’t see the wise woman at a specific moment in time. We can’t hear her voice, how it crackles or how she mangles her words or how her speech sounds like warm honey. We don’t see the dad coming home from his second job—tired and discouraged and out of sorts—explaining why his son’s plans won’t work.

And what of the narrator? Not only does he not tell us where he is as he’s spinning his tale, he doesn’t tell us what he’s doing. What’s going on with him as he regales us with his summers at the lake with his psychotic cousins? Is he sitting back in a rocking chair at a grand old age, sipping a glass of tea? A glass of merlot? A bourbon?

Is he talking of a past 60 years earlier or one 20 years earlier or one merely 6 months earlier? We don’t know because he simply begins to report

Once upon a time, I . . .

He might not actually say once upon a time. But that is what he means. He’s simply updated the traditional wording.

When I was a kid . . .

My mother always told me . . .

We always spent summers at the lake . . .

These are the kinds of openings of stories under the curse. Rather than putting characters and readers in an identifiable place and time—a specific setting—the writer introduces readers to the general moments from a character’s life. Rather than scene, we get exposition.

Exposition is necessary in long fiction, so I’m not telling you to not use it (and I’m not saying you couldn’t open an engrossing novel using lines similar to what I’ve pointed out here). But exposition shouldn’t take over the story and it especially shouldn’t run on for three or four chapters before the first event or first dialogue shows up. And exposition should not be the primary mode of storytelling in a novel.

A comparison? Consider the differences between a movie review and the movie itself.

A story that’s told via exposition is merely a review.

A review is flat words on the page. A movie is event and dialogue and emotion and setting.

So exposition sits flat on a page while scenes are event and dialogue and emotion and an active setting.

Let’s return to our narrator . . .

He’s telling us about his life. Why? What has brought such thoughts to his mind? Why does he share them? Why has he gone back to the idyllic days of his youth and why does he describe them or summarize rather than invite us into those intimate moments that formed his sentiments and goals and behaviors?

What’s his provocation for telling us his life story in general and about certain events in particular? That is, what brought any of this to mind and why is he dwelling on these happenings? Does he willy-nilly just think of these events and feel a need to share?

If he doesn’t have a reason to tell us about his life, some goad that got him thinking of his past, we wonder about his motivation. Or his sanity.

Now, if the narrator is at some point in his life where he has the opportunity or need to tell us about that life, that’s great. In such cases the writer sketches in setting details for us—a man on death row needs to tell his story before he dies. A woman facing the last stages of terminal cancer wants to leave her history for her children. A woman stepping into a new life—perhaps as queen of a galactic alliance—shares her adventure-packed rise from the illegitimate daughter of a mason to ruler of her world.

There’s no curse in those kinds of stories and in their presentations. The writer doesn’t merely give us a disembodied narrator simply reminiscing for no reason. Instead, the narrator’s present serves to lead us into the past. That present may actually be a frame to the full story. Chapter One may show us the queen being prepared for her coronation; a jewel affixed to her coronation robe might remind her of the first jewel she’d ever seen. The one worn by the sheriff who came by night and pulled her mother from their cottage, leaving our narrator and an infant brother to fend for themselves.

Once the narrator relates her rise to her current position, the writer closes the frame by using the final chapter to show the queen gliding toward her throne, her subjects bowing as she passes. Bowing in reverence, not cringing in fear as she’d done before others so many, many years earlier.

Thus there’s a great difference between a narrator telling about his life and a narrator inviting readers into that life.

A pitfall to first-person narration is the writer’s tendency both to write exposition and to summarize rather than write full scenes. Rather than being giving a series of scenes connected by transitions of narrative summary, readers are faced with blocks of exposition peppered with mini-scenes.

The balance is way off.

How much is too much exposition? For that matter, how much is too much scene if you don’t allow readers, and characters, a break between events (both action and dialogue)?

There is no one answer for the balance question—this falls under the creative part of creative writing. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. The right mix will depend on the length of the story and the genre and the pace and emotion you want to create.

If you’re writing a political thriller, it’s likely you’ll jump from scene to scene with minimal exposition (but there still will be some). If you’re writing a literary novel with the accent on a character’s inner life, you’ll likely have fewer scenes and more character introspection, which translates into exposition.

