Answering Your Writing Questions: First Person

On Friday, I offered to answer any and all of your writing-related questions, and some good ones have come in.  Today, I answer a question from mystery writer and loyal reader J.D. Frost:

When writing in first person, can I stay in active voice without beginning every sentence with I?

This problem is the very reason that I vowed never to write in first person again.  (Those of you who read this blog regularly know I recently forsook that vow.) In the past when I've written first person, I've gotten mired in that I, I, I, I, I voice, where it seems like every sentence begins with I. And that does not make for a very flowy voice.  When I wrote my MFA novel in first person, my biggest complaint was that it just didn't sound right.  And I never could get it to sound right because of the preponderance of "I"s. 

But a funny thing happened when I switched my novel from third person to first person.  There were stretches of sentences that had no "I"s in them, because when writing in third person I hadn't felt the need to start every sentence with an I.  And it worked just fine.    So here are a couple of tips that will help:

1.  Get rid of the filtering consciousness.  Edit out all the "I saw" and "I heard" and "I smelled" constructions at the beginning of sentences and you'll be left with the meat of it.  By now we know that your viewpoint character is telling us the story. Work what's left of the sentence into an active piece of writing.

2.  Be the camera.  Report what your character sees, in camera fashion, in an objective way.  Read Hemingway for this.  He reports like a journalist with very little emotion (where you might be tempted to get that "I" in) and its very powerful.  Or, as Zan Marie put it in a comment below, it's not what the character is doing, it is what they are perceiving.  Well put, Zan Marie!

3.  Practice with description.  You can write paragraphs of description without need for the "I" voice. Then start translating these skills to the rest of your writing.  James Lee Burke is a master at description and he writes often in first person.

Anybody else have any helpful ideas for writing first person?  Leave them in the comments, we'd love to hear them.


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