I was one born accursed in two ways.

So, this weekend, sitting around drinking coffee in the bookstore, talking about writing with Anna Schwind. By a fairly circuitous route, the topic of rules came up, and one of my least favorites, the “rule” (or sometimes merely “advice”) that one shouldn’t write in first person.

So, why shouldn’t one write in first person? Give me one good reason.

You know what that one good reason is? I’m sure you do, you’re opening your mouth to say it right now, just this very moment, “Ann, the reason is that you can’t have any real suspense in a first person story, because you know the narrator doesn’t die! You knew that!”

Okay. So. That’s bunk. It does not bear examination.

So let’s examine it, shall we?

Y’all know, don’t you, that threat of death is not the only sort of suspense available? Or even the best? Or the worst. It’s one of several. Each story is going to have its own crises, its own climax, its own stakes. These do not always–or even often–involve risk of death.

And even–perhaps especially–in adventure/SF/F, the risk of death isn’t what it seems like. The fact is, that a writer can threaten the life of her heroine all she wants, and make that very suspenseful, and exciting–and frankly we all know the heroine isn’t going to die. If she did die, chances are the reader would feel angry and betrayed (unless it was telegraphed early) because that’s just not how the game goes. First person, third person, doesn’t matter. You know the heroine will emerge from the story alive, most of the time. This does not damage the suspense one bit.

And what about stories like, oh, Treasure Island, a flat out adventure novel told entirely in first person. No lack of suspense, I assure you. Great Expectations? Any number of detective novels? The Great Gatsby (Can Nick Carraway possibly make it out alive???). Moby Dick. If you had trouble slogging through Moby Dick it wasn’t because it was in first person so you knew Ishmael would live through it. It was because of all those infodumps.* A Princess of Mars? No suspense? Really?

You can say it over and over again, that first person negates suspense because the narrator must necessarily survive, but when you examine actual books and stories it turns out not to be true. You can say of every example that doesn’t fit “Well, that’s an exception,” but more than one or two exceptions and your rule isn’t a rule anymore, is it? And even one or two exceptions have to be explained. And there are a hell of a lot more than one or two exceptions, and the Occam’s Razor explanation for them is “The rule isn’t actually true.”

So how the heck did it get to be even said in the first place, let alone repeated and freaking believed by anyone?

So I’m saying these things, and gesturing vehemently with my (by now fortunately empty) coffee mug, and suddenly it dawns on me.

There’s a persistent problem in slush–one of two besetting difficulties of beginning writers. One is the inability to think past the obvious, the automatic grab for the first thing that comes to mind, without digging past that first cliche-loaded layer.

The other–the pertinent one here–is a fundamental misunderstanding of how suspense works.

It shows up a couple different ways. One is in the “Gotcha” stories. “Aliens are tormenting our hapless main character. Wait, our main character is a fish and the aliens are employees in an aquarium shop! THE END!”

A similar sort of thing is, say, a story about someone wandering in an inexplicable landscape–either familiar surroundings where no one seems to see them, or a strange world where nothing makes sense to them. They can’t understand what’s going on! It’s all mysterious and makes no sense! Until the end, where the overly patient reader discovers along with the main character that the MC was actually dead all along and needed to come to that realization in order to Move On.

I’m going to say this flat out, and I rarely say this about any kind of writing issue–plot or technique or whatever. These stories can’t work. They are fundamentally broken. If you find yourself writing one of them, throw it away and write something else.

What is it that makes them broken? Well. It’s the same thing that makes this broken:

Jeremy stared at the glibzorb on the table. Whatever was he going to do with a glibzorb? Of course, it was a perfectly good glibzorb, even if he didn’t much like that shade of purple it was painted. But why Uncle John had specifically left his glibzorb to Jeremy, right there in black and white in his will, Jeremy could not imagine.

