Managing first-person pov

Here’s a short but possibly useful post on how to handle the lack of narrative flexibility you may encounter if you’re trying to write from a first-person point of view.

For example, this technique:

Time Delay

A detective on the trail of a killer corners him in a dark apartment. He takes several tentative steps. A shot rings out. The detective feels hot blood coming from his chest.

If you were writing in third-person POV, it would be easy to cut away from a scene of high tension for another scene with a different POV character (in this case, say, it’s the detective’s partner, lounging at a coffee shop). This is a great page-turning technique, leaving the reader to wonder what happened at the apartment.

A first-person novel, however, can’t cut away to a different POV scene. So instead of a physical cut, try time delay. First, end the chapter on a note of high tension. Then begin the subsequent chapter not with the next thing that happened, but with the narrator playing a little game of “You’ll have to wait.” In keeping with the same story line:

I hear a shot. And a jolt to my chest. And hot blood staining my shirt.

[Next Chapter]

When I was six, my father taught me a valuable lesson. “Son,” he said …

After this digression, which can be a full-on flashback or a short remembrance, get back to what happened at the end of the last scene.

I bet we see this a lot in first-person narratives where the author likes to end chapters on cliffhangers.

I’ve started to play around more with first person in some of my Works in Progress, so I instantly thought: you know, it would be kind of fun to try to end ALL the chapters on a cliffhanger…

Which reminds me of Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand, which has the most playful narrative structure I can think of, where every chapter starts in the middle.

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9 thoughts on “Managing first-person pov”

  1. When I read this I immediately thought of a young adult book by Elaine Marie Alphin called “The Perfect Shot.” In all honesty I don’t remember if it was written in first person, but it used a similar device to maintain the (very high) level of tension… the story started at the climax, and the back story was unrolled in a series of flashbacks as the climax advanced a few frames at a time. I usually don’t like flashbacks, just as I don’t like multiple POV. I find them jarring and distracting, and I just about get settled when the author pops me out of my immersion in that world. Anyway, the book stuck with me, and I feel like it WAS first person. That or a very “close-in” third person. It was a pretty gripping story – must have been to stick in my mind so many years.

  2. I was going to mention Doorways in the Sand!

    Katie Waitman’s first book, the Merro Tree is an inside out narrative structure, which she pulls off wonderfully well, amazingly so for a first novel.

    The original post put me off by claiming that 1st person narrative is ‘fast track to empathy’ by readers. I used to bounce hard off any such narrative. Somewhere along the line that stopped, but I still don’t consider it especially good at gaining my interest or empathy.

    I remember somewhere running across Jo Walton grumbling about how hard it was to get certain sorts of information across in her Sulien’s voice in the King’s Name and its sequel. Sulien is the 1st person narrator and is socially and emotionally … dense, shall we say. Possibly politically, too (it’s been a while). When its a sort of AU King Arthur there are lots of all those undercurrents that need to get across even if the narrator doesn’t grasp them herself. But.. well, the opening line of the second is “the first I knew of the civil war was when my sister tried to poison me.” OWTTE. She misses things. I think walton used some of the suggested techniques, mostly conversation to do it.

  3. I really dislike cliffhangers, they make me feel manipulated and irritable, so this may explain why I never reread Doorways in the sand and don’t remember anything about it. Other Zelazny books have stuck with me much better, and have been reread.

  4. Cliffhangers at the end of novels make me crazy. Cliffhangers at the end of chapters — maybe, maybe not. Doorways in the Sand — I think I found its structure so weird I didn’t treat it as a normal book to sink into, but an intellectual puzzle to follow along with. If that makes sense.

    The Merro Tree sounds like it might be a must-read just to examine the narrative structure.

  5. If I have time enough to read the whole book in a sitting, I don’t mind the cliffhangers at the end of chapters, because I just read straight on.
    But otherwise, chapter breaks are supposed to be the resting-points where I can put the book down and go to sleep, and pick it up again tomorrow. If it sucks me into reading way too long into the night, or lieing awake thinking/worrying if I do stop when I should, because there is no such resting point – that can irritate me at least as much as the lack of sleep does.
    With some (favorite) authors, the pacing is so fast and furious that I have to put a new book aside until Saturday morning, *not even crack it open just for a look* because I know it’ll be impossible to put down. But generally, that is accomplished with the pacing of the book, not with cliffhanger chapter endings; and I find that to be much less irritating.

  6. I totally agree about needing to start some books on a weekend morning! That is so true. I like to spend a minimum of two days on a book because I enjoy them more if I don’t rush, but for some it is indeed very difficult to find a resting point.

  7. Doorways in the sand took a little getting used to, but I enjoyed the novel enough that I didn’t mind the structure. As a student in college wondering if I could ever find a job in the Real World, I found the hero quite relatable :)

    I don’t love first person POV, though it really depends on the writer. (I love Mary Stewart, but the only time she tried a third-person story, I hated it.) My problem with first person POV is that these days it seems married to the present tense, which I find irritating. People say, “Oh! That makes the story more immediate and realistic!” Bah. “I am running from a grizzly bear in fear for my life” is not realistic.

  8. Rachel, the Waitman seems to be hard to find, going for $40 or so used on Amazon. Try a library, or one of the used book sites. Or I could loan you mine. (I would want it back eventually.)
    If its structure resembles anything it’s a Rumer Godden, China Court, I think.

    I picked up Knife to try given your praise. So far, so good.

  9. China Court is one I should re-read.

    For now I’ll just drop The Merro Tree on my wishlist so I don’t lose sight of it. There are a handful of copies for $16, which is a lot, but not totally ridiculous.

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