Saturday, January 7, 2012

First-Person Storytelling

First-person is a fundamental storytelling type, along with third-person (third-person omniscient OR third-person storyteller). When you tell a story in first-person, that means the storyteller is an actual character in the story, someone who can speak as a participant in the story's events or as an eyewitness. There are some big advantages to this style of storytelling, but also some big disadvantages. You need to ponder both the advantages and disadvantages of first-person style in order to make sure it is a good choice for the story you want to tell:

  • You have access to the inner thoughts and emotions that the narrator might choose to reveal. (Although not all narrators are reliable!)
  • There is a strong, single voice unifying the story and creating a sense of immediacy.
  • You can develop a strong emotional connection between the reader and the narrator.
  • You as the writer get to experience being entirely "inside" someone's head, seeing the whole story through one set of eyes.
  • You can create a sense of surprise that gives a new twist to a familiar story by using an unexpected narrator: the villain as narrator, an inanimate object as narrator, etc.
  • The single voice of the narrator can become monotonous. A first-person narrator can report what others say, but no real dialogue is possible, while in a third-person style, you can include many voices. All the characters can speak for themselves!
  • The narrator may not have access to all the knowledge required to explain the events of the plot. That's not a problem for a story with an already familiar plot (Little Red Riding Hood, for example, or the Trojan Horse), but it can be a problem for a story whose plot is new to your readers.
  • Unless you have a context for the narration, it can feel artificial: where does this voice come from and why is this person telling a story? And to whom? Setting and audience are very important questions to ponder for a first-person style.

For help on focusing your first-person style, here are some specific strategies to consider:

Diary Style. Because this is such a popular first-person style, I have created a separate page with advice on writing in diary style

Blogging. Blogging is a new form of diary style but allows for some features not found in traditional diaries, such as comments from readers. Here are some ideas for writing with blogs and other social media.

Letter-writing Style. Letters are a powerful style for storytelling; here are some examples of Storybooks in letter style. They have the personal voice of a diary, but they also allow for back-and-forth dialogue along with the complicating element of distance and delay. As variations on the traditional letter style, you could also work with modern styles of letter-writing such as email and texting, and there are generators like that can help you simulate back-and-forth messaging.

Interview Style. The interview style has the advantage of bringing another voice into the story: the interviewer. The actual story is still being told in first-person, but you have another voice to ask questions and guide the story, with the interview in many ways serving as a kind of stand-in for the reader, asking the questions you think your readers might ask. Here are some Storybooks written in interview style. If you are doing interview style, think about the different contexts in which interviews might take place:
  • newspaper interview
  • television interview
  • radio call-in show
  • job interview (perhaps with accompany resume!)
  • speed-dating (that's a kind of interview too!)

Therapy Style. You can see therapy as a variation on the interview style, but with the therapist playing a much more important role than an interviewer. If you choose therapy style, you will need to create the character of the therapist, as well as the type of therapy: individual sessions, couples therapy, help group, etc. You'll need to decide just what type of therapist and what type of therapy will best suit your topic! Here are some examples of therapy-style Storybooks.

Courtroom Style. As opposed to the supportive therapy setting, the courtroom setting is a great space in which to bring out tension and conflict in a story, including first-person testimony from eyewitnesses, along with the roles of the judges, the attorneys, and the jury. Here are some examples of Storybooks written in courtroom style.

Other Storytelling Settings. In addition to interviews, therapy, and courtrooms, there are all kinds of other settings and occasions that can accommodate first-person storytelling, and many of these same settings can be used for third-person storytelling as well, depending on whether the storyteller is telling a story in which they were personally involved (first-person) or not (third-person storyteller).
  • a bar or pub (examples)
  • a beauty salon (examples)
  • an awards ceremony (examples)
  • meeting in the afterlife (examples)
  • birthday party, retirement party, other party
  • weddings, funerals, holiday gathering
  • waiting room (doctor's office, airport, etc.)

Sidekick as Narrator. You can get a new perspective on a familiar story by using a sidekick or other minor character as the narrator. You might even choose to use an animal sidekick or minor character; you are not limited to human narrators! Here are some examples of Storybooks as told by minor characters such as sidekicks.

Inanimate Object as Narrator. For an even more surprising perspective on a story, you can choose to have an inanimate object narrate the events - but choose your object carefully. You need to make sure that, somehow or other, the inanimate object is able to get the information it needs to tell the story. You can get some ideas from looking at these Storybooks with inanimate narrators.

Traveler as Narrator. When someone has gone on a journey, it is natural for them to tell the story of their journey, either in a diary (see above), or through letters (see above), or by speaking to an audience face-to-face when they come back home. To get some ideas, take a look at these Storybooks with stories told by travelers. Also, don't forget that in addition to telling stories about their own travels, a traveler might tell you about the people they met on their travels, and those people in turn might be storytellers (a first-person story within a first-person story).

Time Travel. Don't forget about the possibility of time travel also! You can get some ideas by looking at these time travel Storybooks which feature first-person stories as told by the travelers in time. Your time-traveling narrators do not need to be human; Doctor Who is available, for example, and you can even have animals who travel in time.

"I remember when..." In addition to the settings and occasions mentioned above, there are all kinds of reasons why people (or animals or gods) might tell stories about their lives, reminiscing about the past. They might also tell stories about other members of their family or even about their ancestors, a a "back in the day" type of story. To get some ideas, look at these Storybooks with storytellers reminiscing about the past.

Motivational Speaker. You can imagine all kinds of venues in which someone might tell a motivational story from their own life, using first-person style for a dramatic personal testimony:
  • someone giving a TED talk
  • speaker at graduation
  • a preacher in church
  • a guest speaker in school
  • a coach in the locker room
  • political campaign speech

For an example of a Storybook that brings four different first-person narratives together in a single project, take a look at Legends of Fire. In this Storybook, four different dragon-hunters from around the world meet and share their stories of adventure:


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