The different balances, the story elements stressed in one novel in comparison to another, create the very real differences in the way stories feel and flow and in the emotions raised in the reader.

So you may well have more exposition and narrative summary in one novel, in one style of novel, than another. But each still needs scenes.

And if you’re writing a first-person narration, you’ll need to step outside the character’s mind every once in a while and immerse the reader in something other than thought and memory.

Introduce readers to an event that meant something to the character, that made him who he is or turned him in the direction he took for most of his life.

Include events that unfold in real time.

Show action as it happens.

Show character reactions.

Include dialogue rather than reports of what was said.

Include setting details and sense elements.

Show characters interacting with the story world you created.

If the pivotal point in a man’s life is seeing a man killed, is exposition, especially in summary form, sufficient to convey all the intricacies of that moment? Maybe. If the character hasn’t come to terms with the event, he might well gloss over it. But what details can be revealed—or maybe just merely implied, hinted at—through a scene that couldn’t also be revealed by summary? A whole lot of them. Summary doesn’t allow for the fine shadings we can work into full scenes.

And while a line of summary is sometimes the best choice, too much summary can drain emotion and neutralize the effects of any one line.

This might be a perfect line, especially if it brings action to a halt—

And then yesterday, I watched my father kill a man.

But if every line was delivered that same way, as exposition, as telling, the impact of this line would be weakened.

Even worse than all exposition is exposition that’s all summary. Narrative summary relates events in only the briefest manner, with few details. Save narrative summary for transitions and when you need to present brief spurts of information quickly.

You get to choose what readers should focus on, what’s important for a story. Information relayed via summary is typically necessary (why include it otherwise?) but not necessarily a scene-worthy issue. Information revealed through summary needs to be conveyed, but not dwelled on. Yet some events do need dwelling on. Some dialogue should play out as it happens. Readers should see how characters move as they argue, see which objects they handle in their agitation, see the head thrown back and the hands fisted.

Exposition presented by a first-person narrator, by necessity, cuts out much of what readers come to fiction for. It skips the physical reactions of other characters. It bypasses nuance and subtlety and subtext. It’s the worst kind of telling without any balance of showing.

Exposition, by its very nature, should not be the meat of a novel.

The Terms

How about a quick explanation of terms?

Exposition is the relaying of information important to a story. It includes back story and details about character and setting. Exposition is necessary for understanding the unfolding events of story. It’s a report. It’s telling. And it’s necessary to clue in readers to what’s going on and what happened before the current story events began.

Exposition is often used early in stories to orient readers.

The skies were stormy that fateful day.

Her dress was too long, but there was no way she’d listen to one more complaint from her father about a skirt’s length.

Clifford had been a chef but after he joined the military, he found his calling as a chaplain. Now he worked on an aircraft carrier, no longer serving sole, but soothing souls.

Exposition can be full explanations or be presented in summary form, as is often used in transitions between scenes or at the beginning of new chapters.

Use narrative summary to show a change of scene, an advancement of time, or a change in viewpoint character. Use exposition to introduce back story. But don’t allow exposition or summary to substitute for action or dialogue unfolding in real time. Exposition shouldn’t replace scenes. Not if you’re writing a novel.

_____________________

While too much summary and exposition, the telling modes of fiction, can crop up in any style of story, first-person narration seems to attract this type of wording.

Writers may be trying to give insight into the character, trying to show who he is. But all telling, or summaries in a character’s thoughts substituting for action, are just as uninvolving as straight dialogue. Imagine a character speaking non-stop what the first-person narrator thinks non-stop. Would you allow any character that kind of dialogue? It’s not likely; we typically recognize when dialogue goes on for too long. Exposition delivered by a first-person narrator, however, may be harder for writers to identify.

Clues that there is too much exposition—

No dialogue in real time

No action in real time

No scenes

No identifiable passage of time

Stress on what someone always used to do in place of a scene showing that character doing what he was known for doing

No setting details beyond description—no character interaction with the objects in the setting

No sense of the narrator as something other than a mind with memories

Key events are glossed over

Exposition is one way, a familiar and expected way, to present background information, and it’s a necessary element of novels. That’s why it’s included in the early pages to convey setting and character history that unfolded before the current story’s events. It’s easy to include. Sometimes too easy.

