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View Full Version : Writing Prof. Seems Befuddled by First Person POV



Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 02:09 AM
Last Tuesday, we had a writing exercise due in my Intro. to Fiction course. Perusing the pages before handing it in, I began to have second thoughts. Wasn't really given enough time to let it simmer, then come back at it with fresh eyes. Looking over it, multiple spots of potential confusion stood out to me. Nothing I could do then, though. Needless to say, I was expecting a lukewarm response to my exercise.

While she marked points of confusion, what struck me were the following questions (copied verbatim):

"Whose words/thoughts are these?"
"Again, whose words?"

Questions posed about the thoughts of the narrator in a story written in first person.

:Wha:

My understanding of first person was that it is confined to how one character, the narrator, perceives events. Always. There unique situations I'm unaware of where that's not the case with first person point of view or are you as stricken by this as I am?

EDIT: And, in the summation of her thoughts on the back of the story, she wrote this (again, verbatim): "I wonder about the use of italics - whose words are these?"

Italics to signal thoughts in first person narration is standard practice, is it not? Haven't seen thoughts denoted any other way, to be quite honest.

MGraybosch
09-30-2009, 02:10 AM
Did the instructions for the exercise specify a particular POV?

Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 02:14 AM
That's another reason it struck me as peculiar. We began this exercise by writing a first person character sketch. From there, we fleshed them out into scenes/stories based on her guidelines.

:Shrug:

timewaster
09-30-2009, 02:16 AM
"Whose wordy thoughts are these?"
"Again, whose words?"

Maybe she was trying to say that the words and thoughts seemed like they were yours rather than the characters?
Perhaps she thought they were too 'wordy' for the kind of POV character you'd chosen.


My understanding of first person was that it is confined to how one character, the narrator, perceives events. Always. There unique situations I'm unaware of where that's not the case with first person point of view or are you as stricken by this as I am?[/QUOTE]

Yes. She was perhaps telling you that the voice of your narrator did not convince? ( I can imagine writing something similar in those circumstances: /)

MGraybosch
09-30-2009, 02:16 AM
That's another reason it struck me as peculiar. We began this exercise by writing a first person character sketch. From there, we fleshed them out into scenes/stories based on her guidelines.

I'm not sure what to tell you without having seen what you handed in.

alleycat
09-30-2009, 02:17 AM
Did you put those particular thoughts within quotation marks for any reason? Or were they in a stand-alone sentence?

Mr Flibble
09-30-2009, 02:17 AM
Out of context it's going to be extremely hard to say

But - do these comments align with your perceived points of confusion? At this point does your narrator suddenly talk in a voice not his own? ( ie he's been terse all the way through but now comes over all purple and flowery?) Has your prof detected some authorial intrusion you weren't aware of ( that the opinions given aren't your narrators but yours)?


Sometimes just the fact that someone is confused by a passage is enough to get you to look at it again. It doesn't matter so much why they were confused, just that they were, and that in itself is a reason to try harder just there.

But if you could give us some context that might help.

ETA - blimey we all posted at once!

alleycat
09-30-2009, 02:19 AM
I'm not sure what to tell you without having seen what you handed in.
Yeah, it's hard to say where the problem is without seeing the work.

KTC
09-30-2009, 02:20 AM
I'd have to see it to understand better. Sorry...it could be a number of things...did you want to post the excerpt?

Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 02:29 AM
EDIT: Walk away. Nothing to see here. I've discovered the root of the problem.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

This Is My Blood, Page 1

And I sit until I'd swear my ass was no longer part of my body, wondering if blood tastes as metallic as my fingers smell after shifts here in the toll booth. How poetic it would be. All the greedy, gagging on blood, tasting the tsate of the grubby change they shan't dare part with.

A pluming mushroom cloud, rising over the far off hills like the sun, signals humankind's inevitable implosion. Rapt, I look on. Recall asking mother, as we watched expertly placed charges make ruin of the longstanding stadium, "Aren't people in there?" Her denial.

My disappointment.

Craning to see out, I'm reminded of how thin and measly my makeshift shield appears. But a single pane of plastic, little more than a sliver.

Spared all expense.

God'd not allow it. If it were my time, he'd be swift about it. I'd not be left to wither away like some pedestrian sinner.

