First Person Boring

by James Scott Bell

I love a good First Person POV novel. I love writing FP myself. But there are perils, and if you’re thinking of trying your hand at it you’re going to need be aware of them.

One of these is the “I’m so interesting” opening that is anything but.

Recently I read a couple of novels in FP that had this problem. They began with the narrator telling us his name and giving us a chapter of backstory. By the time I finished the opening chapter I was thinking, Why am I even listening to you?

Let me illustrate. You go to a party and see a guy standing off to the side, you nod and introduce yourself, and he says, “Hi. My name is Chaddington Flesch. Most people call me Cutty, because my grandfather, Bill Flesch, refused to call me anything else. He liked Cutty Sark, you see, and thought this name would make a man out of me. All through school I had to explain why I was called Cutty. Growing up in Brooklyn, that wasn’t always easy. Even today, at my job, which happens to be as an accountant, I . . .”

Yadda yadda yadda. And you’re standing there at this party thinking, Dude, I’m sorry, but I don’t especially care about your history. I have a history, everybody at this party has a history. Nice meeting you, but . . .

But what if you introduce yourself to the guy and he says, “Did you avoid the cops outside?”

You look confused.

“Because I got stopped by a cop right out there on the street. He tells me to hit the sidewalk, face down, and then proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I say, ‘There’s been a mistake.’ He gets down in my face and says, ‘You’re the mistake. I’m the correction.'”

What are you thinking then? Either: Am I talking to a criminal? Or, What happened to this poor guy?

What your reaction isn’t is bored.

You are hooked on what happened to him. And that’s the key to opening with FP. Open with the narrator describing action and not dumping a pile of backstory.

Save that stuff for later.

Open with movement, with action.

I got off the plane at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.

I was a mess.

[361 by Donald Westlake]

The girl’s name was Jean Dahl. That was all the information Miss Dennison had been able to pry out of her. Miss Dennison had finally come back to my office and advised me to talk to her. “She’s very determined,” my secretary said. “I just can’t seem to get rid of her.”

Then Miss Dennison winked. It was a dry, spinsterish, somewhat evil wink.

[Blackmailer by George Axelrod]

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, “Get out of my house.”

[Try Darkness by James Scott Bell]

Now I realize I’ve used hardboiled examples here, and some of you favor more literary writing. There’s a lot of debate on just how you define “literary,” but let me suggest that literary does not have to mean leisurely. You can still open with a character in motion in a literary novel, and I guarantee you your chances of hooking an agent or editor, not to mention a reader, will go way up without any other effort at all.

One of my biggest tips to new writers is the “Chapter 2 Switcheroo.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a manuscript and suggested that Chapter 1 be thrown out and Chapter 2 take over as the new opening. I would say, conservatively, that 90% of the time it makes all the difference, because the characters are moving. There’s action. Something is happening. And truly important backstory can be dribbled in later. Readers will always wait patiently for backstory if your frontstory is moving.

Try it and see.


23 thoughts on “First Person Boring

  1. I switched my first two chapters because I felt there was more action in my second chapter. It worked great!

    The party analogy was a great way of illustrating your subject.

  2. As always, great advice and attention-getting examples. I’ve heard you advance the chapter 2 switch idea, and I heartily endorse considering it. Been there, done that, made all the difference.

  3. Good stuff here, Jim. I think that a lot of times that first (disposable) chapter is more for the author, not the reader. Dump it and blend in that info later is the way to go.

  4. I have only written in first person so far, but its my favorite. It is an easy mistake to want to give the reader everything at once.

    I just try to keep in mind that I’m not thinking about my entire life all at once so characters don’t have to either.

    Great post! Love your examples.

  5. Also, Joe, a lot of new writers think they have to explain everything up front so the reader will be clued in to who the character is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. But that’s a grave mistake. Readers do not need that information up front.

  6. Great post, Jim.

    The only thing I’ll add, as one who never writes in first person, is that the Chapter One Switcheroo applies equally to third person narrators. In my own case, I don’t think there is a single instance where what I thought would be the first chapter actually survived as the first chapter. Several didn’t survive at all.

  7. I’m revising my 4th novel, and it begins with 1st person, intimate. The detective’s POV is 3rd, less intimate. I’m constantly worrying that my 1st is too deep, too dark and depressing, so I interspersed it with the cop, who is just as much a mess as our victim. Those in my crit-group say it’s working. I just need to smooth out some structural issues.

    Thanks for the blog, Jim. Any chance somebody could write a blog about structure? It’s difficult to be objective when it’s your own work.

  8. I find writing in the first person much harder than third person. This seems odd at first. It’s easy in some respects to write in FP, but hard to do it well. A well-written FP novel is a treasure.

