Sunday, September 30, 2012

Take the I out of 1st person

Ok, firstly, there is nothing wrong with novels or stories written in 1st person.
But recently I read a book in 1st person that made me feel the whole time as if the action was in slow-motion as I waited for the main character to narrate what was happening.

The cool premise of the book was killed by removing me from the immediacy of the action through an effect I oh-so-recently called “telescoping”*. (I’m sure some literary professor type knows the real word for it, but I stick to “telescoping”)

* In fact we had a rescue from Hollan, who is said literary professor type, who corrected my totally subjective term "telescoping". The correct term is FILTERING folks, filtering. This post has been edited to remove my egregious misuse of astronomical terminology.
Action should be IN YOUR FACE!
Filtering is when the action happening RIGHT NOW is filtered through the narrator needlessly distancing me, the reader, from the action. (Author intrusion also can fall into the realm of filtering)
Sure sometimes you may deliberately want distance in 1st person. It can lend a certain cold detachment to certain scenes, or even allow the character to show their bias or coloration of events.

But regardless whether it’s 1st person, 3rd person close, or even 3rd person omniscient, I personally want to feel like the events are happing right here, right now. Not over there to some guy who keeps getting in the way of the narrative. (There’s nothing worse than a narrator who gets in the way of the actual narration!)

Here is my totally heavy-handed and off the top of my head example of filtering.

Filtered 1st person
Immediate 1st person
As I ran down Ventura Boulevard, I could tell that things had gone from bad to worse.
I noticed that my stitches had come undone and felt the blood run down my back.
I could hear guns roaring all around me and when I looked back I saw the zombies at the far end of the street still coming.
Why’d the world have to end in zombies? I thought to myself.
I kept running.
As I ran down Ventura Boulevard, things went from bad to worse.
My stitches came undone and the blood ran down my back.
Guns were roaring all around me yet the zombies far down at the east end of the street kept coming.
Why’d the world have to end in zombies?
I kept running.

When an author is filtering in 1st person, the narrator creates distance by “feeling, or noticing, or perceiving that the action is happening” instead of the action just happening.
Am I right here, or am I crazy-cakes?


  1. You're so right! I hate tedious narrators who take the long way around anything they want to say. Just DO it.


  2. It's called filtering. Telescoping is the opposite -- it brings the reader closer to the action (much like a telescope brings far away objects closer to the viewer).

    Also, you're talking about a mixture of two things: filtering and passive constructions (to be constructions like was/were and auxiliary verbs like could).

    This isn't just a problem in first person and it has nothing to do with overuse of the pronoun "I" (that's a different problem). Any POV can filter or use passive constructions to pull the reader from the action.

    Example: She could hear him. vs. She heard him.

    "Could" as an auxiliary verb pulls the reader from the immediate action.

    She saw him throw the frisbee. vs. He threw the frisbee.

    This is filtering. "She saw" pulls the reader from the action.

    Even in your improved example you say: "Guns were roaring" while "Guns roared" would cut out that extra passive verb and make the action more immediate/interesting.

    Here's a nice post that explains it:

  3. There you have it, I knew someone with more technical knowledge would have the correct term. Filtering.

    In my head telescoping worked because I envisioned a collapsable telescope. Boy was I wrong. :)

    So yes, the book I read and hated was full of passive constructions and filtering. Boo.

    You heard it here folks! Filtering. Thanks Hollan.