The Challenges of First-Person POV

challenges first person point of view

Today’s guest post is by James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) and is excerpted with permission from Writing Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating a Presence on the Page & Engaging Readers, from the editors of Writer’s Digest.


There’s no quicker way to intimacy with a lead character than first-person point of view (POV). Seeing a story through that character’s thoughts and perceptions is the fast track to empathy and identification. But numerous challenges also come with this POV. One of these is the natural limitation of being stuck in one perspective throughout the story.

Maybe you want more flexibility in your plot. If so, there are ways to break out of that “boxed in” feeling you might get with first person.

Time Delay

A detective on the trail of a killer corners him in a dark apartment. He takes several tentative steps. A shot rings out. The detective feels hot blood coming from his chest.

If you were writing in third-person POV, it would be easy to cut away from a scene of high tension for another scene with a different POV character (in this case, say, it’s the detective’s partner, lounging at a coffee shop). This is a great page-turning technique, leaving the reader to wonder what happened at the apartment.

A first-person novel, however, can’t cut away to a different POV scene. So instead of a physical cut, try time delay. First, end the chapter on a note of high tension. Then begin the subsequent chapter not with the next thing that happened, but with the narrator playing a little game of “You’ll have to wait.” In keeping with the same story line:

I hear a shot. And a jolt to my chest. And hot blood staining my shirt.

[Next Chapter]

When I was six, my father taught me a valuable lesson. “Son,” he said …

After this digression, which can be a full-on flashback or a short remembrance, get back to what happened at the end of the last scene.

Imagination

Lawrence Block’s Hope to Die begins like a crime novel written in third person:

It was a perfect summer evening, the last Monday in July. The Hollanders arrived at Lincoln Center sometime between six and six-thirty …

Four paragraphs later, however, we learn this is a first-person narration. The narrator is using his imagination to describe details he didn’t personally witness:

I can picture them, standing around on the second floor at Avery Fisher Hall, holding a glass of white wine, picking up an hors d’oeuvre from a tray.

Still further on:

Though, as I said, I can’t know this, in my imagination they are walking home.

The narrator then describes a double murder, complete with what might have been in the minds of the victims. It works just as well as a third- person description would.

Dreams

Dreams are a great way to reveal interior dimensions of the first-person narrator and illustrate the stakes she confronts. When the character is under tremendous stress, a dream can create a vicarious, emotional experience for the reader.

Two caveats: Dream sequences should be used only once unless dreams are an integral part of the plot or the character’s life. And the description of dreams should be relatively short. Janet Fitch strikes the right tone in White Oleander:

But that night I dreamed the old dream again, of gray Paris streets and the maze of stone, the bricked blind windows … I knew I had to find my mother. It was getting dark, dark figures lurked in cellar entrances. I rang all the buzzers to the apartments. Women came to the door, looking like her, smiling, some even calling my name. But none of them was her.

I knew she was in there, I banged on the door, screamed for her to let me in. The door buzzed to admit me, but just as I pushed it in, I saw her leaving from the courtyard gate, a passenger in a small red car, wearing her curly Afghan coat and big sunglasses over her blind eyes, she was leaning back in the seat and laughing. I ran after her, crying, begging.

Yvonne shook me awake.

Secondhand Reports

A first-person story can take us to scenes that happened outside the narrator’s perception by having another character recount the events. Done right, the secondhand scene can hold just as much drama as any other scene.

There are two ways to do it. First, the secondary character—in the following examples, let’s call him Sam—may simply tell what happened in his own voice, becoming, essentially, another first-person narrator.

[Sam:] “I opened the door and went in. I smelled gunpowder, and I knew it was bad. My first thought was, is the guy still in here? Am I going to get one in the gut?”

You can make that a long section of narration or occasionally interrupt with the main character’s voice:

[Sam:] “I opened the door and went in. I smelled gunpowder, and I knew it was bad. My first thought was, is the guy still in here? Am I going to get one in the gut?”

[Main character:] “Why’d you go in in the first place?” I asked.

The other way to go is to have the secondary character begin the account, then switch to a third-person style, without technically leaving the first-person POV:

[Sam:] “I opened the door and went in. I smelled gunpowder, and I knew it was bad. My first thought was, is the guy still in here? Am I going to get one in the gut?”

With the next paragraph, switch to a third-person feel:

Sam heard a noise and decided he’d better get his own gun ready. The room was dark. A flash of neon seeped through the window shade …

The narrator’s voice continues to tell us what Sam’s account is. The readers will go with it.

Writing VoiceThere’s no need to feel overly constrained by first-person POV. Write with a passion to open up readers to your lead character’s inner life. Then use these techniques to open up your plot.


If you found this article useful, I highly recommend taking a look at Writing Voice: The Complete Guide to Creating a Presence on the Page & Engaging Readers, from the editors of Writer’s Digest.

Posted in Writing Advice.

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell is the No. 1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, and award-winning thrillers like Final Witness, Romeo’s Rules, Don’t Leave Me, Blind Justice, Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back, and One More Lie.

Jim attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California law school, and has written over 300 articles and several books for the legal profession. He has taught novel writing at Pepperdine University and numerous conferences in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He lives in Los Angeles.

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7 Comments on "The Challenges of First-Person POV"

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Jeff Shear
Hi, I was struck by your description of slipping the third person into a first-person narrative. That came as a welcome surprise, something new for the tool kit. The article was a real think piece for me, shoving me up against my own first-person espionage narratives and testing my copy for leaks. Thank you, Jim. And thank you, Jane. I write in what I refer to as the first-person ruminative. (Probably something close to what you describe as second-hand reports.) My character, an investigator for Senate Foreign Relations, enjoys (or not) a perfect memory. It’s part of what makes him… Read more »
Dominique Blessing

I must admit; I’m not a fan of third person, though I’ve seen it done well. My first book–now shelved for a massive rewrite–began as first person, present tense. Halfway through, I knew it should be third person, past tense. After reading this post, I understand my discomfort with that format

Carolyn Donnell

I thought first person POV couldn’t know what was going on in someone else’s mind.

Dana McNeely

Carolyn, you are right, that’s what we’ve been taught. I don’t think Jim is contradicting that, but what he’s done here, is show us some ways to expand upon first person POV by IMAGINING what others did in a scene when “I” could not see, DREAMING about something happening to another person, and DIALOGING with a second person who tells what happened to them.

Jim, very helpful teaching. Thanks!

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[…] Puzzled by point of view? Alida Winterheimer clarifies how to choose the right POV with multiple narrators, and James Scott Bell addresses the challenges of first-person POV. […]

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