  9. Very good post, Jim! My Fat City Mysteries are written in the first person, and I’ve sometimes had to include the first chapter of the next book at the back of the current one, which means no time for rewrites. I wound up opening with my character making a “statement about life” (like, “Exercise can really be murder,” or “Everyone wants a body to die for. Especially me.”) followed up by a very brief setup of my character’s main problem, then jumping into the action. It conveys a sense that she’s looking back on a very difficult week, and telling the reader about it. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad approach, but it has become my style for the opening chapters.

  10. Ha! I would love to meet someone at a party with such a good story. Too bad it’s usually the first.

    The greats–particularly in your vein–Hammett, Ellroy, Chandler, Uncle Jim, never, ever give a back story. I mean, does anyone know why Sam Spade was named Sam?

  11. Kathryn, sounds like you drop in a good hook for the first line, do a little b.g., then get moving. Right on.

    Miller, yeah, FP is “fun” (not for Travener, perhaps, who does recognize the task). Makes watching out for them perils crucial as we enjoy ourselves.

  12. Terrific post James and I have to say I’m grappling with the issue myself as my current WIP is first person…and I’ve been worrying that the action needs to be moving a wee bit quicker! Thanks for the timely reminder:)

  13. Very thoughtful post, Jim. Quite often, the first chapter of a first-person novel is just the writer’s eagerness to get the backstory on paper, so he/she can refer to it as a sort of touchstone while the novel moves along. In those cases, the first chapter should be dropped altogether, with backstory woven in, as you suggest.

    James Ellroy’s new novel, “Blood’s A Rover”, the third book in a trilogy, has a major info-dump up front, but I suspect that was for the benefit of people who didn’t read the first two books. In fact, I saw Ellroy speak here in Las Vegas and he said as much, obviously trying to get people to buy the new book without having to buy the other two.

  14. That’s an interesting anecdote about Ellroy, Mike. It’s a challenge for a series, of course, how to get just the right amount of backstory in, and where to put it. The best, IMO, still delay the backstory until the story is moving. In theory, it shouldn’t be any different for a series book, because even stand alones have history before the tale begins.

  15. Jim, the best backstory-weaving I ever read was in the two-book series by Herman Wouk, which consisted of “The Winds Of War” and “War And Remembrance”. After reading “Winds” (which was, as I recall, some 7 or 800 pages long), I was hot to read “Remembrance”, not only to learn the outcome of the story, but to see how he would handle the backstory.

    “Winds” was a densely-plotted book, not easily recapped by a few subtle references in the sequel. Nevertheless, Wouk not only wove the entire plot of “Winds” into “Remembrance”, but he did so in a way as to not bore the people who had read “Winds” to begin with. If you think about it, that’s no small accomplishment. And frankly, that’s the kind of thing I was expecting from Ellroy.

  16. Great post. In that evil place known as Amazon reviews and the even darker zone of the comments on Amazon reviews someone made a ridiculous review on the new Stephen King novel.

    They gave the new book, “Under The Dome” one star basically because they didn’t like the uncut version of “The Stand.”

    Yup, that’s the Amazon jungle.

    However, my point.

    The doof called the uncut version of “The Stand” the revised version. It opens at the secret Army base where all hell is breaking loose. The reviewer says this gives the story away. He likes the original edition better where the scene opens up at the gas station when the infected guy rolls in.

    In this one point, the reviewer is right. The edition with the gas station is a stronger opening. There is action and mystery. A car rolls in and nearly blows the place up and everybody gets sick.

    However, what the reviewer didn’t quite get is that the original edition of “The Stand” is the revised version. The second edition was uncut.

    An editor out there did the chapter flipperoo on Stephen King and opened the book with a stronger action/mystery scene in the first edition that hit the stands (about a couple of million times, but who is counting . . .)

    The second edition was the uncut version with the chapters back in their original order. Actually, not as strong a book, it was pubbed as a gift to King fans (and to keep the rabid masses at bay with a few thousand extra words from their dark master).

    Sorry for the long-winded response, but just to show that even the masters get chapter one sent back to the locker room.


  17. Excellent advice and very insightful too. Writing in the first person is so much easier I suppose since it puts us directly into the character’s shoes. And I do agree with you that it is utterly boring to read something that does not begin with an action. Your example in the first part of your blog exemplifies the lesson taught about one author in a fiction writing book I’ve read, which mentioned the merits of the character psychological and personal revelation through action rather than a back story provided before the actual scenes took place.

  18. Fantastic reminder!

    I changed the first 500 words of my manuscript because it opened with a boring narrative. Now it is fast-paced and full of action. It reads much better that way.

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