So I’ve been contemplating perspectives in fiction, and if you’re like me you might have trouble choosing the one that is best suited to the story that you are telling. Now I grant you, not all stories need to be limited to just one perspective type. You may find it necessary to switch between perspectives and styles, especially if you are telling a story within a story (see my narrative framing post for more on this). But ultimately it is my belief that the kind of story you are choosing to write should help to inform you on the perspective, because some perspectives are just simply better than others at certain things.
Now far and away my favorite genera of creative writing is speculative fiction, sometimes called weird fiction. So let’s unpack why the first person perspective might be a good choice with this type of story in mind; because, to be honest with you, I think weird fiction and the first person perspective go together like peanut butter and chocolate.
The Limitation of Knowledge
First person stories are ones that are told through the eyes of a character, and only through those eyes. Readers will be given only the experiences and thoughts of that one character, so in turn they are limited to only the five senses that character is employing at that time. So often in life you may find yourself with only half the answer, or never really get to know why something is the way it is. In a story that is more about atmosphere and dealing with the here-and-now you couldn’t ask for a better perspective.
On the one hand you have the character. Their hopes and drives, their misconceptions and cunning, everything good and bad that they bring to the table. On the other hand you have the plot of the story, the hard and fast series of events that are going to raining down upon the world of your story. When you smash them together you get a narrative that picks its way through those plot points, never experiencing them fully. This can be a great thing when you are trying to hide something from the reader, a surprise twist for example. You can lead them on with what the character experiences and thinks and then Wham! They’ll be none the wiser.
Since the dawn of language human beings have been recounting their experiences with one another. It’s an interaction that we are all familiar with and can instantly slide into. So when telling a story that would normally be outside of the usual realm of experiences a first person perspective can help to lessen that shock of the wholly foreign, and provide a more gradual ramp of credibility. Ramp of Credibility, is that a thing? I like the sound of that…
Ramp of Credibility
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Tansek. All Rights Reserved.
You may not totally believe the person that is recounting the tale to you. They may in fact be a foaming at the mouth, shoving bugs up their nose, unreliable narrator, but that’s a judgment call that we all have to make. Even if your readers only believe half of what is being reported to them as actual in-world fact, that’s OK. Having that inner contemplation of what is genuine and what is filtered or madness can be just as enjoyable.
The first person point of view allows a reader to really get in close with the character that they are reading about. It lets them in and almost allows their consciousness, as they are experiencing your story, to become the character in question and feel like they are participating in the course of events. You couldn’t ask for a more intimate situation, and the closer you can bring the reader in, the more you’ll have to leverage when you start ramping up the plot.
Genera fiction, especially speculative fiction is all about telling a tale that couldn’t happen in real life. It relies on internal logics and in-world machinations that may be wholly foreign to reader’s minds more accustomed to the humdrum of reality. The first person perspective aids the writer in conveying the story, and I think should be seriously considered when composing this type of fiction.
Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash
Have you ever read a story that really was a story within a story? “Two for the price of one,” you might be thinking to yourself. “That’s great!!!” Well yeah sometimes, but calm down. This type of literary device is one that has existed for way longer than you might have thought, and it may surprise you to learn that the earliest known uses date back to the ancient Egyptians. But should you use it in your story? Maybe. Let’s grab our box of crude literary dissection tools and dig in.
There are plenty of examples of fantastic stories that use this type of structure. Frankenstein for one uses the wrap around narrative of Captain Robert Walton before it dives into the real meat of Victor Frankenstein. Another good example would be Wuthering Heights, the narrative first provided by Mr. Lockwood and then later by Nelly Dean. Sometimes you might even have one story teller exit all together and have the tale resolve with an entirely different person. Donald Westlake’s short story No Story might be an interesting read if you are interested, it parodies this device setting frame inside of frame until ultimately you are left with no story at all. (This turned out to be quite a difficult story to find, so if you know of a digital version I could link to, please let me know.)
I’m going to ride off into the weeds of personal opinion here, but most of the time when I encounter a story that uses this narrative device I get mildly annoyed. Unless it’s done really well authors run the risk of creating something that’s seemingly whole point is to waste the time of the reader. The narrative at the very least should contain some kernel to the story that helps resolve the plot of the internal narrative by the time the reader gets back around to the other side of the outer one. At best it should do that and underline what the moral or theme of the story was. “But Matt doesn’t a framing narrative give something to the story?” you ask, “Doesn’t it have a place in all this?” Well yes, lets get into that.
Why would you want to use a framing narrative?
