Writing First Person Essay

 

There is no single ‘right’ approach to how to start a story in first person. That being said, there are several ways to start a story using first person point of view and hook readers from the start. Here are 8 pointers for beginning a book in first person:

1: Perfect your character introductions: Make the reader care

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

4: Make your protagonist’s voice identifiable from the start

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

6: Make your main character confide in the reader

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

To expand on these pointers:

1: Perfect your character introduction: Make the reader care

Many novels now considered classics open with character introductions in first person. This type of opening, where the protagonist extends a friendly hand to the reader, can be very effective. Consider the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield:

‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.’

As far as introductions go, this is very matter-of-fact. Dickens doesn’t create a particularly strong emotional connection with the character right away. What Dickens does do, though, is create intrigue in the reader about David. We want to know whether he turns out to be the hero he refers to or not.

In subsequent paragraphs, Dickens adds details that make us care about his main character more:

‘I was a posthumous child. My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.’

Dickens makes us want to know the outcome of the story, then proceeds to make us empathize with his narrator through his story of loss.

Making the reader care doesn’t necessarily mean making the reader feel sorry for your character: Readers can just as easily dislike your cunning anti-hero or feel in two minds. The most important thing is to make readers care, whether about your character or the outcome of a situation they announce.

Besides making the reader care, there are other ways to make your first-person story opening enticing:

2: How to start a story in first person: Begin with revealing actions

Beginning with character actions is another useful device for drawing the reader in immediately. Instead of your character describing a memory or past experience, begin with your character doing something.

Think about the type of action your story opens with. To create immediate interest, try actions that:

  • Create suspense or foreboding (E.g. ‘I lift the body as carefully as I can – no inexplicable bruises – and move slowly towards the edge of the boat.’)
  • Create empathetic curiosity (E.g. ‘I hold it together until the last person passes through the airport terminal and break down only once i’m in the relative privacy of the car park.’)

Showing your main character in either a state of high emotion or in a process of perplexing activity teases the reader with a sense of there being much more to the story and promises the reader that more will be revealed.

3: Don’t tell the reader everything at once

Part of what makes the example openings above fairly effective is how little they give away about the first person narrator’s circumstances. For the first, the reader might ask ‘Whose body?’ or ‘Is the protagonist a killer disposing of the body or is the situation more complicated?’

This is an important element of how to start a story in first person: Leave some of the most interesting tidbits about your character for later. When we meet someone for the first time, it’s overwhelming if they tell us every minute detail about themselves. The same goes for your characters – a little mystery keeps us wanting to find out more.

4: Make your character’s voice identifiable from the start

Many writers make the mistake of making their first person narrators’ voices too similar to their own. Characters that feel like stand-ins for the author feel flat and one-dimensional. Instead, make your character distinctive from the outset. Do this with:

  • Personality: Is your character mostly optimistic or negative? Poetic in the language they use or plain-speaking?
  • Language: Does your character use lots of expletives or not? are they wordy or do they get to the point quickly?

Some other methods for making your first person narrator’s voice distinctive:

  • Choose 4 or 5 words that your character likes to use and make a note of them. They could be adjectives they use most often for things they like or dislike (e.g. ‘fantastic’ or ‘weird’), for example
  • As Jackie Cangro at Loft Literary reminds, it’s useful to think about tone. What is the tone of your character’s self-expression like overall? Do they come across as comical or serious, anxious or mellow? Sarcastic or sincere?

5: Make your protagonist’s voice active

Compare passive voice and active voice:

‘I was led to the hilltop house and told by my guide to wait while he disappeared around the side.’

Compare this to:

‘I followed my guide to the hilltop house. “Wait,” he said, disappearing around the side.’

In the second, active voice example, we have more of a sense of the first person narrator acting in his world as opposed to just being moved around in it. We have a stronger sense of the character as a real person who has choices and can make decisions of his own free will. We see the experience from his immediate perspective.

6: Have your first person character confide in the reader

One way to start a book in first person effectively is to make your narrator take the reader into her confidence. Secrets and intimate revelations create curiosity. As readers, being let into the narrator’s confidence makes us feel party to (and even complicit in) something important. Whether your narrator confides a misdeed in the reader or shares an intimate fact about their history (like David does in the opening pages of David Copperfield), this act makes the reader invest in the story by making the reader feel privy to privileged information.

7: Eliminate filter words and let the reader see through your protagonist’s eyes

Filter words are words that place the reader at one remove to seeing and experiencing what the character is seeing and experiencing. For example, a character might say ‘I saw that the building had started to collapse’. Instead, however, you could simply make your first person narrator say ‘the building had started to collapse’.

