Ugh! I hate writing first-person!

Forums Fiction General Writing Discussions Ugh! I hate writing first-person!

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    Edmund Lloyd Fletcher

    Hey all,

    I’m considering writing in first-person for an upcoming project.  The thought behind this is the main character is an “average joe” and I really want the reader to experience the story along with him.  It’s a very emotional storyline and I want the reader to be right there, up front, in the rollercoaster with him.

    That being said, I HATE writing first person!  To me, third-person stories just flow, while first-person has to be beat into submission.   I generally choose to make my life more pleasant by avoiding writing in this tense.

    I *think* the main problem I have with it is the whole “show don’t tell” rule.  With first person it’s all “I went here.  I did this.  I saw that.”  It feels like everything is telling.

    Any tips on how to make first-person less tell-y?
    Or, any tips on writing in first-person in general?

    Homeschooling father of 10, writing Christian action/adventure novels from my home high in the Rockies.

    Princess Foo

    @edmund-lloyd-fletcher I mainly write in first person.

    For me at least, when I think of telling vs showing, I think of emotions and thoughts. You are telling me how you are feeling. It’s “I was angry and sad” instead of “My eyes burned. I swiped at my eyes with a clenched fist.” So “I did this. I went there.” isn’t <i>telling </i>to me. Those are actions, not emotions. I don’t think you need to be concerned about that.

    But you don’t need to say “I saw this.” You can go straight into the description. We will understand that the narrator is the one seeing it.


    The key to first-person writing is the narrative voice. The narrator needs to be someone the readers like listening to, otherwise it can feel claustrophobic. So, make sure your “average joe” has a compelling voice.

    Hello Future Me has a good in-depth video about writing first person https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRGfs7iOUDE

    The cake is a lie. acaylor.com

    The Inkspiller

    @edmund-lloyd-fletcher, I’m no expert in first-person (I likewise generally detest it), but I’ll give it a shot.

    So, as you astutely observed, first-person by its very nature violates the rule of “show don’t tell.” However, it’s important to remember why that rule exists and what it primarily refers to – that is, things that we can’t literally seebut we can figuratively see. For example, an anxious man beneath a flickering street lamp. We don’t know he’s anxious because he’s got a sign on his head saying, “Bob is / was anxious.” But we can tell at a glance by his hunched shoulders, hands shoved deep in his pockets, by his bent head and his eyes swiveling back and forth and forth and back like the pendulum of a clock, not to mention his tremulous stammer as he croaks out a shaky, “W-who’s there? What do y-you want?” We show the things we can’t literally see by telling the audience the things they can see.

    But if Bob crosses the street, well, unless something particularly exciting happens along the way, a simple, “Bob crossed the street,” will suffice, with maybe a little adverb or a conjunction to accentuate the aforementioned anxious demeanor.

    Think about how you’d tell a story to a friend about that time you thought you saw an alien monster in the street, only for it to turn out to be a plastic bag (I am being fictitious here, I don’t know if Edmund has seen any aliens lately).

    “So I was walking to the 7-Eleven and I saw this thing blowing along down the street, right -” (I took a gulp from my two liter to wet my whistle) “- and I guess it was just a funny shape or the light caught it funny, and I coulda sworn it looked like some six legged thing, all glisteny and what not, slime drippin’ off it and six mean blue eyes, glowing like little LEDs. Crazy, right? Looked again, realized it was just a bag, some plastic grocery bag caught on a stick in the road. So I shook it off, walked in the 7-Eleven, got me a six pack and this here two liter, walked back out. Bag was still there, no lights though. So I walked back, maybe had me a little drinky drink – was about halfway back when there’s this rustling behind me, and I see this thing again – no lights but I could see it just had this shape to it, but it was dark, and I knew I was a little tipsy, so I turned back around – maybe it would go away. But I just felt something – y’know, one of them hair raisers, so I took the safety off my Glock, just in case. I had the shakes bad, and the 2L was awful cold too, so I kept drinking – steady the nerves – and I was taking another swig when I just hear this screech behind me like Satan’s pet cricket, so I just hucked that six pack at it and I whipped out my Glock and I unloaded on it, fed it seventeen servings of hot lead while I booked it back to the house. I dunno what that thing was, but I didn’t see it the rest of the way home.” (I finished the two liter and tossed it away.) “So anyways, that’s why my big toe’s missing. Come to think of it, that’s also probably why the police are outside. Got any more pop?”


