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Who’s telling this damn story anyway?

By September 2, 2009How To, Writing

storytellingFor me, there’s a major decision that must be made towards the beginning of the writing process. And it’s a grueling, soul sucking question. Why? Because I’m not sure there’s a right answer. I mean, it could really go either way, you could make either work. And, most awfully, by choosing one answer, you’re forfeiting the possibilities of the other. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about it.

The dilemma: Perspective: Who’s telling the story? Is it in first person? Third? If it’s in first person, is that person a main character or someone on the outskirts or is it the dog? If you go with first person, you only get one side of the story; but, it’s a deep, personal look. If you go with third person, readers get an omniscient view; but, that ‘in the character’s brain’ thing isn’t quite the same.

For the book I’m working on now, I’ve made the decision to go with first person. And the reason is that my main character, through whom the story is told, has to go through this process on her own. It’s her story, so we need to hear her go through it. In this case, it will be much more genuine. But maybe I’ll play with this a little as I go…

Some things to think about as you ponder perspective:

  • Are you writing one person’s story? Or the story of a town, a group of friends, team, etc.
  • Will the character be where you need them to be (physically in the story) to get the storytelling job done?
  • Which character’s perspective will provide the most (or most appropriate) information for the telling of the story?
  • Would it make sense to have different people tell the story in different chapters? One book that I love called The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel actually tells the same story over and over, each chapter has a different character tell the story. It’s brilliantly done. Their experiences are dramatically different, the solid events are the only things that bind them together.
  • Will it help the story to hear from one person or to have an all-knowing narrator providing information?
  • Write just one chapter and see which perspective you like more. You, as the writer, have to connect with the choice – otherwise it really won’t work.
  • Why not flip a coin? I’ve made great decisions that way. If the coin flips the way you want, you’ll be thrilled. If it flips the wrong way, you’ll be upset and, boom, you’ll have your answer.
  • Be creative. Who says you have to choose. Let other characters tell a few chapters if you need to. Or switch from third person to first as you move through the book. Do what works.

Because in the end, you’ve just got to trust your gut on this one…and let the story be told.

Image credit: Scottish Libraries

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • I keep reading about how third person is often used and it’s causing me to scratch a hole in my head. I can’t think of many novels I’ve read that went along the lines of… “Saharabutrasgata got up from her chair and flung herself across Vexabuz’s steely thighs”. It almost seems silly to read it that way.

    Not that it doesn’t sound silly to read, “I got up from my chair and flung myself across Vexabuz’s steely thighs”, or “Saharabutrasgata got up from her chair and flung herself across my steely thighs, getting her hair caught in my zipper as she will soon discover”.

    Aren’t most modern fiction stores in first person, flipping back and forth between characters? Hmm…

    In any case, good for you for making a decision and sticking with it! And lol about the coin. Hey, if it gets the job done. ;-)

  • --Deb says:

    Interesting question, really. For my current book? It started as being told in first person, all centered on one character. Then, somewhere, it shifted to third, which I didn’t really notice until I’d written 50 or so pages that way and had to go back and change it. Then, I realized that one of the other characters needed HIS story told, too, so suddenly, he was getting his own chapters in third person. And, just recently? A new character appeared and insisted (he’s a newspaper man) that he tell his own story, thank you very much, because apparently I wouldn’t do it right. But, since he’s helping me out as a character, this was a compromise I was willing to make–he’s making himself all kinds of useful!

  • Aha! Now THAT makes sense. I’ve seen that done and might make more sense than switching from first person to first person for another character. Julie’s got the best readers. :)

  • --Deb says:

    Too many first-person chapters by too many narrators throws me off when I read. I need to ‘re-tune’ my ear to each character’s speech patterns, like hearing an unfamiliar accent. I don’t mind needing to adapt at the beginning of a book, but don’t make me switch every chapter. Three voices is about my limit, so these three are it–nobody else gets to speak up! (We’ll just ignore the occasional newspaper articles I’m needing to quote, written by whoever wrote them. But that’s different. News reads like … news!)

  • Julie Roads says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t get past ‘Saharabutrasgata’, ‘Vexabuz’ and ‘steely thighs’…

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