How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers

 

How to start a story in first person: 8 pointers

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

how to start writing a story in first person - second image from writing articleBeginning 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

how to start a story in first person - brown dogFilter 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.

If you’re confident in how to start a story in first person, create a blueprint for your first person narrator, use the Now Novel process to start or finish writing a book.

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  • Jess Loveland

    This article has great advice for people like me who prefer to write in first person. I have a big problem with info-dumping when writing first person. I’m going to endeavor to keep back details so I don’t overwhelm readers.

    • Thanks so much, Jess. Info dumps can be tempting! You really have to trust in the reader’s intelligence, I’d say.

  • Laura Taylor

    Beautifully composed. Thank you! LT

  • Delbert Wichelhaus

    I’m a bit curious, I am attempting to start a suspense/drama novel with the first chapter Introducing the main character in a drunken, somber state, and I’m just unsure about even the first sentence. Your post has helped me think about moving more into the future of the book, but I’m stuck on the first few words.

    • Delbert Wichelhaus

      I found out through re-reading that post that I didn’t actually ask you a question, so, What do you think would be a viable way to begin a novel with the guidelines above? The first person aspect is making it difficult for me, but I believe writing in the first person will be the best way to convey the message I plan to send.

      • Hi Delbert,

        Thanks for reading and asking this. It’s difficult to say, not knowing more about the character in question. Is their disposition cynical and grumpy or cheerful and optimistic? What is the effect of liquor on their temperament, do they become frivolous and carefree or depressed and despondent? I think starting with a keen understanding of your character’s mental state at the opening will guide you towards first words. Other things to consider are what you want the opening scenario to be – why has your character gotten into this state, for example? Think about the cause and effect behind the action first.

        Hope that helps!

  • Maya

    This is extremely helpful! Thank you so much but I have a question. Do you recommend writing in the present tense or past, when writing in the first person?

    • Hi Maya – thank you! It really depends on your preference. The first person in the present tense is particularly effective for unfolding, suspenseful action. For example, compare ‘I heard a knock at the door. Silence. Then three more, more insistent’ to ‘I hear a knock at the door. Silence. Three more, insistent.’ The second really places the reader in the unfolding action. Both have their uses. If your story deals a lot with memory and past events, recollected, past tense would likely make more sense.

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