Words, I remember at random.

"You mustn't dare a look at the 'shroom cloud, else it be taking y'ur mother and ye up in the sky 'long wit' it."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Focusing solely on where the narrator's thoughts appear, I can see why such confusion might arise. The first instance of his thoughts was rather wordy, I admit, and so perhaps a little too out of place to take for his thoughts. The second instance of his thoughts is followed by, "Words, I remember at random," which was one of the potential points of confusion I mentioned noticing as I gave it a final once-over before handing it in. "Words, I remember at random," was meant to apply to the quote that follows it, but I can see how her confusion might lead her to think it is referring to his thoughts above.

Looking at it now, I guess it was even more a muddled, confusing mess than I thought.

:cry:

*files this story away for an overhauling*

KTC
09-30-2009, 02:34 AM
I think there might be reason to question whose thoughts they are...as they could very well be those of the narrator's mother. Perhaps that's what she was thinking? (well...especially the second instance.)

KTC
09-30-2009, 02:36 AM
EDIT: And, in the summation of her thoughts on the back of the story, she wrote this (again, verbatim): "I wonder about the use of italics - whose words are these?"

Italics to signal thoughts in first person narration is standard practice, is it not? Haven't seen thoughts denoted any other way, to be quite honest.


In FP I use them in certain instances where the narrator might say something...and then continue with inner dialogue that runs from the same thoughts as the dialogue.

Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 02:38 AM
Whatever her confusion, I can see how my disorienting narrative could be the culprit.

But I hope none of you take that as a representation of my work as a whole. Like I said, even I read through it the day I turned it in and felt ashamed of myself for turning in such an abysmal effort, at least in terms of clarity. There's potential here, but even it doesn't get the chance to shine through because of the writing.

Still, I'll leave that excerpt up there. Not for posterity, but in the hopes that people can learn from my mistakes as I will learn from them.

KTC
09-30-2009, 02:41 AM
Whatever her confusion, I can see how my disorienting narrative could be the culprit.

But I hope none of you take that as a representation of my work as a whole. Like I said, even I read through it the day I turned it in and felt ashamed of myself for turning in such an abysmal effort, at least in terms of clarity. There's potential here, but even it doesn't get the chance to shine through because of the writing.

Not at all, Travis! I thought it would be okay to ask you to post because it was known that it was first draft...hoping we could maybe see where her thoughts were. I always consider my own as 'first draft ugly'. Nobody should be judged by first draft. Don't think twice about it. Thanks for sharing it.


Ps...don't be so hard on yourself. it's certainly not abysmal.

Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 02:46 AM
Rather than make a separate thread for this, I imagine it would be okay to pose the following question here.

If you were to go into this knowing it's story about a man stranded alone in his toll booth when a nuclear warhead detonates in the distance and his internal struggles as he wonders whether or not he's far enough away from the blast zone or if the plastic mentioned in the excerpt will protect him from the radiation if he's too close . . .

Would you read it, or does the premise strike you as dull or stale?

P.S. KTC, why I'm so self-deprecating in this instance is because, before outside factors forced me to take a sizable break from writing, I felt I'd broken the habit of allowing myself to break off into this brand of muddled prose where confusion is bound to result. Thought I'd made strides in putting what I had in mind to the page with clarity. With this, I essentially relapsed. But I guess it only makes sense that I went back to what I've known longest after a hiatus.

MGraybosch
09-30-2009, 02:48 AM
Still, I'll leave that excerpt up there. Not for posterity, but in the hopes that people can learn from my mistakes as I will learn from them.

That's why I've kept my own crap up.

Stijn Hommes
09-30-2009, 02:41 PM
Instead of guessing what was the matter, I'd have taken this back to the writing prof and ask them to clarify. It's the easiest way to get to the bottom of the problem. You're there to learn and the prof isn't gonna eat you if you ask a question...

Travis J. Smith
09-30-2009, 05:43 PM
Hommes, I was starving at the time, so I decided I'd rather not stay after class to ask any questions. :tongue

maestrowork
09-30-2009, 05:59 PM
The problem is you're italicizing particular thoughts, which is NOT necessary in first person. When you do that, suddenly we're disoriented. Who is speaking there? Why are those italicized? Is it still the narrator speaking?

