Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Trick I Use For Writing Narration

Last week I promised I’d explain the new technique I’m using to help overcome some of my writing insecurities. So here it is. Consider the following lines from Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law.

He opened his eyes, and rested his hands on the balcony railing to look out over Elendel. It was the grandest city in all the world, a metropolis designed by Harmony himself. The place of Wax’s youth. A place that hadn’t been his home for twenty years. 
Though it had been five months since Lessie’s death, he could still hear the gunshot, see the blood sprayed on the bricks. He had left the Roughs, moved back to the city, answering the summons to do his duty to his house at his uncle’s passing. 

A nice mix of narration and exposition that fits perfectly into the flow of the scene. Although it’s not clear whether the character is actually thinking these things or if it’s the author telling us these things, the passage works because it’s in the character’s voice. All well and good. However, when I try writing passages like this, I’m immediately plagued with doubts. Am I telling too much? Does it sound like authorial intrusion? Am I distancing the reader?

I have no problem looking at someone else’s words and deciding if the narration is good, but when I stare at my own passages I have no idea if they work or not. I simply have no feel for it—like a color blind person trying to decide if a shirt and tie match. And this indecision really kills my creativity.

So I’ve spent a lot of time studying as many stories as I can, searching for that elusive “rule” that would allow me to “know” whether a passage of narration works or not. Since my stories are in third person, I’ve focused on stories written in that POV, but lately I’ve been studying stories written in first person and I think I finally stumbled upon my “a-ha” moment.

Writers who write in first person don’t worry too much about authorial intrusion since the narrator and the character are one in the same. As long as it sounds as though the POV character is telling the reader stuff in their own voice, most of the concerns about “telling” and “distancing the reader” go away. It’s still possible to do too much telling in first person, of course. You don’t want the POV character to tell us“I was scared,” but it’s perfectly acceptable to have the character tell us “I hadn’t felt this scared since that time I bungy-jumped off Lover’s Leap.” 

And then it occurred to me. What if I wrote my story in first person, letting the character tell the reader what’s going on in his/her own words, and then rewrite it in third person? Looking back at the narrative passages I’ve admired in third person stories, I see how this technique could have been applied when writing them.

So that’s my trick. Perhaps you think it's silly.  Or perhaps everyone else in the world already knew about it, but I had to figure it out on my own. It might be a month or so before I know if it helps, but for now I’m hopeful. 

P.S. In case some of you are wondering why I don’t just write the story in first person and be done with it, I have two responses. First, I prefer writing in third person, at least for now, and second, I think my current story works better in third.

Doesn’t mean I won’t be writing in first person in the future, though. :)



  1. If it works, do it. Yes, it will involve rewrites switching it to third person, but you'll have overcome one of your greatest obstacles.

  2. I think it's a great trick. I usually write in 3rd person limited, so struggle when writing 1st. So I do the opposite. Weird, right?

  3. Yay for figuring out something that works for you!

    I've never pictured a separation of my narrator from my POV character. It wasn't until after I'd written stuff that I found out they were different. I typically write in third person, as if I'm the character I'm portraying. I don't know if that's good or bad though. :)

  4. I've done this too. I tried it because I needed more than one pov character, wanted deep point of view, and didn't want to to confuse my readers.

    And secondly, and this is the big one, I wrote in third person to keep a secret from my main character but only my main character. The reader was in on the secret. I used this technique to build tension.

    Anna from Elements of Writing

  5. Great idea, Ken! I find I have no trouble writing as if my character is narrating when I write in 3rd person, and you may find, after doing this for a while, that you don't need to write in 1st person at all. It could end up training how to do 3rd-person limited to where you can just write in 3rd in the first place.

    Good luck with this trick. I actually have to change a partial novel I've written from 1st to 3rd person, which I've never had to do before. I'm wondering how annoying changing an entire manuscript's POV is going to be....

  6. That is clever, Ken. I want to say something along the line of how much extra work that is, but heck--we-all edit at least a thousand times before publishing. What's two more? I may borrow your trick.