Me, You, and Them

Last week I wrapped up the chapter on show and tell–now I have a better feel for showing, telling, and being aware of when I know something that doesn’t quite make it to the reader. This next chapter covers the oft-feared topic of points of view.

It’s not just the way you see the story–it’s who’s telling it.

We’re all probably most familiar with the third person–he, she, and it–but lately, I’ve noticed a lot more fiction has been popping up in the first person–I, me–which is challenging the notion that the third person is conventional. No matter, in case all this talk of persons in the grammatical sense in making you crazy in the literal sense, here’s this quick phrase I use to remember which person is which:

I am the first person. You are the second person. And they are the third person.

Got it? I thought so.

When writing a story, some new authors get caught up in the notion that they–as authors–are the ones telling the story. This couldn’t be further from the fact unless you’re writing a journal, an autobiography, or occasionally creative nonfiction. But for fiction, the author rarely is the one narrating the story. This is why point of view becomes such an important technique and tool for the writer to master.

We could spend hours talking about point of view–limited, omniscient, etc.–but the easiest way to experiment and test your skills (and to see how point of view can change the feel and perspective of a story) is to restrict the discussion to these three persons and go from there.

The exercise posed is to take a recent experience and write it first in first person, next in second person, and finally in third person. Since it wasn’t that long ago that I went to the beach, I’m going to use that as a jumping-off point–but I’m naturally going to embellish it and turn fact into fiction. Perhaps less so in the first person, which is more personal a narrator than the others, but definitely in the third.

I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so I was hesitant to go out too far. The ocean’s waves, carrying white foam and broken seashells, broke over my feet as I began to wade deeper. Deeper. It reached my knees now. A few steps further in and it was washing up to my waist. I cringed. It’s always hardest going into water higher than my waist–the cold isn’t really cold until I’ve felt it pierce me like shards of ice through my stomach. My boyfriend smiles at me and moves further in–and I follow him.

I see the wave before it crashes past me, threatening my balance on the one hand, but showering me with ice on the other. I feel frozen and numb for a moment as my core tries to thaw, but I’m bombarded by another wave, and then another still. Now the water’s up to my chest and I can feel again. The iciness has suffused into the surrounding waters; now it’s warm like a womb, each wave the heartbeat of a creature I can only imagine–a god whose oceansong fills my ears and drums its melody into my mind.

My boyfriend swims out further and suddenly I’m scared–not because I can’t swim or because I don’t feel safe. Neither is the case. I can do the backstroke fairly well, and I can still feel the sand under my feet. I’m okay. But I’m worried for him–I won’t let him out of my sight, but what good would that do if he gets pulled under? I’m not a strong enough swimmer to save him if something happens, and that helplessness scares me. But I try to dispose of my fear a little bit as each wave washes over me, and slowly I grow more calm as the waves grow higher, each pounce a little rush of adrenalin that keeps the fear at bay.

To echo a colloquial expression: True story.

But isn’t that the nature of first-person, to share a true story? Although that begs another question: When writing fiction, aren’t we always trying to make it feel like a true story, whether it happened or not? You can accomplish this in any person, doesn’t matter which you choose, but sometimes the first person can help you pull it off–if you can create a character whose head we want to be inside.

You stand at the shoreline, watching as the water rides the sand in and out. The sky is bright and blue overhead and all around you, people bustle up and down the beach, throwing beach balls or laughing in groups or lounging around under broad umbrellas. You try to ignore all of them and soon the only thing you can hear is the crash of the waves, each the song of a siren calling you toward the deep.

When you step into the water, you can feel the broken bits of seashells and stones beneath your feet. The water is cold as it washes up around your legs and soon the seashells are smaller, fine grains of sand that swirl about you. The water claws onto your body as you drift outward, into the siren’s song, captivated by the glimmer of light scintillating upon the surface just a few feet ahead.

You cringe when the water reaches your waist, give a slight howl as the thorns of ice pierce your flesh and cause your core to cramp. But you press on, eager to find that golden surface, to indulge in the mystic melodies married in the air around you. The taste of salt stings on your tongue as you push further into the ocean, but the taste only whets your appetite until you thirst for more.