Well the primary purpose of using a frame is usually to link together disparate pieces or fragments into one cohesive whole. You can think of it like packaging, instead of an anthology with several stories bound together without any inter-connectivity, you get one story mushing them all into one. Characters and events across time and space can suddenly be brought together and their stories told in such a way that the reader gets to experience them in a way that makes structural sense. And that’s why people buy books right, for the packaging? This is sometimes refereed to as a conceit, or as I like to call it a cop out, because if the narrative frame to heavy-handedly tells you the point of the linked stories, or if the stories recounted just seem too incredible to be presented within the frame provided suddenly you feel like the frame has wasted your time.
The second reason that you would want to use a frame is to give your reader a stepping stone down into the story. If done well it can add verisimilitude to the story and provide the reader with a narrator that they can empathize with and who can give credence to the claims that the story is about to make. You may not be a doctor for example, but let me provide you with a credible one in the narrative frame, so that when you do get to the incredible tale of the reanimated corpse you are more likely to believe it to be “true” because it came from said credible doctor. But watch the f*** out if you build in a frame for this reason, because if you fail to make the narrator someone that the reader trusts, your story’s credibility can actually do the opposite. All of a sudden you’ve built in a miniature version of the telephone game, the primary evidence now obscured through two or more layers of interpretation. If one or both of your narrators are unreliable then Hell’s bells man how can we be sure any of this stuff is real?
The third reason would be to use it to get the reader up to speed on a situation currently unfolding in the story. You may find the narrator in the frame about to do something dramatic, say storm a cathedral full of vampires. They then can explain to you through the frame what has happened up until this point in the story, bringing what would otherwise be relegated to backstory info into the foreground and forming the primary part of your tale. The reader then once caught up can see how the third act plays out, with the narrator detonating the bomb in the bell tower and diving through the stained glass guns-a-blazing.
I guess that’s all I’m really trying to say here. If you want my recommendation I would suggest only using this type of device if you go into the story knowing you want to use one. Hang a lantern on it, and infuse it with just as much value to the reader as the rest of the story if you can. If your story can survive it hitting the cutting room floor then odds are you are better off without it.
Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash
So there you are writing along slinging letters at your computer screen and you come to it, that action sequence. It’s like your brain goes into a different sort of mode, actions taken on both sides seem to wrestle in weird sentences on the screen. Half formed threats cut off by brutal acts, verbal utterances involuntarily spurt from the mouths of your characters as they grapple with the situation and the pain of the conflict. The orderliness of the standard chain of events is balled up and thrown aside, and it can be wholly disastrous if you don’t keep a few things in mind. I don’t know about anyone else but when my mind comes up against such a scene it seems giddy to get into the thick of it, and the resulting first few drafts come out cruder than high tea with Bigfoot. You need to keep calm, even if your characters are not, and keep the following in mind:
Is the struggle interesting?
Robert E Howard stands out as being perhaps the first writer that I sat back after reading a scene and thought “damn that was a well written action sequence”. The push and pull of the characters as they strive for the upper hand are masterfully mixed with beautifully textured gore and inventive maneuvers. It is from him that I have really tried to learn how to immerse myself in the moment. Granted this is something that all writers do, but in a fight scene it is doubly important. Think about what the surroundings are and how they could influence the situation. Are there objects that could be used as improvised weapons? To blind an opponent? To deceive a true strategy?
Don’t be afraid to go for the gross out
Remember, injuries are messy and things don’t just keel over and die. Just because a mortal injury has been dealt doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Death throws are a great way to throw a character back into peril after they think a threat has been neutralized. Perhaps it’s a trope, but at least it’s a trope with legs! Injuries can be gross, so leverage it. Horror hits the brain at all sorts of levels, and perhaps the lowest level it can hit is disgust. If you can evoke a visceral reaction in your readers, make them squint and feel queasy at the page, then your scene will be all the more powerful.
Does it feel punchy?
Eliminate any unnecessary inner dialogue or depictions. Your characters can examine and analyze after the dust settles. Fight sequences benefit from a fast pace, so avoid too much inner dialogue or lengthy narrations. Flow is a hallmark of a great writer and when writing a scene that takes place at a different pace it can be a stumbling point. Have at your words with a chainsaw and know that concision is king.
Did everyone take a turn?
There are no wall flowers in a fight, everyone that has a stake in it should be accounted for and have equal actions as those that are the focus of the fight. It annoys me to no end when there are plenty of people that could have acted on behalf of a character (usually the villain) and didn’t. Your spotlight can still be on the protagonist, but give voice and motion to all of the players. If it helps think of the fight as a turn based game, each character acting in the sequence. You’ll weed out any dead space as you cycle through and build a more thorough and realistic scene.