First Person POV - How to "tell"

by Ann Marie
(Phoenix, AZ)

Question: I am writing my first novel in a series and I have been writing in the first person for my main POV. Or at least I thought I was until I had another (new) writer friend of mine read my first 3 chapters for feedback.

In the first chapter, I have my main character explaining a lot about her past, as if she is telling her story. I believe that these are things the reader will need to know in the beginning so that they will not have confusion on who the characters are to each other, and a better understanding of why the character is trying to find a way out of the state and away from her destructive parents. Is it ok for her to "tell" here and not show? Or is the only way for a POV to "tell" in first person in dialogue?

Answer: The challenge you face is that too much telling, especially in the beginning chapters, tends to create distance between the reader and the actual events that are being described. Readers don't just want an account of what happened. They want to feel like they are there, as if they are the main character experiencing the story.

Sometimes you just need to balance telling with showing. In first person, the main character can tell the reader little bits of information interspersed within a scene that is being shown. This often work better than long passages of exposition which can disrupt the flow of action.

If there are key events in the past that you feel your reader needs to know, you might consider using flashbacks, so that you can show those events.

Another option is to start the story earlier - perhaps with an event that shows the parents' destructive nature from the main character's POV.

In fact, you should ask yourself why you are not starting with that event. It sounds like it is the initial driver of your story.

Usually, you would hide the initial driver if you want to create a mystery - i.e. make the reader wonder why the character has left home. If you don't want a mystery - if you feel the reader should know about the event upfront - then why not start there?

There are times when telling is preferable to showing, such as when you just want to transition from one key event to the next. Just make sure the reader has enough showing in the beginning to forge a close connection to your main character.

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First Person POV - How to "tell"
by: Ann Marie

Thank you, this has helped me quite a bit, but how much telling is too much? The first chapter opens with a dream, which is very important for the overall story. The telling that I am attempting to include is the relationship with her best friend and roommate (i.e. how they met).

I'll attempt to remain vague here so I hope this makes sense. When they met something did happen that was huge, but she doesn't fully understand it and I wanted her to just briefly mention it as an aside. My intention is for the readers to be attempting to figure out what it is, and she will start to learn about this "condition" (if you can call it that) throughout the book. I also wanted to throw in hints to her strained relationship with her parents, but giving further explanations as they interact. I briefly considered having her talking to someone rather than just thinking it, but I wasn't sure if that would be necessary. I'm a little concerned about having a flashback since the chapter already has a dream in it.

Four chapters in, I have her refer to an event that I need the readers to know about, but she was only 2 at the time it occurred. I wrote the explanation as her thoughts while she is traveling alone in a car as she passes the location of the incident. Since she only knows what others have told her a flashback wouldn't fit here. I like the idea of adding this scene in as a prologue in either another characters POV or 3rd person.

The big event is important enough to be in the prologue, so is it acceptable to leave the other brief descriptions in the first chapter as her thoughts? The dream causing her to think about these elements? Or are the best options other than brief statements of thoughts better off left to dialogue with another character?

by: Glen

I'm going to assume you've worked out the chronology for all these events and story arcs, so that they are clear in your mind (or better still, on a paper outline). It sounds like your challenge is deciding the best point in the chronology to start your storytelling.

As I said, sometimes you start after the beginning event of a throughline in order to create a mystery that will be solved or explained later - often much later in the book. If you want your reader to learn about all these events early on, why not begin your storytelling at the beginning?

Of course, if your main character was not present for one or more of these events, and you want to introduce your main character right away, that's a valid reason for beginning the story later in the chronology. Your task then is to reveal these early events in a way that does not excessively disrupt the present narrative.

I can't give you a definitive answer because so much depends on how you write rather than on following "rules." I can only suggest you show the draft to some people you trust and see if they find the flow of the narrative confusing, jarring, or frustrating. If not, you are probably okay.

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