What’s the best way of telling a story – is it from the first, second or third person angle?

It’s perhaps the most important thing you have to ask yourself as an author. How will I pass on my story? What’s the best means of conveying the actions and emotions? Are things better communicated through the eyes of the author/narrator (first person) or from an almost dispassionate distance as the messenger/teller of events (third person)?

We’ll immediately discount the in-between option of second person writing – the method by which an author attempts to put the reader at the forefront. Example: “You know walking into a room what you’re going to find and it comes as no surprise when you find it.” It’s tedious and rarely used, if only because of the extreme difficulty in being able, with any degree of satisfaction, to bring the reader along for a 300-page constant repetition of the word you.

That leaves us squarely with the first- or third-person options. Let me admit straightaway that, as a general rule, I don’t like my fiction wrapped up in first-person narratives. With a few notable exceptions, most of the attempts at “me” and “I” stories come across as self-indulgency on the part of the author. I’m so set in my ways on this score that when I scan bookshelves, or ‘click to look inside’ a Kindle book, I invariably move on to another when I see the dreaded first person emerging!

I mentioned exceptions, and they are brilliant ones at that. Lee Child takes his Jack Reacher character on first-person journeys – and I’m first in the queue to buy them. Similarly with Matt Hilton and his Joe Hunter character, although in Matt’s case he cleverly mixes first- and third-person chapters. James Patterson too is a master at the mix ‘n match art, and there are many others whose success at these styles undermine my argument.

Despite that, I won’t be shaken from the belief that the majority of authors, particularly first-timers, should steer away from the first-person trap. It takes a special blend of skill and experience to put these kinds of stories in front of readers. Frankly, unless there’s a compelling reason to write in the first-person, stay well clear!

Call me a set-in-my-ways, two-fisted kind of no-nonsense guy who doesn’t believe in turning the other cheek and likes nothing better than a beer with my mates after work – STOP! What’s with the macho first-person stuff? See what I mean?

Seriously though, there is an art to first-person storytelling that sets it apart from the more flexible third-person methodology. Yes, I know we all crawl into make-believe worlds and dream up characters, many of whom are probably the bits and pieces of the kind of person we would like to believe we could be ourselves. We can therefore be just as self-indulgent in telling our tales through the third-person as those who prefer the first-person.

There are, however, other important factors to consider. Generally, you can’t juggle a number of plotlines within a story which is told in the first-person (other than by using the difficult mix ‘n match methodology referred to earlier). As a rule you require the constant presence of the hero/heroine to be able to recount, in the first person, what is going on. That means your tale tends to be linear – each scene moves in a monotonous straight line as told through the eyes of the narrator who needs to be in each scene to be able to recount to the reader what is taking place.

Balance this against the third-person ability to juggle a number of plotlines – which can be years and continents apart – and have them converge in a way that is enjoyable for the reader. Readers know that different threads and plots will eventually come together, but it adds greatly to their enjoyment if as a writer you can get them to guess and anticipate how the various strands will meet. As well as enjoying the individual components of the story, readers are compelled to turn pages to see if the convergences will occur as they think they will.

The arguments for and against first-versus-third have equal force across all genres. No matter what you’re writing it’s important to consider the best vehicle to get YOUR story across to readers. The general rule is that you’re aiming for reader enjoyment. If you truly believe a first-person narrative will best achieve this, then go for it.

For my part, I will continue to believe implicitly in the view-from-above art of storytelling’ First-person stories are generally not my cup of tea – and I suspect I am not alone.

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7 Responses to What’s the best way of telling a story – is it from the first, second or third person angle?

  1. Tasha Turner says:

    Great post as always Joe. You make one think and have to re-read their work and see if it is working or not.

  2. Jim Masson says:

    Excellent blog Joe.
    One key point about first person narrative is its immediacy. The reader is watching and hearing the action in their mind’s eye. First person gets you straight in there.
    Also, third person phases in the novel (novella or short story) can be used to control the flow of prose, inform the reader, set the scene and help the plot and character development. Shakespeare did this brilliantly by interspersing soliloquies through the tragedies. Hamlet for example takes you straight into the action and the fact that the state of Denmark is at unrest as Hamlet’s father’s ghost spirits across the stage. Those few short remarks by Horatio (I think it is) are keynote. First person is very poignant for this.
    It is certainly much easier to write largely in third person with spells of first person, but let your inner writing ear take over. Let it loose. Let your writing voice grow. Only by writing and getting it right – or even wrong – will you learn what is good for your style.
    It is all quite subjective. The reader being able to find the plot and character convergences is what makes a good novel tick, and Joe is spot on – the novel should come together in a structured way through the rising action towards its climax and then into the downward action, the denouement. That is the classical Greek drama model true to most novels, plays and films today. First person and third person are just like different colours of paints used to create the masterpiece.

  3. joemccoubrey1 says:

    I wonder, Susan, whether, in general, the first person narrative might work best for short stories? Given what you say, there certainly seems to be an argument for it. As I said in the blog, I do read first-person – but it’s definitely not my first preference.

  4. Susan Condon says:

    We’re definitely on the same wave-lenght Joe – I much prefer third person to read – and definitely find it much easier to write. But, having said that, I tried writing a dark short story a few months ago in the first person which received some great feed-back and which I loved. And, I am at this moment, writing a short story for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition in the first person. It has grown on me, I do like it sometimes, but it wouldn’t be my preference.

  5. joemccoubrey1 says:

    Why be disheartened Cathy? Don’t change what works for you – I have a feeling it works very well!

  6. Cathy Brockman says:

    ok so I am extremely disheartened! my flow seems togo mostly first person wiht a slight third person mix,

    • Tasha Turner says:

      Cathy write what works and then you can always edit later. It may be that for what you are writing it makes sense to change POV and if now your writing group will let you know I promise you. After all that is what writing group, critique partners, and editors are there for. If something feels like it is working for you at least in the early drafts go with it.

      There are exceptions to every rule. My favorite author Georgette Heyer (tame regency novels) switches between the different characters POV in a way that might not work for us lesser mortals so most of her books i sin 1st person with the occasional 3rd person angle.

      And while Joe is a great author and I Love his writing and the books of his I’ve read and enjoyed working with him… he is not g-d he is just a brilliant author and one that I expect over the next few years to be a best seller. Can’t wait to get my 1st signed copy – if it is on schedule it comes during my birthday month.

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