About a third of the way into the draft of my new manuscript, I made some decisions about the course of the story that prompted some retrofitting of what I had already written — and then some soul-searching about the approach I had taken.
I started the manuscript in first person (for those scoring at home, my second consecutive novel written in that point of view). For the story I started writing, that seemed the appropriate vantage point. After I changed the arc of the story, I spent a few weeks ping-ponging between keeping the first person and rewriting in third person. (Ask my friend Jim Thomsen: I was all over the yard.)
The advantages of first person, as I saw them:
- The horse’s mouth: The new manuscript is a character study, a journey through a transformative experience. Putting the story in the main character’s words allows the reader to see the unfolding as he sees it.
- Emotion: Done right, the conveyance of anger, happiness, guilt, whatever is more immediate and more forceful. The writer still has to exercise skill; it’s not enough to say “I grew agitated.” You have to show it.
- Directness: If you’re using the character’s words, you can wipe away any doubt about where motivation lies, if absolute clarity is called for.
But there are drawbacks to that point of view, too:
- Limited scope: It’s hard to move 360 degrees around a story when the eyes of only one character are in play. If you want to bring aspects of the story unseen by your lead character, you have to convey them through other means — documents, dialogue, etc. Your options are limited.
- Truth: It’s your story, so “truth,” such as it is, lies in your hands. But if you’re relying on one character to provide the narration, you at least have to give consideration to the fact that we humans filter our experiences. For example: If you were to ask me what was behind my most recent quarrel with my wife, you might get an answer that I consider truthful. But if you were to ask my wife, the answer might be considerably different — and just as truthful.
- Rampant exposition: As I re-read my first draft, and as trusted friends looked at it, this was probably the single biggest flaw in my effort. When the storytelling is in a character’s voice, rather than in the distant voice of a narrator, it’s all too easy to jump out of the moment and go on a long-winded soliloquy that leaves the reader wondering why the character is suddenly talking above the action. In my most recent pass through the manuscript, I spent hours unwinding these talk-to-the-camera moments.
Here’s a bit of feedback I received from my friend Jim Thomsen as he read the first draft:
I feel this story, essentially, represents a tug of war between Craig The Storyteller and Craig The Essayist, with the battle being fought to an uncomfortable draw. Too much of this story takes place in Mitch’s mind for it to feel fully like a story. All of Mitch’s artful but windy explanations for how he feels and what he thinks serve to pull the reader out of the story in much the way that a commercial break would yank a viewer out of a good movie. Not only are they distracting, but they serve to send a signal of sorts that you don’t trust your own story to tell itself — and that you don’t trust the reader to follow along and figure things out for themselves. Let them decide for themselves what Mitch must be feeling and what things must mean — by telling them, you take away one of the key pleasures of reading a good story, which is, as I said, to immerse oneself in the world of characters and assign their own values and motives and interpretations to what those characters do and say. By insisting on being the reader’s tour guide into The Mind Of Mitch, you take away the reader’s instinctive desire to tour that world on their own and in their own way.
While there’s a bit too much armchair psychology in that critique — I would contend that the asides were less a matter of not trusting myself and more a product of writing a quick-and-dirty first draft — Jim’s central point is dead-on nails. Tell the story, then get out of the way. No one is served by telling the reader what he just saw. He knows, and he’s applying his own sensibility to it.
Which, if you ask me, is the biggest payoff of writing.