Tag Archives: First person

Adding Depth Without Adding Words

Short fiction is short. I know, that’s not an earth shattering revelation. But when I’m writing short stories it’s almost a mantra. Almost like a vertically challenged version of Keep It Gay from The Producers.

Maintaining depth and progressing the plot while being economical with words is really really hard. I’ve often heard it said that when writing short your words have to multi-task; and it’s true that they do. But I’ve found that there are a few little tricks that can, depending on the story, maintain depth without adding to the length.

Sticking to One Point of View:

It’s simple math. It takes time, and words to introduce each character to the reader. The fewer characters your story has, the fewer words there will be. By sticking to one point of view you can use the words that you would have spent on developing another character on delving a little deeper into the one. Or if you’ve already delved deep into the character’s mind you can use this trick to cut down the overall length.

No Room in the Wings:

When I was still acting, every theater I performed in had space issues backstage. Some of them had fairly large wings but once you added the moving set pieces — some of which were quite large — furniture, 10-20 actors, props, the stage manager and their crew, and dressers there was barely enough room for air. Even Noah would be hard pressed to fit all of that into such an ark.

Often the solution to this is to do the play with a smaller cast and crew. Some of the chorus and supporting cast members are given two, sometimes three minor roles to play. One of the dressers might double as a stage hand. The stage manager might help move set pieces. It can be a bit crazy and hectic but really it’s an efficient use of resources. There’s never a dull moment. Everyone is busy.

I do realize that it’s not that easy to make characters play multiple roles like that. Not obvious roles anyway. If your protagonist needs a foil to make them more likable then why can’t their best friend play that part too? It’s also possible to trim a few side characters whose presence doesn’t move the plot.

Writing in First Person:

I know some of you cringed. Believe me, I LOVE writing in third. But first person when done well can open up a character to the readers. Part of this I think is because of the word I. I believe that it makes everything that happens to the viewpoint character more personal. It may only be a subconsciously but that’s enough. Should you write all of your short stories in first person? Heck, no. If you feel it’s going to be better in third then write it in third. But if it’s the kind of story where you want the reader to really feel the character’s plight then try writing it in first person.

Wordplay:

I’m not talking about clever quips or prose. I’m talking about the associations that certain words have. For example: Lisa walked through the neighborhood. Vs. Lisa walked through the ghetto. The first one is pretty neutral and nondescript. The second brings an image of dilapidated buildings and cracked sidewalks to the reader’s mind. It also makes the reader concerned for Lisa’s safety since there’s always danger lurking in ghettos. All of that just by changing one word. Not only is it a more specific word, it has a negative connotation that gives is extra power.

By having an understanding of the imagery, and associations that you won’t find in a dictionary you can use those words to greater effect. It’s hard, and it takes a good deal of study so it’s definitely a skill to develop over time.

 

These aren’t hard and fast rules. They simply tricks that I’ve found useful. It takes some practice, and possibly a few drafts to really get the hang of it but once mastered they can definitely add depth to your short fiction.

 

Kim May

The Right Voice for a Dick

The music was a dirge, some long-forgotten Celtic lament full of wailing. It washed over me like surf over a half-buried corpse at low tide. Ira stood behind the bar cleaning the same glass he’d been running a dirty towel over for the past ten years.

I raised an eyebrow in his direction, just a flicker. It was all I needed. A beer slid down the bar at me. I smiled. We’d been doing this a long time.

I didn’t turn when I heard the door open. Didn’t have to. When Ira’s hand froze on the glass, I knew there was something worth looking at. I peeked at the mirror behind him. The thing in the doorway definitely wasn’t from around here. Neither was whatever it had on a leash, a beast of roughly the same species, but down on all fours.

Both of their heads turned in unison, the noonday sun casting a halo around, squat, inhuman forms. Their bloodshot eyes locked on me, and on they came. I lost an angle on them in the mirror, but the thump of bare, leathery feet and hands placed them right behind me. I took a sip of beer and stared straight ahead.

Your move, I thought as the stench of sulfur wafted around me. Seconds ticked by. A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder, turned me on the barstool, slow enough not to spill the beer still in my hand. That was polite, I thought.

It was the one on all fours that had the intelligent eyes. Strange, that.

“Hoar’thuft. Moid dan sul bree ik rael Jonny Stiles?” it croaked in a voice that was equal parts whisper and bandsaw.

I stared at the little one for exactly three seconds. “Yeah? Who’s asking?” My eyes shifted to the one standing. It smiled, or, at least did what demons use for a smile… all teeth and wide eyes, the sort of look that wakes old church ladies up with screams and sweaty sheets.

“Wuldrix cu sein Beelzebub,” the short one growled.

It was an order, not a request.

