First Person Narration: Is it like Dialogue?

1182879_woman_writing_in_the_agendaMy last couple of posts have been about dialogue, and it got me thinking for some reason about writing in the first person.

I must admit, I don’t write in the first person. I’ve made a couple of sincere, well-intentioned, short, and disastrous attempts at it. It’s not my strength. I always go for third person. Lately, I’ve preferred a narrator that doesn’t even focus on one character, but I use different characters to focus the narration in different scenes. That’s pretty standard in the kind of fantasy I write.

Thus, today’s post is less me giving creative writing tips and more me asking a question of those who do write in the first person:

Do you find it’s a heck of a lot like writing dialogue?

It seems to me it would be. I’ve always considered first person narration a lot like the narrator-character telling his or her own story to the reader. S/he is speaking, and we’re listening. Sometimes first person narrators even anticipate questions/objections/concerns on the part of their audience and address those openly. To me, that seems like a conversation.

And conversation is dialogue, isn’t it?

DIALOGUE OR MONOLOGUE?

Well, in this case, maybe the narration is more like a monologue. There’s no way for the reader to interject and initiate any kind of back and forth. Really, I’d say first-person narration is a lot like a one-sided conversation.

  • The narrator speaks in his or her own voice. You get characterization coming through not just in what happens in the story, but in the way the story is told.
  • Your first person narrator can definitely lie, just like when people tell a story. Your readers don’t have to trust him or her. In fact, you might not want them to. Unreliable narrators can be TONS of fun!
  • Even if well-intentioned, your first person narrator can be wrong about things. He can misinterpret, or be confused, or be intentionally misled by others.
  • First person narration can include jokes, digressions, rants: all kinds of things we do in conversation but that third person narration can’t really get away with easily.

That’s why it seems to me that writing narration in first person would have a lot in common with writing dialogue, or at least one person’s side of the dialogue. When you give the narrator a name and make him or her a character, then your narration goes from being an impersonal description to a personal recounting of memories. In many ways, that’s equivalent to speech. You have to assume most of your first person narrators are going to write more or less like they talk, right?

I’m thinking of Holden Caulfield from “The Catcher in the Rye” and Mattie Ross from “True Grit.”

So, first person writers, how off the mark am I in your experience? I’m just curious because maybe in the future I’ll give writing in the first person one more shot!

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18 responses to “First Person Narration: Is it like Dialogue?

  1. Thank you for posting this. I usually write in and prefer to read third person. I am trying to break out of my comfort zone. I am more comfortable with a character telling a story to the reader in past tense as though it is a story. What do you think of first person present tense?

    • I think the concept of that is way too difficult for me to hassle with, haha!!! it definitely can work. and people say first person present is really good for stoking investment in the story and raising the tension level. personally, I tend to avoid stories written that way but it’s just a matter of personal taste and inclination…. I do think the kind of story when that would work is very limited. First person present would naturally lend itself to stream of consciousness which is horribly hard to write and drives me batty to read.

  2. Yeah, I agree, first person narration is like a monologue. “So I did this and then I did that.” It’s like the character is talking to the reader.

    I don’t have too much of a problem writing a first person POV story in past tense. What really feels strange to me is a first person POV story in present tense. When I write present tense in first person I have to be careful not to slip into past tense. “So here I am in this dump of a town and I had to find something to do.”

    • I’m not a big fan of present tense writing either…and I totally agree, you have to be consistent in POV whether you’re writing past or present. Great point, Michael! I hadn’t considered present tense POV yet in any post. It really throws me for a loop, most times, trying to read it, but it definitely is an option.

  3. My WIP is done in first person. It was a little weird to do it that way after writing in third for so long. I approached it as a person recounting their memories but I don’t necessarily make it feel that way. If that makes any sense. The protag never says “you” as in she never addresses the audience directly except maybe in the beginning. After that it’s like a third person written in first person. I see it more as her thoughts and experiences than a dialogue/monologue.

    It was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series that made me want to write in first person.

    • ooh, my favorite kind of first person is when it’s just like you describe…. like third person written in first. I think it’s really cool you took a chance and tried a new narration style!!! I’ve never done that myself, and I feel I should. Maybe I’ll start with some short stories….

      And thank for the note about Saxon’s series, Vanessa!!! I’ll have to check his books out!

  4. Hey Victoria, I went the other way after realizing that my dialogue could be a little lacking, and specifically set out to attempt first person narration. It is more of an exercise than anything else, since third person is what I prefer.

    That being said, I find it’s helping my dialogue in the third person pieces tremendously. I’ve approached the first person pov stuff in a similar matter to Arthur Conan Doyle, who uses Watson to recount the life of Sherlock Holmes. It’s difficult but it blends the first person perspective of the protagonists own experiences, with the third person perspectives of every other character’s actions.

    Great article.

    • thanks!!! I love, love, love your point about Watson…. If I ever try first person having the narrator not be the main character might be the way I take it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, August!

  5. Roberta Capizzi

    I usually write in third person, but after reading so many books told in first person, I’ve decided to attempt the 1st person POV, through both characters’ eyes but in past tense. So far I’ve noticed that I’ve used much more dialogue than I usually do with a 3rd person POV, which I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing.
    I’ve reached chapter 40 and I’m still wondering whether I should rewrite it in 3rd person. Although I have to say I’m actually feeling the characters’ emotions while writing in 1st person, so hopefully the readers will feel the same.

  6. I think choice of POV really depends on the story. I used to write exclusively in third-person POV, but the series I’m writing now is first-person, past tense, and I can’t imagine it being written any other way. In my head as I’m imagining the scenes, it’s all as if it’s being told to me by my MC, and the story is so much about her and her experiences that writing it in third person would take a lot away from it. I think if it’s done well (and I hope I am!) there’s less distance between the story and the reader, compared to third person narration.

    • thanks so much for commenting, Nicole!!! I agree with you entirely: it’s about the story. Different stories definitely work well with different styles of narration. I think you are dead on to go first person for your novel if the story comes to you with the MC telling you what’s going on. That sounds awesome: my stories have never come to me that way.

  7. I’ve read some great first person stories but I’m no good at it myself.

    That ‘one-sided conversation’ thing is why I find it awkward. To make it work I say the narrator needs a frame narrative or announce that they are breaking the fourth wall.

    • exactly… break the fourth wall. for me, first person is effective when the narrator has a clear purpose to be writing his or her story, explains his or her agenda, and is clearly aware he or she is writing.

      A first person narration that isn’t “written” in the story’s universe makes little sense to me.

  8. Pingback: Why I Avoid Writing Fiction in the First Person | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  9. Pingback: Narrator No-No | Writing Is Hard Work

  10. So interesting – I have tried writing in 3rd person and am absolutely terrible at it! I love writing first person, though. I never thought about it being like a monologue or dialogue before, but it makes total sense. And it makes sense that I would prefer to write in first person because dialogue is my favorite thing to write. I hate descriptions and exposition. My first drafts are 75% dialogue and I have to go back and add in the other details during edits.

  11. Pingback: Narration vs Dialgoue: A Clear-Cut Distinction? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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