And on in that vein, steadfastly refusing to explain what a glibzorb is. Nine times out of ten, the end of the story–the intended punchline–is the explanation of what, exactly, a glibzorb is, and it’s never much of anything.

The problem is, the writer knows that what she wants is suspense. She wants to compel the reader’s interest, to make the reader want–no, need to keep reading. This is an excellent impulse, it’s absolutely true. That’s just what a writer needs to do. And issues of information flow–controlling just what information the reader gets and when–are, in fact, very important, especially in exposition-heavy fields like SF&F. It’s good to be considering that.

So, okay, how do you do that? What makes suspense? Like a lot of writing questions, maybe the best way to answer it is to examine stories one finds suspenseful.

From a certain point of view, a certain kind of surface examination, it seems like suspense is generated when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Indeed, there’s a qualitative difference between, say, watching an action flick the first time, when you don’t in fact know what’s going to happen, and watching it a second time, when you do. So it seems reasonable to say “Suspense is what you get when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Stop there, and you get Dead and Don’t Know It stories. You get glibzorbs, and “Gotcha!” stories. And rejections. Lots and lots and lots of rejections.

You also get the idea that knowing the narrator survives must necessarily damage suspense.

So, you can’t stop there. Not knowing what’s going to happen next is not a condition for suspense. You know the hero will live. You know the crew of the Enterprise will be back at their stations same time next week. It’s not that you don’t know. It’s that you do know, but you care about what happens next. Sometimes the writer keeps you in the dark. Will she choose tea or coffee? You don’t know! But if she makes the wrong choice…

Or sometimes you do know. You see our heroine’s hand reaching for the tea and you know the horrible consequences of that choice and you can’t look away.

And sometimes the stakes aren’t world-shattering or life-threatening. Sometimes a story turns on the main character simply realizing something. That doesn’t make those stories any less interesting, suspenseful, or significant.

So, look. Don’t worry so much about suspense. Suspense isn’t about concealing information from the reader. What information you give the reader and when is an important issue, but it isn’t the sole basis for suspense. Worry about engaging and holding the reader’s interest. Worry about making the reader care. And then make whatever stylistic choices you need, to make the story what you want it to be. Write it in third, in first, in second, in omni, whatever the story requires. They all have their virtues, and their weaknesses, and you won’t be doing yourself any favors if you start taking bad advice and throw perfectly good tools out of your box.

*Try reading it as a hard science fiction novel and see if that gets you anywhere.

**I think all of my favorite Andre Norton novels are in first person, now I think of it. Some of them I stayed up under the covers with a flashlight to read, and I had to practically tape my eyelids open I was so tired but I couldn’t stop reading. That’s what you’re after, isn’t it? It’s entirely possible with first person.

3 thoughts on “I was one born accursed in two ways.

  1. M
    Megs says:

    What bugs me eons about that thinking is that NO! You don’t know if the person is going to live. Choice of tense, past or present, is simply a choice of how to tell your story. It’s not real-time nonfiction, y’all. You don’t have to conform to an illusion of real time either.

    The Lovely Bones was written in first person. Plenty of short stories have been written in first person where the narrator meets their end. And they worked too!

    When an author writes in past tense, it means that they chose the authoritative authorial voice, not that the character is standing at this particular point in time that they’re telling the story from. In past tense, the narrator can’t always see ahead. In books where he or she can’t, it states nothing about where that narrator is going to end up at the end of the story.

    Sure, it’s traditional for the character to survive–but that doesn’t mean they will.

  2. M
    Megs says:

    Loved this post by the way. 🙂

  3. ann says:

    I’m glad you liked it! 🙂

    I agree–it’s been quite some time since writers abandoned the attempt to justify certain stylistic choices that way. I find it interesting that no one seems to be concerned with “who’s telling the story and where and why” with third person, but it’s a question that comes up if you apply the same logic. Who’s telling “To Build a Fire” if the protagonist is alone the whole time and dies alone? If it doesn’t matter for third, why should it matter for first?

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