In first person, there really is no difference between thoughts and observation/narration. They're all part of the narrator's perspective. To the readers, it's very clear what are thoughts/musing and what are descriptions of events, etc.

mscelina
09-30-2009, 06:08 PM
Yep, I agree. I run into this a lot when I'm editing. The narrative is already internal dialogue, so there's no need to italicize anything. The only exception might be--and this has to be done really, really well--if there's somehow another sentience for your narrator (ie--alternate personality, argumentative psychic parasite, etc) and the narrator actually indulges in conversation or debate. Then you might have to italicize, but otherwise not at all.

veinglory
09-30-2009, 06:30 PM
"Words, I remember at random." Particularly suggests to me that these are not the POV characters thoughts.

Toothpaste
09-30-2009, 06:33 PM
I know all has been resolved. But just in case . . .

A quick way to solve at least your latter problem is to add a colon -


Words, I remember at random:

"You mustn't dare a look at the 'shroom cloud, else it be taking y'ur mother and ye up in the sky 'long wit' it."

ideagirl
09-30-2009, 06:36 PM
And I sit until I'd swear my ass was no longer part of my body, wondering if blood tastes as metallic as my fingers smell after shifts here in the toll booth. How poetic it would be. All the greedy, gagging on blood, tasting the tsate of the grubby change they shan't dare part with.

So here's the thing: with a first-person narrator, you don't italicize his or her thoughts because the entire story, with the exception of dialogue, is his or her thoughts. A first-person narrator describing a place or a person is sharing their impressions (i.e. their thoughts) of that place or person; a first-person narrator telling you what's happening is, again, sharing their impressions (i.e. their thoughts) of what happened. Using italics to indicate someone's thoughts only makes sense in third-person limited or omniscient narration--i.e., in stories where most of what's on the page is the narrator's thoughts, but here and there some of the character's thoughts are expressed. So, it's confusing to see italics used that way in a first-person story. Rewrite your paragraph above without the italics, and the problem is gone.

Phaeal
09-30-2009, 06:41 PM
In deep penetration POV, first pretty much by definition, third limited usually, you don't need to set off the narrator's thoughts with italics. Mscelina notes one valid exception above.

Another exception, to be used very infrequently, would be when you want to emphasize a particular thought.

Scarlett tossed aside the radish and raised her fist to heaven. God as my witness, I'll never go hungry again!

But for the most part, I'd write this:

Scarlett tossed aside the radish and raised her fist to heaven. God as her witness, she would never go hungry again.

KTC
09-30-2009, 06:43 PM
As I said above, I use italics to follow through from dialogue. Just scanned a manuscript to find an example, but couldn't see one. Not sure if I'm explaining it properly, but I mean when the character says one thing and continues the thought process of the dialogue in his/her head. I also use italics when the FP character narrates something like,
I still remember thinking, what is he doing?

OR
I thought to myself, what is he thinking.

mscelina
09-30-2009, 06:44 PM
As I said above, I use italics to follow through from dialogue. Just scanned a manuscript to find an example, but couldn't see one. Not sure if I'm explaining it properly, but I mean when the character says one thing and continues the thought process of the dialogue in his/her head. I also use italics when the FP character narrates something like,

Yep, that's valid in my book too. There's a very specific and finite amount of times when a character would essentially talk to himself. For example:

Maybe I should just cut to the chase and do it. Oh yeah, that would be smart, you idiot.

maestrowork
09-30-2009, 06:49 PM
As I said above, I use italics to follow through from dialogue. Just scanned a manuscript to find an example, but couldn't see one. Not sure if I'm explaining it properly, but I mean when the character says one thing and continues the thought process of the dialogue in his/her head. I also use italics when the FP character narrates something like,

OR

Even in that case, it's not necessary. To me, first person is already done in introspection.

The only situations where I think italics could be used are a) if there are multiple personality or the narrator is talking to himself (I used that in TPB), and b) if the tenses don't match... that means there's YET another level of introspection.



I sat on the bench and watched the woman. She was feeding the squirrels with styrofoam nuggets. What the heck? What is she doing? I walked over and started talking to her, to find out who she was.

