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Apr 13, 2009

First Person Retrospective


Since I decided to write my Secret Novel in first person, I've been rereading some of my favorite first person novels. There are two major approaches to first person:

Immediate First Person: Sometimes this means first person present tense, which is as intimate and immediate as it gets. However, even first person past tense can feel very much "in the now"; the narrator tells what she felt at the moment she is describing, nothing more. She doesn't "cheat" by implying she knows more about what happens next any more than the reader. If she misjudges someone, this is revealed only when she herself discovers it.

I turned around when I heard the shot, crying, "Edwin, don't!"

My eyes fell on the smoking gun first, then the body, and in my shock it took me a dozen heartbeats to make sense of the French manicure on the hand holding the gun, or the fedora hat soaking in a pool of blood.

Gloria met my eyes. "That's right. I was the one who went to the pawn shop last week. You never suspected. You dismissed me -- just as Edwin did."


Retrospective First Person: Many first person books, however, take the opposite tact. They are written as faux memoirs, in a retrospective mood, in which the narrator of the events slyly or absent-mindedly refers to future events. This kind of narrative voice can compare past knowledge and emotional states with future ones (the "present" of the narrator).

When I first met Gloria, I dismissed her in one glance as a mouse. She spoke only in monosyllebles at that first dinner. Her husband Edwin boomed over the platters of greasy food, and continued to rattle the empty glasses long after the wine ran out. I paid scant attention to his tirades after the first half hour.

"We have to get together again," he promised when I finally begged the waiter to bring the check. He pumped my hand and clapped my back at the same time. "This was marvelous, we have to do this again sometime."

I would have wasted less dread on the prospect had I guessed that would be the last time I would see him alive.

There are dangers of telling too much, becoming too conversational and chatty in any version of first person. Either method, handled well, can work. The question, as always, is what works best with this story?

How does one determine whether a sense of retrospection or a sense of immediacy is preferable for a story?

In my blog about first person vs third person, I recieved some wonderful tips from the commenters.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this too.

14 comments:

beth said...

I just read WAKE, which has the best sense of first person immediacy that I've ever read.

I think past tense is the more natural way to read and write--it makes the work sound like a story, and the narrator sound like a story teller. That said, present tense--when done well--DOES add immediacy.

Here's my experience--I always used to say that past tense was perfect. But when I started my most recent WIP, I wrote a chapter before I realized it was in present tense. It's what came naturally to the story. Go with that.

lotusgirl said...

My current wip is in first person and I enjoyed your retrospective.

scott g.f. bailey said...

My current novel is written in Retrospective First Person. It's a familiar tale, more-or-less, and the narrator is telling about things he's done, looking back on the events of his life from some point afterward. The danger of this perspective is that you get into problems with the language sometimes being clunky: "He had been having trouble with..." but I'm sort of eschewing a lot of that subjunctive case construction and trying to keep the language active. Which is hard sometimes. You might want to just sort of test drive a couple of chapters and see which falls more naturally from your pen (or your fingertips, as you write at the keyboard).

David Russell Mosley said...

I tend to like first person retrospective. That is simply because I tend to like an omniscient narrator, they're a bit more trustworthy.

Really, it depends on how much you want us to trust your narrator. If it is all as it happens, that's great for keeping twists and turns. If you want a bit more trustworthy narrator, then I would almost recommend a past tense or retrospective. You can, however, do either with either style. It would be especially surprising to get everything in the past tense with retrospection and still have a major twist.

So, that's that.

But really, I'm not who I said I was, making me an untrustworthy narrator.

sraasch said...

I was a hardcore third person up until recently. I really enjoy first -- it's much more intimate, as you said. And describing it as a memoir-ish POV is a good way to say it. Lots of books written in first feel like the character is sitting down with you, telling their story over a cup of coffee.

Anita said...

Which first person books are you reading for inspiration?

Solvang Sherrie said...

I've always written in third person. But my current WIP came to me in first person. It was really hard for me to accept and I tried to force it into third, but it works so much better in first. First person is harder for me to write, but it pulls you in so much faster I think.

Natalie said...

I've done both first and third, but I've never attempted first present. It scares me. The limitation gets even tighter, though it can be so very effective. It takes a deft touch to make it work without being "annoying."

The Hunger Games is a great example of awesome first person present. And I think that POV/tense adds to the intensity of the story.

Whatever comes naturally is a good bet on the way the story should be told. I once switched a first person to third 2 chps in because I was scared of first...after I wrote all 90k, I put it back in first...yeah, don't recommend that.

Windsong said...

I think it really depends on the story. Some stories read better one way, and some read better the other. I've found that if I try to write the story 'my' way, it doesn't come out as well and I end up capitulating to the Muse later on anyway. Listen for the voice the story wants, and go with that. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

I recently wrote a story in first-person present tense and found it an asset to a story that had a narrator having to make decisions on the fly. It fit the story's style well where first-person past tense wouldn't have been as effective.

But the past tense version gives a nice opportunity for the talky voice to come through, a memoir-esque effect (as you note).

For me, the decision on which to use depends a lot on the character you are portraying as the pov.

Lady Glamis said...

I like David's comment on how much you want your reader to trust the narrator. And it's all up to you. Your voice. Your story. If your novel weren't so secret, I'd say give us two examples of the first part and let people vote, but it's secret, so...

:D

I liked the immediate example you had best. But then again, I don't write first person, so I don't know how helpful I am, sorry.

slhastings said...

Tara, you raise a good question.

My take?

As a writer, I like switching it up, trying on a few hats if you will, including alt POVs.

On that note, I think it all comes down to the "voice" of the novel.

Pen Pen said...

This is my favorite perspective. I feel close to the narrator every time.

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