Too much exposition thrown into a story at any one time is an info dump.

But we can’t do without it. Novels would be unbelievably long were we to present all events and dialogue and back story as scenes. Rather than showing the tedium of a drive across the country, where the drive itself has little bearing on the story, sometimes you just need to write—

Al and Baxter drove the new Lexus from Mobile to Spokane, stopping only for gas, Twizzlers, Big Macs, and the USA TODAY. They were both pleased and disappointed not to find a mention of their bank-robbing spree in the headlines.

They were disappointed but not pleased to find the FBI waiting when they pulled into LeAnne’s garage on the morning of the third day.

While tales are often a recitation of events, novels do require more. They need scenes—events unfolding in a time and place (setting) caused by and in turn affecting story people (characters). Scenes play out in identifiable places and times with characters who interact with one another and their setting.

Exposition without scenes, such as that used in tales, is a reporting of events. Thousands of years can be covered in a few sentences. Scenes, as used in novels and movies, are representations of story events in ways that make it look as though those events are unfolding in real time.

Novels need both scenes and exposition. Novels with first-person narration definitely need both elements.

And novels with first-person narrators need to be protected from the curse that might keep them from being published, that of relying on exposition at the expense of real-time action and dialogue.

Sure, novels told from other points of view might have this problem of too much exposition, but in my experience, it’s more common in stories with first-person narration. Protect each of your manuscripts against the problem of too much exposition, but be especially vigilant if your narrator is telling his own story. He might have trouble sharing the events of his life with strangers, he might not want to put it out there as it happened, but that’s exactly what he’s inviting when he begins his story. Help him out. Help him show just how those events made him who he is by inviting readers to experience those same events as if they’d been there. Don’t let him hold back.

Give us his thoughts and emotions, yes, yes, yes; that’s one of the chief reasons to use first-person narration. But don’t let him only tell about his life. Help him to share it so we’ll understand everything he went through and what it meant to him. So we can feel what he felt.

So we can feel . . .

Don’t let him tell an uninvolving tale, one that holds readers at a safe emotional distance. Compel him to entice readers into the events that so bother him that he can’t help but share them.

And provide him a reason to share. Something made him want to tell about his life—remember to include that provocation.

Don’t write safe stories that are easily forgotten.

Write involving, compelling, dangerous fiction that hits readers on multiple levels.

Beat back the curse of first-person narration.

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12 Responses to “The Curse of First-Person Narration”

  1. Thanks for posting this! I personally have found myself falling into this trap when writing in first person, which is why I usually write in third person. I find that getting the reader into the action and using dialogue comes easier for me when I’m using “he” and “she” rather than “I.”

  2. Grace, it’s easy to fall into, but once you know what to be aware of, that should help with much of the problem. Do write what works for you, but don’t feel you couldn’t try first person again. Who knows what you’d come up with the next time.

  3. Philip W. says:

    I love your site Beth, you’ve helped me already in just a couple weeks of reading entries! Thank you. I just completed my first book and this entry made me cringe a little but then rejoice in the fact that I didn’t fall into the trap as bad as I thought! Very, very informative.
    thank you
    I look forward to reading more on your site.

  4. Philip, I’m glad you like the site and find it helpful. And congratulations on finishing the first manuscript. That’s a true achievement worth crowing about. Here’s to many more successful steps on your writing adventure.

  5. Darien says:

    Hi Beth, just got your link to this, and I have checked it out previously. I think my use of BS is more flashbacks with a good blend of live action. I am guilty of summarizing on occasion to move things along, and not drag down scenes with every word spoken. I’ve been working on my manuscript for many years, on and off, so I feel if it bores me, it’s worth condensing.

    My manuscript is YA/Mystery, and my MC is the narrator. Thinking of all your advice on overused words etc, I wonder, is it allowed that a young person would repeat certain words in dialogue and description, creating a specific vernacular for that character? I only ask, because as I review my story, and edit favorite words etc, I feel that it seems like he is pulling out a thesaurus if he keeps changing words just for variety. I’m going for a conversational tone with the narration.

    I’m happy to say, that there is a place in time, and a reason to be talking about his life. It’s definitely a novel as far as the mystery part goes.

    Thank-you again for all your help and advice.