First Person — Continued

MP900411783When you’re writing in first person, there are some things you definitely need to avoid. Like what?

Well, that’s just silly, I thought to myself.

Duh. Who else are you going to think to? Unless your character can communicate telepathically with others, this construction is a waste of time. Get rid of the ‘to myself.’ Same with wondered and any other word that describes what may be going on inside your character’s noggin. If your character is telling the story, it goes without saying that s/he’s doing the thinking.

My thoughts drifted back to that fateful day.

OR

I remembered the first time he kissed me.

Don’t do this. This is announcing what your character is thinking. Just have them talk about it. It’s much better for Sally to just begin the memory than announce it first.

An expression of horror crossed my face as I looked at the mess.

Don’t do this, either. The character can’t see their own face unless they’re looking in a mirror. Just say “I smiled. I looked in horror at the mess. I … you get the picture. Related to this is the ever popular “My cheeks grew red.” Again, unless they are looking in a mirror… just don’t do it. I blushed is more acceptable because the character could feel their cheeks growing warmer. Describing the sensation of warmth is even better. The trick is to think like the character and use the sensations they’re feeling rather than visual cues. First person, remember? :)

Dialogue

Now let’s talk about dialogue. Dialogue can’t help but be artificial in first person, but we include it anyway because it’s usually what people want to read most. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, go for it. Don’t recount a conversation as one-sided if you can help it (one exception that springs to mind is if your character is testifying in court). Readers want to witness all those lovers’ spats, conspiracies, and making up first hand.

Voice

Finally… the best part of first person. This is why we choose it in the first place. We want to write in the character’s voice. We get to act the part as we write. we get to choose their attitude, diction, thoughts, complexity, subtext… the whole nine yards. A character who is well-educated and likes to show that off uses big words and complex sentences. One who is simple may use short sentences and simple phrases. Your character can be sarcastic, both in word and tone. Whatever you choose, first person lets you revel in it. It reflects whatever you choose. A suggestion, however, for characters heavy in dialect… give it a flavor, rather than go heavy in phonetic spelling. A whole book spelled out in Cockney or Deep Southern could be rather difficult to read, not to mention condescending and probably inaccurate.

Distance

Usually distance is created by using third person, but it can be created inadvertently in first person by the phrasing you use.

I wondered if Billy would call.

This creates distance by subtly asking the reader to look at the narrator as she wonders. To get inside her head, you might try one of the following:

Would Billy call?

Maybe Billy would call.

Billy won’t call. He never calls when I want him to. Damn him!

Butterflies played in my stomach. Maybe Billy would call and ask me out.

I swore I’d never sit at home by the phone waiting for a boy to call. C’mon, Billy! Call already! God, I’m pathetic.

All of these not only eliminate distance, but they characterize what’s going on. Now we not only know she wants Billy to call, but each version adds more to the story.

Multiple First Person

I see a lot of manuscripts that make use of multiple first person. A recent mainstream example of this is Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles. The chapters alternate narrators. As the author, you get the fun of being inside the head of more than one character, with all the work that entails. On the plus side, you get more points of view from which to learn things, but on the minus side, you have to do all the work for each character, remembering who knows what and who doesn’t know what. This option works best when there’s a big difference between the characters.

 

The Dialogue Police

Dialogue. It is a necessary evil if you have characters. They must communicate, after all. Someone has to talk. It is also some of the most challenging writing you’ll do.

Why? Because you need to know your characters enough to speak for them. As them. Use their vocabularies, not yours. Reflect their histories and emotions. Oh, and don’t make them sound stilted unless that is how your character speaks.

Unlike everyday speech that we engage in everyday, you must also focus and compress your written dialogue so it is interesting. Let’s face it; we have a million conversations a day with family, friends, and coworkers that would put anyone to sleep if they read it. In a book, you need to keep that kind of dialogue to a minimum.

So, how can you make your dialogue more effective?

One way to make your dialogue sound more realistic is to use contractions. When most people speak, they don’t say, “I would not do that if I were you.” They say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” It will also make it sound more natural if you use sentence fragments in places. When we speak, we don’t tend to think of proper sentence structure. Did I remember to put in all the adverbs I wanted to describe the topic I was just talking about with Karen? No, that just doesn’t happen. Take a common topic in our household, tea.

“Want some tea?” Wendy asked.
“Sounds great.”

Neither of these sentences are built in the proper structure, but they reflect how people talk. You can get away with a lot more of this when writing dialogue because it sounds more natural.

You can also help make your dialogue more natural by stringing sentences together using commas. We don’t often stop completely after each thought when we speak; we leap from one to another.

“Yes, I want some eggs, make sure they are sunnyside up, thanks.”

Never opt for the more complicated word unless your character thinks using big words is impressive to someone. Fancy words can make the dialogue sound stilted, unrealistic, and if they are truly big and obscure, make your reader stumble. Try using ‘obligatory’ in a sentence without sounding awkward and unrealistic. Most people would use ‘required’ or even ‘mandatory’ instead when they speak. Courtroom dramas may be a small exception to this when a character is a lawyer speaking during a trial or if you have medical personnel talking about a case amongst themselves. In these cases, you may need to figure out a way for the reader to understand the terminology.

Dialogue Tags

What are dialogue tags? They are the little he saids, she saids of the literary world. While many of us learned in school to vary our dialogue tags so we don’t just use ‘said’ all the time, the fact is, if you can’t substitute the tag you have now with ‘said’ and still understand the meaning of what is being spoken, you may want to go back and rewrite your dialogue.

Let’s take a look at a sample:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” demanded Lucy. “I have to be there!”
“Well, young lady,” her mother explained, “you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom…” Lucy whined. “All my friends will be there!”

Using dialogue tags like this explains what should have been explained in your dialogue. If you did get the meaning across in your dialogue, you shouldn’t have to explain it again by using tags. In fact, sometimes you don’t need tags at all.

When you have a dialogue between two people, once you’ve established who is speaking, you can often dispense with the attributions altogether, breaking up the dialogue with beats. Few people just sit there, completely still, while speaking. They may take a sip of coffee or scratch their neck. They may stand up abruptly to add power to what they are saying. Adding physical action to your dialogue makes it more realistic and believable; much more believable than spelling out your meanings through the dialogue tags.

Let’s take another look at that bit of dialogue:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” Lucy said. “I have to be there!”
Her mother folded another towel. “Well, young lady, you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom… all my friends will be there!”

You still get all the meaning, don’t you? Remember this when you write your dialogue. It will improve your writing.

Edited according to our helpful comment! Just proves that every writer needs an objective editor!