2. Person & Tense
(ii) FIRST PERSON COMPRESSION
I’ve heard it said that telling a story as an ‘I’ can be dangerous for beginning writers because it encourages rambling and digression. I’ve never had that problem because I’m a non-digressive sort of writer. But it makes sense, especially if you use an ‘I’ narrator who’s close to you in voice and personality.
On the other hand, first person narration has the potential to work in exactly the opposite way—it can make compression easy. Third person narration, as more impersonal, tends to show events in an even, measured way. But when a first person narrator is telling the story, you can zoom in on what’s important because this person finds it important.
As for the rest, it’s easy to cut and skim on the basis of subjective say-so—
Nothing much happened for the next five months …
I saw the other side of him four weeks later, at the staff Xmas party …
It works best when you have a strong sense of the narrator’s personality, which often means an ‘I’ at the oral/subjective end of the spectrum.
True, similar cutting and skimming is possible in third person narration—
Nothing much happened to Jonathan for the next five months. Then he met a friend of Tara’s at a rock concert in the Domain …
I don’t know, but it sounds better to me when a first person narrator, who takes responsibility for the arbitrariness, does this casual flipping-over-time.
Since compression is at a premium in short stories, and first person narration makes compression easy, it’s natural to find a great many short stories told by an ‘I’. I’ve never done a count, but I’d bet that first person narration is more common in 10 page short stories than 500 page novels.
If for some reason I wanted to reduce a novel to the length of a novella, or a novella to the length of a short story, I’d look at the possibility of switching from third person to first person narration.
In fact, the advantages of an ‘I’ narrator at the oral/subjective end of the spectrum may not be so advantageous for long fiction. Colourful phrasings, a distinctive personality, interacting with listeners face-to-face—all of these add interest in a short story. But what’s interesting over ten pages can become cloying over five hundred. How many times do you want to hear similar mannerisms and attitudes outside of the primary story?
Again, I’ve never done a count, but I’d bet that ‘I’ narrators in long novels tend more towards the writerly end of the spectrum, less personal and less quirky in their narrating voices.