Ruthanne Reid has an excellent piece on filter words over at The Write Practice. Says Reid:

‘Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.’

Reid does also make the important point that filter words aren’t always bad. Reid’s example of an acceptable use is the sentence ‘I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors’. This is describing the act of seeing explicitly – you could write ‘The shelves are there and the counter but not the scissors’, but the former question conveys the character’s frustration at not finding what she’s looking for better. There is a keener sense of the character’s eyes roving over the counter.

Make sure that you aren’t unintentionally placing your reader at one remove to your first person character’s observations and experiences, right from the start of your novel.

8: Introduce secondary characters via your first person narrator early on

Just because you’re starting your story with your main character’s first person perspective doesn’t mean the focus has to be on them alone. Create intrigue by having your protagonist refer to a secondary character in your opening. Having your main character mention a cast member of your novel who is yet to appear will keep readers anticipating developments in your story and new entrances and exits.

Create a blueprint for your novel so you can find the voice of your first person narrator easier. Use the Now Novel process to start or finish writing a book.

First-person essays span space, time and subject: The city dump, an obsessive bird or a toy from the ’60s—all subjects of essays I’ve published—can come up with just one shuffle of an endless deck of compelling themes. Mongrel lot or not, it’s never the subject of an essay that tells, but the style and stance of its author. What might seem the least likely of essay subjects can be made riveting or poignant with just the right touch. We’ll look here at choosing the topic, slant and voice of your essay, constructing a lead, building an essay’s rhythm and packing a punch at the essay’s end.

TACKLING A TOPIC

Because one of the great appeals of the personal essay is the conversational tone essayists take, it seems a given that it’s best to be conversant with your subject. But “write what you know” can also be an inkless cage; some of the best essays are a voyage of discovery for both writer and reader. You might accidentally flip some breakfast cereal with your spoon and have an epiphany about the origins of catapults. That little leap might take you seven leagues into the history of siege engines and voilaé! A piece for a history journal comparing ancient weapons to new.

A LESSON IN LEADS
Look how James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald take you immediately into their world with the first paragraphs of these essays:

On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century.
—James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955)

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work-the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside-the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within-that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

Subjects float all around you. Should you write about baseball, bacteria or bougain-villeas? The key is engagement with your topic so the angle your writing takes is pointed and penetrating. You don’t write about cars; you write about the fearful symmetry of a 1961 T-Bird. The essayist should be (to paraphrase Henry James) one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Idly looking over at a fellow driver stopped at a traffic signal might be a moment to yawn, but it might also be a moment to consider how people amuse themselves in their vehicles. An essay here about new car technology, an essay there about boredom and its antidotes.

Essays are literally at your fingertips. Consider a piece on how fingerprint technology evolved. Or at your nosetip: My most recent published essay was about a lurking smell in my house that led to a mad encounter with attic rats. Humble topics can spur sage tales. Annie Dillard’s recounting of seeing a moth consumed in a candle flame morphs into an elegy on an individual’s decision to live a passionate life. You don’t need glasses to find your topics—just a willingness to see them.

SLANT AND VOICE

Which way should your essay tilt? Some essays wrap blunt opinions in layered language, ensnaring a reader with charm, not coercion. Louis Lapham’s essays often take a political angle, but any advocacy is cloaked in beguiling prose. Personal-experience or “confessional” essays done well deftly get away with impressionistic strokes: words evoking sensations, scents and subtleties. Consistency in tone is compelling; leading your reader through your essay with sweet conceptual biscuits only to have them fall hip-deep in a polemical cesspool at essay’s end is counterproductive.

Essays are personal—the best of them can seem like a conversation with an intelligent, provocative friend, but one with remarkable discretion in editing out the extraneous. Whether the word “I” appears at all, you must be in your essay, and pungently. It can’t be simply “How I Spent my Summer Vacation”; it must be “How I Spent my Summer Vacation Tearfully Mourning my Dead Ferret.” Never hide in an essay. Essays aren’t formless dough. They’re the baked bread, hot and crusty. Cranky, apprehensive or playful, your candid voice should be a constant. You don’t want your essays to roar like a lion in one paragraph and bleat like a mewling lamb in another (unless it’s done for effect).

LEAD OR LOSE

Leads are big. If your first bite of a meal is bland, you’re likely to put the fork down and call for takeout. You’ve got to grab readers from the get-go. One method is direct address. Here’s the lead from an article of mine about dictionaries:

Think of your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness. Delight is the fruit of that collision.