But that's also not necessary because the italicized thoughts could easily be turned into past tense and unitalicized.

blacbird
09-30-2009, 09:19 PM
Your first reaction to this confusing criticism ought to be, "What am I doing, as writer, to provoke the confusion?" Rather than, "Why doesn't this Prof get it?" That requires being able to step back and take a hard, detailed look at your writing as an outsider. That's a separate skill set from the one you use in first-draft writing, and an extremely valuable one to develop. Chances are you can alter some things to make matters clearer.

caw

Emily Winslow
10-01-2009, 02:05 PM
I do think the original passage was confusing, and made confusing by the italics.

However, I disagree with this:


The problem is you're italicizing particular thoughts, which is NOT necessary in first person.

My copyeditor was careful to differentiate between past-tense thoughts which are the bulk of first-person narration, and occasional present-tense thoughts, which he italicized.

Made-up off-the-cuff example:

My sister always took forever getting ready. She cared more about what she wore than about the rest of us waiting. I got so bored I poured a glass of wine, which the dog, also bored, knocked out of my hand. <i>Damn. I'll have to clean that up.</i>

maestrowork
10-01-2009, 02:18 PM
Emily, see post #27

Emily Winslow
10-01-2009, 02:31 PM
I sat on the bench and watched the woman. She was feeding the squirrels with styrofoam nuggets. What the heck? What is she doing? I walked over and started talking to her, to find out who she was.

But that's also not necessary because the italicized thoughts could easily be turned into past tense and unitalicized.

Sure they *could*, if you added "I wondered" or something. ("I wondered what the heck she was doing.") But saying you could change the structure of the sentence to avoid needing the italics is not the same as saying the italics aren't necessary. As originally phrased, they *are* necessary. And, IMO, that arrangement is the more vivid.

KTC
10-01-2009, 02:55 PM
I agree. Sometimes having them is better...more vivid, as Emily said. More present.

maestrowork
10-01-2009, 03:39 PM
Sure they *could*, if you added "I wondered" or something. ("I wondered what the heck she was doing.") But saying you could change the structure of the sentence to avoid needing the italics is not the same as saying the italics aren't necessary. As originally phrased, they *are* necessary. And, IMO, that arrangement is the more vivid.

No, you don't need "I wondered." You can have actual thoughts in past tense because it's first-person. The following is perfectly fine, but one layer removed from the "immediate" thought.


I sat on the bench and watched the woman. She was feeding the squirrels with styrofoam nuggets. What the heck? What was she doing? I walked over and started talking to her, to find out who she was.

The present tense does indeed make it more "present" but like I said, it's not necessary if you want to keep the tense straightforward.

Emily Winslow
10-01-2009, 04:09 PM
The present tense does indeed make it more "present" but like I said, it's not necessary if you want to keep the tense straightforward.

I agree that works, though I can't think why one would prioritize simplicity of tense over immediacy. (Also, in cases like that, I think one could still argue for italicizing "What the heck?")

I'm not sure what we're arguing about. My assertion is that sometimes it is appropriate to italicize thoughts within first person. The fact that one can also arrange things to avoid that is irrelevant to the fact that in certain cases it's right.

Ken
10-01-2009, 04:12 PM
... italics may not essentially be needed, but they do clarify what is happening, enabling readers to grasp a situation at a glance, which is important. Readers shouldn't have to stop and consider who to attribute a line of dialogue to and whatnot, so they don't know if it's Bill who is speaking or Bob, or whether some dialogue is being spoken or thought -- supposing the dialogue really is dialogue and not just a lengthy tag. Being pulled out of a story to evaluate syntax once too often is likely to cause readers to drop novels quicker than hot potatoes.

maestrowork
10-01-2009, 06:29 PM
I agree that works, though I can't think why one would prioritize simplicity of tense over immediacy. (Also, in cases like that, I think one could still argue for italicizing "What the heck?")

I'm not sure what we're arguing about. My assertion is that sometimes it is appropriate to italicize thoughts within first person. The fact that one can also arrange things to avoid that is irrelevant to the fact that in certain cases it's right.

We're not necessarily arguing. Just that this IS the problem with the OP's passage -- that he's italicizing unnecessarily and confusing the readers. So I'm just countering by saying, most of the time, it's not necessary, even if you're doing immediate thoughts. That's all.