My eyes never left his… or its… I could never tell with demons.

“Ira,” I said slowly, “hold my spot. I’ll be back in an hour.”

It was the little one’s turn to smile.

 * * *

Colette started April off with a prompt about aliens and bars, the intention being a discussion of voice and perspective in fiction. It sounded like a writing prompt to me, so I came up with what you just read.

(NOTE: Don’t be surprised if you see that in a short story from me one of these days.)

What’s germane to this month’s Fictorian topic is what we can deduce from just 380 words:

  • This is going to be a first-person POV story
  • We’ll pretty much only know what the protagonist Jonny Stiles knows
  • The tone and word choices throughout let us know this is noir fiction and probably detective noir
  • “Alien” doesn’t have to mean from another country or planet
  • Jonny Stiles is a regular in Ira’s bar and might have a drinking problem
  • Jonny isn’t surprised by the presence of demons
  • Jonny speaks the language of Hell
  • Demons know him by name
  • Jonny isn’t surprised to hear that the Devil wants to see him
  • Jonny is cool as a cucumber at the thought of going to Hell

I like to think this is the sort of prose that sucks a reader in and prompts the following questions:

  • Who is Jonny Stiles?
  • Why is he so calm about meeting the Devil in Hell?
  • Why the hell does the Devil want to see Jonny?

It’s these kinds of questions that prompt a reader to care about a protagonist, and, more importantly, encourage the reader to keep going. Furthermore, the advantage of first-person is that the reader knows—or at least hopes—that they’ll be visiting Hell as “I” not as someone else. The reader has a vested interest in the outcome, because it’s happening to them as far as their brain is concerned. That little use of “I” rather than “he” or “she” makes a mountain of difference in the experience. Just imagine… a free trip to Hell, answering the question of one half of the afterlife, without having to pony up one’s immortal soul as part of the bargain.

There are few among us who don’t have that deep, dark little part that is just the teensiest bit curious about Hell, about the seedier side of human endeavor. When a writer offers up the tantalizing promise of feeding that desire, most are willing to take the bait, especially if the price of admission is just a few more words… and a few more… and a few more.

In many respects, that’s what writers need to do: convince the reader to invest the time for just a few more. Writers are crack-dealers when it comes right down to it… feeding brains with a very different sort of drug.

If you’re writing genre fiction, you really do need to consider two things. The first is what and how much of the story you want to expose to the reader. When using first person, the reader should know only what the protagonist knows (with very few exceptions). Using third person opens up doors to getting the perspective of other characters in the story. There are reasons to use both of them, and it’s important for the writer to understand and implement the right one.

The second thing to consider the tone of your language. Word choice is what differentiates your writing from another author’s. It also differentiates noir from tea-cozy from western. There’s a language for damn near every genre, and the people who read that genre speak it fluently. You need to work hard to get your words right, and it’s this process that sets the great writers apart from the good ones… and the bad. The good ones frequently ponder and haggle and angst over a single word. They hold it up to the light and determine if it’s as potent as they need it to be.

So give thought to your words. They can be as potent as crack cocaine or as bland as American cheese.

On a side-note, I have crafted this meaningless bar chart below (tongue in cheek, naturally) as both an experiment and an inside joke with my fellow Fictorians.

barchart

 

Q.

Why First-Person is Popular in YA: A Theory

You may have noticed that many popular YA titles today are written in the first-person narrative. But why? Why is first-person so popular with the YA audience?

In her blog, YA writer and children’s book illustrator Ingrid Sunberg shares five reasons why authors choose to write in the first-person. Ingrid observes that first-person gives the reader a quick connection with the protagonist, makes the story believable, helps develop the protagonist, is somewhat easy to write, and creates an agreement with the reader of how the story will be told.

To help find the answer to why readers connect with first-person narratives, I decided to make a graph, because graphs are my jam.

First, I took thirty titles of popular YA fiction all the way from the mid 1800’s to 2013. These titles are or have been enormously popular, and a couple of titles are just a few of my favorite YA and Middle Grade books. Next, I went through and marked which stories are told in first-person and and which were told in third-person (limited, objective, and omniscient).

1st Person Year Published 3rd person Year Published
1 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884 1 Little Women 1868
2 The Catcher in the Rye 1951 2 Anne of Green Gables 1908
3 To Kill a Mockingbird 1960 3 The Secret Garden 1911
4 Island of the Blue Dolphins 1960 4 Charlotte’s Web 1952
5 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret 1970 5 Lord of the Flies 1954
6 The Perks of Being a Wallflower 1999 6 The Phantom Tollbooth 1961
7 The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2001 7 A Wrinkle in Time 1962
8 Twilight 2005 8 Hatchet 1987
9 The Book Thief 2005 9 Number the Stars 1989
10 The Lightning Thief 2005 10 The Giver 1993
11 The Host 2008 11 Ender’s Game 1994
12 The Hunger Games 2008 12 Holes 1998
13 Divergent 2011 13 Eragon 2002
14 Incarnate 2012 14 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2003
15 Vampire Academy 2013 15 Inkheart 2005

The information I gathered already surprised me. I assumed that of the thirty books, at least 66% would be written in first-person. But of the thirty books I chose, exactly half were written in third-person.

