This week: The First-Person POV and the ConflictEdited by: Joy
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“And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses.”
― Julian Barnes, The Only Story
“After four thousand years we can’t even prove that reality exists beyond the mind of the first-person dreamer.”
― Peter Watts, Blindsight
“I would so hate to be a first-person character! Always on your guard, always having people read your thoughts!”
― Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book
Hello, I am Joy , this week's drama editor. This issue is about the usage of the first person POV and the conflict.
Thank you for reading our newsletters and for supplying the editors with feedback and encouragement.
Please, note that there are no rules in writing, but there are methods that work for most of us most of the time.
The ideas and suggestions in my articles and editorials have to do with those methods. You are always free to find your own way and alter the methods to your liking.
Welcome to the Drama newsletter
I think most of us know a lot about conflict and creating one, that is, inside our stories, but what about the role of the point of view on the conflict?
To begin with, let’s first re-examine what the conflict does to a fictional piece. In a nutshell, the conflict is basically the problem of the story. Without it, the story becomes boring. The main conflict of the story is central to the plot and is expected by the readers to be resolved by the end. A story can have several conflicts; however, they’re all secondary to the main conflict and have to be connected to it in some way to provide unity for the story.
Then, when you read a story, do you ever wonder what would happen to it if another character in the story told it? In what ways would a different perspective change the story? The point of view is the perspective from which the story is told. This is an important concept because the readers have to know who’s telling the story to fully understand it.
To begin with, the point of view or POV would affect the structure of the conflict by either strengthening it or weakening it, and it might even quicken or slow the pace down because each character and the author, even when using third person omniscient POV, would give more importance to the events that matter to them. If we choose to use the first person POV, we need to be careful with the way we use it since this point of view tends to change the effects of the conflict.
When the story is told from the first person, using the pronouns I-me-my-we-us, that person will give much importance to the events that affect him or her the most. When the story is happening to the teller of the story, using the first-person POV has the advantage of getting into the inner workings of that person’s psyche, although the other characters’ feelings and actions are colored by the POV character’s insight into them or rather, the lack of it. In other words, this POV can be quite restrictive and may color the essence of the conflict, if we aren’t careful when using it.
As examples, here are two excerpts, from The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger. The first example is from the opening two sentences of the novel, and the other, the main character’s strong reaction to another character’s success. Notice how the first-person POV of Holden Caulfield affects the storytelling.
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
“I’m not too sure what the name of the song was that he was playing when I came in, but whatever it was, he was really stinking it up. He was putting all these dumb, show-offy ripples in the high notes, and a lot of other very tricky stuff that gives me a pain in the ass. You should’ve heard the crowd, though, when he was ﬁnished. You would’ve puked. They went mad. They were exactly the same morons that laugh like hyenas in the movies at stuff that isn’t funny. I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes though I was terriﬁc, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me.”
The tense used with the first-person point of view also matters. Mostly, stories are told in the past tense, but using the present tense together with the first-person POV may have the advantage of immediacy, evoking the senses, and pulling the reader more deeply into the story. Although the first person POV is said to be either reliable or unreliable, the way I see it, it is always unreliable.
Here is a short example of the first person POV in the present tense from Susan Collins’s Catching Fire. See how easily she pulls the reader into the scene.
“Peeta smiles and douses Haymitch’s knife in white liquor from a bottle on the floor. He wipes the blade clean on his shirttail and slices the bread. Peeta keeps all of us in fresh baked goods. I hunt. He bakes. Haymitch drinks. We have our own ways to stay busy, to keep thoughts of out time as contestants in the Hunger Games at bay.”
Generally speaking, most first-person POV stories are told by the younger adults or possibly teens. This doesn’t mean that the elderly cannot tell from the first-person POV, but so far that I can tell, it has been rare.
Here are a few suggestions about using of the first-person POV with a strong conflict.
If you don’t want to project the voice of the narrator too much, try to tell some parts of the story where you can from a more generalized stance. For example, instead of,
“I turn the doorknob to open the door and hear its hinges creak. I suddenly hear the guard’s voice. “What the heck are you doing?”
You may choose to say this: “The doorknob turns and the door opens, but its hinges creak. The guard’s voice echoes. ‘What the heck are you doing?’”
Try not to start every sentence with the first-person pronoun, such as I walked, I thought, I saw, etc., such as:
“I saw that the floor was of varnished wood, and I wondered who painted the stripes and circles on it. I thought of the games that were formerly played there. I noticed the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone.”
The better and the real version of the above example is from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. “The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone.”
How does your narrator express feelings, thoughts and experiences? Try varying the ways he or she does that throughout the story and keep the action in the forefront so the first person POV doesn’t weaken the conflict through the overuse of feelings and introspection.
"Hearing her screams would make me jump up. I’d guess that he could be torturing her again. I don’t want to be a guest in their house.”
“He could torture her and make her scream, again. I’d say no if they invited me over.”
Make sure the narrator’s backstory has some effect on the narrator’s voice.
“My parents never let me have a pet. Now when my cat meows each time, I answer her and try to make her feel better.”
Remember the five senses? Use them and do not only talk about the narrator’s inner feelings.
“My cloak was of sable, thick, black, and soft. Wrapping it around me, I took a taste of their wine, which smelled of smoke. I hoped they wouldn’t dare to poison me.”
In wrap it up, when we decide to use the first person POV, we need to pay attention to its appropriate use with precision and clarity, so it doesn't minimize the effect of the conflict.
Until next time!
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This Issue's Tip: Unpredictability creates doubt as well as suspense. While using it with a first-person POV, make sure it can be explained within the context of the conflict and the plot.
Feedback for "Dramatic and Internal Monologues"
WakeUpAndLive~No cig for me!
Regarding: "Love's Bond and Beyond"
Thanks for the NL on the internal monologue. I use it in my writing to give the reader the means to get to know the character better. As a writer you have this tool, as opposed to movies for example, where a voice-over is not always appropriate. So, we writers better use it.
I agree, and thanks for the feedback.
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