Fourth element in this series: Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Revision
(Please read the Introduction, if you haven’t already.)
Narrative Modes: first person, second person, third person.
- Most fiction is written in third-person (he, she, they, them), but not all.
- Narrative nonfiction is generally written in third-person, with the exception of memoir.
- Memoirs and autobiographies are written in first-person (I, me, we, us).
- Second-person narrative mode is rarely used (you, your); e.g., Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. The first word in the book is “you.”
If you are going to use second-person, set the stage immediately so the reader is clear. For example: You don’t know me, but by the time you finish reading this, you will wish we’d never met.
Some authors lapse into second-person while writing in first-person, generally without realizing it or intending to. Is this wrong? As I said earlier, if you’re going to break the rules, better to know the rules you’re breaking. All too often, however, when an author does this, it is in the middle of a paragraph where the narrator has been referring to himself/herself in first person (I, me, myself) and shifts to second-person (you), when the narrator is actually still referring to herself/himself. I see this a lot in memoir—not recommended. . . . It’s distancing . . . it takes the reader out of the story.
Anytime you find yourself using the pronouns you or your in a first-person or third person narrative, stop and ask yourself: What’s the story reason for this?
Remember: this applies to the narrative, not the dialogue.
Question: Is it OK to mix first- and third-person in the same story?
Answer: Yes, but tread lightly, because it can jar and confuse the reader with an unexpected shift in point of view, and if you are seeking a traditional publishing deal, this is a red flag to agents and acquisition editors. A good example of how this can work is John Burnham Schwartz’s Reservation Road, which has three main characters, one presented in first-person, the other two in third-person, and each chapter alternates: first-person, third-person, third-person, first-person, third-person, third-person, and so on. The structure remains consistent throughout the book, and the reader knows what to expect.
Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men also uses this technique, with the sheriff’s memoir written in first-person (and italicized), and the rest of the story is told in third-person (normal font), even when the sheriff is in the scene. It confused me at first, but once I got into the rhythm of it, it worked, because the structure remained consistent throughout the book.
G.M Ford in Soul Survivor, written in first-person, uses this technique for one scene, written in third person, near the end of the book. It worked so seamlessly his editor didn’t even comment on it.
However, Sue Grafton tried it in one of her later alphabet novels, which are written in first-person, and I argue that she did herself a disservice; I found it to be an unnecessary intrusion into the story; i.e., I could not find any story reason for introducing another character’s POV. It did not add anything to the story; rather, it became a needless distraction.
. . . which leads us to the fifth element, Point of View . . .