Next, I charted how many books from both POV’s were published in ten year increments from 1800 – 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.12.39 AM

 

You may or may not be surprised by my microcosmic, pedestrian research. What surprised me was that technically, third-person isn’t any less popular as a whole. In fact, according to my chart, it’s been steadily increasing in popularity through the years. Note that while I only took the first books in popular series, keep in mind how popular all of the Harry Potter books were (third-person), with the last book published in 2007. Third-person YA stories aren’t going anywhere. They’re steadily increasing in popularity, according to my small-scale study.

First-person narrative YA and Middle Grade novels increase sharply in popularity according to my chart, especially in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. First-person narrative is trendy, but it has also steadily grown in popularity as well.

But why has the first-person narrative become so popular recently in YA and Middle Grade fiction?

This brings us to my theory: chicks and their diaries, man.

 

Chicks, man.

In this article from The Guardian, Vanessa Thorpe summarizes a 2009 study in which researchers interviewed 2,000 people about their reading habits. Researchers found of the women interviewed, forty-eight percent could be considered avid readers, while only twenty-six percent of men could be considered the same. Thirty-two percent of men admitted to only reading two books per year, while eighteen percent of the women interviewed said the same. According to this article on NPR, surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Britain concluded that men account for only twenty percent of readers in the fiction market.

While it could be argued that maybe many of the study’s participants were adults and did not read YA fiction, an article in Publisher’s Weekly claims otherwise:

“More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young. According to a new study, fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 — known as YA books — are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44, a group that alone accounted for 28% of YA sales. And adults aren’t just purchasing for others — when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78% of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading. The insights are courtesy of Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, an ongoing biannual study from Bowker Market Research that explores the changing nature of publishing for kids.”

 From this evidence, we can conclude that women read more fiction novels than men by a wide margin, and that plenty of those women are reading YA.

 

Diaries: The Missing Link to First-Person

For as long as I remember, I’ve kept journals. I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to my journals, one dating back to fifth grade. According to this January 2013 article by Carolyn Gregoire, I’m not the only one. According to a study, eighty-three percent of girls aged 16-19 write about their lives in a journal.

Let’s examine common characteristics of the female diary entry.

Disclaimer: these characteristics may or may not match your own diaries. These are typical characteristics I’ve noticed from the diaries I’ve snuck into (Okay, only once, and I feel awful about it. The saving grace was that the entry I flipped to talked about wanting mango ice cream instead of vanilla, and then I stopped reading immediately), have heard fellow females talk about, or have read as published works.

  • Almost always (I can’t imagine otherwise, frankly) written in first-person.
  • Focus on emotional reaction to situations and events.
  • Chronicles important events.
  • Marks events that have just happened.
  • Divulge true feelings and secrets.
  • Examine secret longings.
  • Heavy on self-evaluation.
  • Usually written in a stream of consciousness fashion.
  • Has voicing specific to the person writing the journal

Now, let’s compare those characteristics to a YA first-person story with a female protagonist:

  • Focused on one central character who tells the story
  • Emotionally charged
  • Has voicing specific to the protagonist
  • Tells important events through the protagonist’s point of view
  • Lets the reader peek into the mind of the protagonist, viewing her longings, desires, and emotional reactions
  • Usually follows as steady span of time without skipping through time.

Seeing the strong connection between the two? Now think about the target for most YA fiction. Research shows that most avid readers are women. Research also shows that many young women journal. When you combine the two facts, it makes a compelling case.

My theory is this: girls aged 12-18 who read regularly can and do connect quickly with a first-person narrative because it is reminiscent of their own journaling behavior. That is to say, how young girls process important events in their lives through journaling is very similar to a protagonist’s process of self-evaluation and self-discovery in a YA first-person narrative.

When a young girl picks up a YA first-person story, she is looking into the mind of the protagonist, almost the same as reading that protagonist’s own diary. As the young girl grows into a woman, whether or not she decides to continue journaling, she will understand the connection of first-person narrative because she has already written it.

Third-person in YA is in no way dying, but it may not have the strength of connecting so immediately with its audience as YA first-person storytelling does.

 

What do you think about the connection of girls who journal and girls who read first-person YA novels? I would love to know if you agree or disagree! Please let me know what you think in the comments.