    In first-person stories, you in many ways get a reprieve from the rule of show don’t tell – you are in the character’s head after all. However, even characters sometimes don’t know themselves as well as the author does, and so you can play with your first person character being an unreliable narrator, or deliberately avoiding uncomfortable admissions – but that’s another topic.

    Now, that said, the approach I outlined above tackles this from a past-tense perspective – the narrator / character is basically relating their story as an anecdote, looking back at it all from an undisclosed future point as an autobiographical experience. However, that sort of anecdotal style might be difficult to sustain for a longer project. One amusing (though unfortunately very profane) example from Soviet dissident literature is Москва-Петушки, or Moscow to the End of the Line, by Venedikt Yerofeyev, the drunkenly told story of an absolutely smashed narrator of his journey on the Moscow metro to meet his girlfriend and child in the suburb of Petushki. Along the way, he discloses how he was fired from his job as a cable layer, gets thrown out of numerous restaurants and bars, records a multitude of terrifying folk recipes for improvised moonshine, monologues about history and politics, gets in multiple arguments with both devils and angels, and may or may not actually be dead at the time of narration.

    If you’re looking at more present-tense perspective – i.e., the protagonist is narrating to himself as he experiences the story and doesn’t already know how it’s going to end – there’s some subtle differences between that and the aforementioned autobiographical style. Tentatively, I would say that you could write the story in the same style as third person, just swap names and pronouns for “I”, but I feel like there’s surely more to that – more than I am currently qualified to speak about.


    Hope this helps and wasn’t too pedantic.

    Non nobis Domine, sed nomini, Tuo da gloriam.

    Taylor Clogston

    @edmund-lloyd-fletcher In third-person, you can kind of get away with ignoring the construct of “narrator as character” and “narratee as character.” Though you can just write first-person as third-person limited with different pronouns, I feel like that ignores so much of the potential utility of first-person.

    In first-person your narrator is explicitly the viewpoint character, but your narratee determines what the narrator reveals.

    For stream-of-consciousness and purely experiential first-person, everything that flows through the character’s mind ends up on the page.

    For epistolary, your character thinks long and hard about what they put on the page. If they’re writing in a journal, they might start by skirting around deep-seated issues and grow over the course of the telling, rather than just the experiencing, as they work out their issues on the page and acknowledge their inner turmoil. Or if they’re writing to a friend, they’ll refer to things from the shared past with that character and will make asides and explanations based on the unique needs of that narratee.

    For writing in which the narrator reflects on events that happened a long time ago, you apply retrospective shading to the entire story, framing youth and inexperience in the light of the older and wiser self.

    I think what most people see as the weakness of first-person is failure to account for the narrator-narratee relationship, causing the structure and plot’s utility to clash with the diagetic focus of the viewpoint. I won’t say “of the protagonist” because it’s not required your first-person narrator is the protagonist, and we see this in The Great Gatsby.

    Usually, I notice this in dissonance between what the viewpoint describes and what a competent character notices. An eight-year-old might describe a scene and not understand it, but they focus on all the most important (to the reader) details anyway, for the sake of utility. On the flip side, a hyper-competent character might look at a scene with a simple, obvious explanation, but for the sake of drama they assume the worst of a character involved who screams “It’s not what it looks like!” while covered in blood. In third-person we could get away with both by separating narrator and viewpoint character, but there’s no excuse in first-person unless the narrator is reflecting upon a situation where they didn’t know what happened, and is explicitly recounting at a later time.

    You will tell in first-person, and that’s not bad. It’s just part of the mechanism. The poor reputation of telling is its lack of depth, and that comes only when you tell the focal point and do nothing else with the text. We’re not filmmakers, where everything that isn’t dialogue is necessarily shown. We’re storytellers.

    To balance showing and telling in first-person, understand the experiential/reflective dichotomy. Every bit of text either describes what the narrator senses, or what they think of it. The strength of the viewpoint is the web between the outside world and the character’s inner life, something which lets us become uniquely intimate with our characters. My grandmother’s stories aren’t valuable because she shows instead of tells, but because she has a unique perspective of a time and place I can’t experience today, and she tells of the past and then tells me how it made her and the world what they are today.

    Telling does not preclude good writing, and neither does the first-person perspective. The skill floor is just higher. It demands you learn when to use description versus narrative summary, when to let a rapid conversation flow and when to slow that flow with reflection, how to show gesture and action when you have no outside view of the narrator, and how to structure a plot when, likely, only one viewpoint is available.

    Last week in the book club discussion, we talked about the strength of the narrative style in The Promise of Jesse Woods, and you’ll want to check it out: https://storyembers.org/forums/topic/the-promise-of-jesse-woods-week-1/

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

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