It tells the reader to do something, with a visual and sensual context. It’s difficult to read that lead and avoid doing what it requests, at least in your imagination.

Here’s another lead of mine that takes a different tack, one of identification or empathy:

Scuttlebutt had it that Barbara Cartland, the doyenne of romance writers, did much of her early writing at the piano, stark naked. However that strains credibility, everyone’s heard of writers who insist they can’t write without their ancient manual typewriters with the missing keys, or their favorite fountain pens (or maybe even a stylus and hot wax). Writers can be a peculiar lot, and it’s not surprising that their composing methods can be all over the map.

Besides beginning with a memorable image of Cartland, the essay invites readers to consider their own fetishes and peccadilloes about favorite objects. You want the reader here to nod yes, agree that people are odd, and move forward into the piece.

Sometimes a question that has a universal appeal can accomplish this:

Could listening to a barking dog actually drive you mad? I fear it could. Worse yet, I fear this not in theory, but in fact: Barking dogs are making me a sweaty mess.

RESOURCES FOR ESSAY WRITERS
MARKETS
Writer’s Market
Writer’s Digest Books; www.writersmarket.com): The dean of market directories, with listings of many publications that publish personal essays, including submission tips and pay rates.

Online writing about writing: There are a number of online venues that publish essays about writing, though compensation is small. Look at AbsoluteWrite.com, WriterOnLine.us, WritersWeekly.com or Writing-World.com. Writer’s Digest also has a monthly online contest for essays; go to www.writersdigest.com/contests/your_chronicle_display.asp for more information.

Your local paper: Never published an essay before? Often local newspapers will print first-person pieces that provide perspective on issues relevant to the area.

BOOKS
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology From the Classical Era to the Present
edited by Phillip Lopate
(Anchor)

The Best American Essays 2003

The Best American Essays of the Century
edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan
(Houghton Mifflin)

The Norton Book of Personal Essays
edited by Joseph Epstein
(W.W. Norton)

The statement shapes my own problem into one that might apply to many. You’ll drag a dog lover or hater (and that’s a broad audience) deep into the essay by this lead leash.

STRUCTURE AND RHYTHM

Most essays aren’t built on journalism’s inverted pyramid, stacking essential information upfront and moving to leaner layers as factual momentum fades. Instead, essays often take elliptical paths that meander around in a subject’s fields, picking its flowers, discarding them, looking to metaphoric hills beyond and then up close at the ground below. An accomplished essayist like Edward Hoagland wends his way through paragraphs, often taking a quick conceptual turn that might seem a misstep or dead end. But he always re-establishes his rhythm, much like a jazzman vamping and then returning to the deeper theme.

Hoagland is a good study on the magic of cadence and the musicality of words; he makes the difficult art of weaving layered points of view with bright language seem easy. That’s not to say that a more straightforward path through your essay isn’t the best course. Mark Twain’s “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed” essentially plots a chronological rendering of the hapless—and hilarious—exploits of a band of Civil War bumblers, Twain prominent among them.

Determine if your material is the sort that should sneak up on readers to win their trust or overwhelm them with the sustained march of topic vigor. I wrote an essay about an old California beachside amusement park that alternated paragraphs (and sometimes sentences) about the checkered history of the park with paragraphs of my own wide-eyed history of teenage entanglements there. That old/new juxtaposition gave a flow to the piece that worked much better than “Here’s the Pike’s history, and then here’s what it was like when I was a kid.”

In contrast, I started out a piece on the death of my cat with a dramatic accounting of his final moments and used that emotional tocsin to resonate through every paragraph, sifting the sense of loss. Your material probably has an organic flow—try to see how ideas connect and separate.

WRAPPING IT UP

Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, agreement, passion or some other sense of completion. Circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give readers that full-circle sense. Try to restate your thesis in a way that reflects the journey the essay has taken.

Only if you have subtle skills can you leave your readers hanging on an ambiguity or wondering at your waffling. Readers want customer satisfaction, and essays that have a “new fiction” inconclusiveness don’t scratch that itch. Unless, of course, you can construct the kind of conclusive inconclusiveness of the last paragraph of H.L. Mencken’s “Imperial Purple”:

Twenty million voters with IQs under 60 have their ears glued to the radio; it takes four days’ hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere. Four Senators get drunk and try to neck with a lady politician built like a tramp steamer. The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains.

Whether you annoy them or astound them, leave your readers with something of yourself. They’ll return to your writing hungry for more.

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