How do you know when you should be writing your novel in first person? And how much of that pesky interior monologue is too much? We’ll look at those questions today.
Glen posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m currently working on my first, first draft of any novel. I’m finding that I’m using an awful lot of interior monologue for the one point of view character that I will be using for the entire book. Is that normal? Also, should I seriously consider if whether the book should be told in first person? However, I’m wondering if the plot of my story is too complex to be written in first person. Is there a good way to determine what might be the best perspective to use when telling a story?
Randy sez: Let’s take these questions in order. Is it normal for a first draft of a first novel to have a ton of interior monologue? Yes, that’s pretty common for a beginning novelist. It’s also common to use a ton of narrative summary, to throw in a boatload of backstory, and to hop heads faster than Hollywood stars hop beds.
But none of those are a particularly good idea. What’s wrong with interior monologue? Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s a good tool. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s one of the five tools you have for writing a scene. Here are all five of your tools:
- Interior Monologue
- Interior Emotion
Each of those is good, in the right proportions. If you want to think of these as ingredients for your novel, Action and Dialogue are your meat and potatoes. Most of your novel should be Action and Dialogue. Description is the dessert. Interior Emotion provides the spice.
Interior Monologue is the salt. A little salt goes a long way. Yes, it’s true that some people like a lot of salt, but “a lot” is a relative concept. I don’t know anybody who could make a meal out of just salt. You need something to go with it, preferably something shaped like a chip or pretzel.
Glen, if you think you have too much Interior Monologue in your story then you do. Trim it down. Way down. Interior Monologue is great for helping your reader understand your character’s motivations. Interior Monologue is one of the massive advantages we novelists have over screenwriters. Use it well but use it with a light touch.
Now let’s talk about writing in first person. Glen, you’re worried that your novel is too complex to be told in first person. That is actually not possible. Any novel, no matter how complex, can be told in first person — if you’re willing to have enough viewpoint characters. Yes, you can write in first person from more than one point of view. If that’s what you want to do, then do so.
Usually, of course, a first-person novel has only a single viewpoint character. The hazard there is that one person can only be in one place at a time, so if you have action going on in multiple venues at the same time, you really have to use multiple first-person viewpoint characters.
Should you write in first-person? That depends on a lot of things. Do you like writing in first-person? Can you do so with a strong voice that is recognizably your character and not you? Are you not trying to conceal things from your reader that your viewpoint character knows? Do your first-person scenes work? If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then writing in first-person is probably a good idea.
There is no exact science to choosing a particular point of view for your novel. Of course, you do need to choose a point of view, and you have a number of choices. There isn’t an official list of a standard set of viewpoints. My own classification is as follows:
- First person
- Third person
- Third person objective
- Second person
I discuss all of these in my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. Let’s summarize: Head-hopping is generally frowned on, but it also seems to be pretty common in the romance category because readers like knowing what both the heroine and hero are thinking. Second person is extremely rare, but it can work. Third person objective has a very cinematic feel when done well, but it’s not so easy to do well because it eliminates Interior Monologue and Interior Emotion, two of the novelist’s five tools for writing scenes. Omniscient can be done well, but it can also be done extremely badly, so you should know how to handle sharp tools before you tackle omniscient.
That leaves first person and third person as the two most common viewpoints. Each of these is easy to learn and allows you to put your reader fully inside your character’s skin. There are some readers who don’t like first person and refuse to read a book in that viewpoint. I can’t imagine why, but it’s so. Personally, I love books written in first-person.
The bottom line: Use the viewpoint that you find comfortable and that works for your story. Generally, that will be either first person or third person. If you insist on writing in second person, you are either one sick puppy or a literary genius (probably both). If you are bent on using head-hopping, at least learn to do it well and make sure you’re writing in a category where that’s accepted practice. If you must tell your story in third person objective, get a second opinion from an experienced writer to make sure you’re doing it very well. Ditto if you can’t help exercising your God-like powers as a novelist by writing in omniscient (nothing is more tedious than badly done omniscient viewpoint).
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: One of my Loyal Blog Readers is Camille Eide, a talented writer who’s done a guest post today on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Check out Camille’s article on surviving the revision letter: “What Do You Mean My Hero Isn’t Sexy Enough?” I’ve been watching Camille for a couple of years now, and I’m pretty sure she’ll sell her first novel soon.