Do I have to explain everything?A Lesson by Mike Lamb
More or less...yeah. Narration tips, when to use first and third person, and how to make it effective.
Early on you'll need to decide between first and third person narration. Can you use both in the same story? The correct answer is no, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. If you want to see an example of a book that continuously jumps from first to third person and back again, check out the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (from 1975). Be warned: it's fast, warped, and confusing as hell...but it's also a masterpiece of psychedelic drug-fueled conspiracy theory satire. But enough reading lists. Let's skip that concept for now and focus on one or the other.
Now third person is the simpler of the two, and allows for the most freedom (not necessarily in style, but in story structure). You can follow as many characters as you want, switching back and forth between plot scenarios at key moments, leaving the reader in suspense as you force them to follow the story arc wherever it goes. Also, with omniscient third person, you know everthing that is going on (as the title implies). So if something needs to be explained, you can explain it right away. This can work heavily to your advantage in speculative fiction such as fantasy or sci-fi for the simple fact that a first person narrator would have little motivation to make detailed descriptions of strange or futuristic things that struck them as completely normal (unless he knew his audience was from another time or world). Think about it: if you start up a story with, "I walked into the bar and grabbed a table in the back by the neon Corona sign," you automatically assume the reader knows what bars, tables, and neon signs are. They probably even know what Corona is. So while a third person narrator might describe these things in detail, a first person narrator probably would not. And that's not to say that your first person narrator won't have an eye for detail or a flair for conjuring up vivid imagery, but it's doubtful they would be inclined to define the word "table" before telling you about it. So if the same sentence is replaced with, "I walked into the mezzadome and grabbed a dozka in the back by the fusilon Mordekka ploridian," then it gets a little unclear. You can still do it, but be aware of what every invented word means. Figure out clever ways to explain it through context and repetition. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962) is a b***h to read until you get the hang of the way the language is used. It's an invented futuristic slang with most of its roots in Russian, and it was made up over fifty years ago in another country (England). So when you read it now, you basically have to learn the language of it as you read. And once you've gotten a few chapters into it, you actually start to understand it and feel like you've learned a new language. Sorry, I said no more reading lists, didn't I? Moving on.
One thing to be wary of in third person narration: because you're not limited in who or what you can describe to the reader, there is a natural tendency to get reeeaaaallly boring with needless information, or to drift way off course from the plot, or to get so caught up in countless sub-plots that no one (including you) can remember what's going on from one shift to another. So map it out beforehand, then narrate it.
So what about first person? This decision shouldn't be made until you know exactly what your protagonist is going to be like. And yes, I realize that I've already contradicted my first statement about choosing first or third person to begin with, but you know what? You can think of two things at once, I have faith in you. And contradictary advice is good once in a while...it forces you to try things more than one way to see which one is right for you. And hell...you knew I was an untrained lunatic spouting out pseudo-intellectual gibberish when you started this course. So if my words leave you a confused and broken failure in the world of literature, well...you knew the risks.
So let's look at your main character. Is he smart and witty? Poetic and philosophical? Scientific? Calculating? Let him (or her) speak for him(/her)self. Although be careful about characters that are considerably smarter than you, the author. Make sure you do your research. Not by Googling everything. Go to a library. Books have very sophisticated bullshit-filtration systems that the internet hasn't caught on to. And except in the rarest of occasions, all the words are spelled right because they pay people to check that sort of thing.
But back to your main character. Is he (I'm not typing "or her," "or she," everytime so get over it) a quiet man of action like Clint Eastwood in a Spagetti Western? Then make it third person. First person is more intimate and, well...personal. So if you want your protagonist to remain mysterious or cold and distant, go with third person. Is the main character a complete idiot? Make it third person, unless you're up for the challange of writing an intelligently crafted story through carefully chosen words of idiocy. It's not as easy as it looks. Or maybe he's batshit crazy? First person would be the bigger challenge, but most likely the more interesting of the two.
But these are just ideas. You'll figure out something.
Added on September 27, 2010
Last Updated on September 27, 2010
AboutArtist, writer, and a drunken lunatic prophet. I am the author of Jack's Inferno, a dark comedy bizarro/horror novel about Hell, previously published through Wordplague (now defunct). I am also a pro..