Finally the water is at your neck and you must move your arms back and forth to stay afloat. You see a wall of white rising before you, rearing back from the horizon like the leviathan of ancient times, opening its maw to swallow you whole. You turn toward the shore and kick off from the sand just in time for the beast to swim beneath you–but right on its heals, another comes in to attack.

The water pulls you into its grasp, spinning you around under the water in a whirl of deafening thunder. You break the surface, gasping, choking for oxygen, and the spell–the spell is finally broken. No longer do you hear the sirens singing. No longer do you see the gold allure of the ocean. Now all that fills your eyes is the watery beast that calls out for its next victim to swim willingly into its stomach.

Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything in the second person. It’s hard to pull off: Typically a writer’s challenge is to suspend the reader’s disbelief while hearing another story; but the challenge is completely different when you’re trying to suspend the reader’s entire sense of self and replace it with something fictional, engaging, and worse yet, believable. Which is precisely why it’s not as common as first- or third-person.

The only second-person stories I’ve ever read were the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read when I was a kid. They worked for two reasons: First, I was only a child, so the nuances of great, impeccable writing were over my head and I wasn’t looking for something to suspend my disbelief, merely to give me a good show. Second, the chance to change the story according to my own decisions made it as much a game as a book–a pre-TV video game, if you will, since isn’t that what a good video game does? I think it is–it casts players in an unfamiliar world where they are the ones leading the story. Which perhaps is why video games are so engaging.

Of course, there’s still one last person to talk about.

Axel watched as his brothers of the tribe ran into the water like swordfish cutting through the waves–so why couldn’t he? He stomped his feet in the foam that washed over his feet and ran his hands back through his black hair as he surveyed the beach. It’d be easy to run off now and hide behind one of the dunes until they all came back. No one would question his absence if he came up with a convincing story, if he splashed his face with seawater until it looked like he’d gone for a swim, if he watched them just long enough to say, “Of course I was out there! I saw when Roen splashed you. How else would I know that?”

Yet for as much as Axel wanted to run away, he knew there was something out there that was calling out to him. Past the bouncing bodies of his friends, he saw where the sun hit the water and it shone gold. Scales of the sea god. He was there, swimming past them, granting his protection while they trained to be the fishermen they were meant to be.

Father would never let him onto the fishing boats if he couldn’t swim. He’d be a disgrace to his entire village if he was the only boy who wouldn’t step into the ocean, who never received the blessing of the sea god. He wouldn’t have that, he wouldn’t!

Axel held his breath and walked toward the shimmering surface in the distance. The water was cold as it crept up his legs, and he had to suck in his stomach to bear the freezing fingers of the ocean that attempted to constrict around his waist. But he wouldn’t stop, he couldn’t. Soon the waves were crashing into his chest and he had to shut his eyes and squint to keep going. All his friends were swimming further out now, but he didn’t care. He had made it this far and now he was rising and falling as the ocean rushed past him. He felt the water push him back one second, then pull him out the next. The tug of war startled him at first, but as he sunk into the rhythm, he was able to anticipate the waves as they reached him and ride them even better than he had before.

Then he felt something. On the back of his leg. It wasn’t natural. Not water. He swallowed uneasily as he turned–turned just in time to see something bright darting back into the water. He stared at the same spot for a minute; then the next wave pushed him off the feet and pulled him under. Axel flailed his arms, but he wasn’t rising toward the surface, only kicking up sand that clouded the water around him. He shook his head–why wasn’t he surfacing? He should’ve surfaced already!

That’s when he saw the eyes. Beautiful golden eyes. Hands grabbed his shoulders and steadied his arms. Lips pressed into his and filled his lungs with sweet, salty air. Then Axel felt his hands fall upon a large, scaled body, and he knew the sea god was swimming beside him. A whisper through the waves told him to hold on–and he did. In an instant he was flying through the water, watching the shadow of the dragon on the sand below as the sun cascaded down through the waves above.

When Axel looked up again he was facing the sky, spots in his eyes telling him he had been staring at it for a long time. He sat up slowly, uncertain when he had gotten back to the shore, but feeling numb from the foam that washed up and down his body. The others were coming back from their swim. They’d never believe he’d followed them and gone swimming with the sea god. They’d just tell him he hadn’t gone into the water at all.

Poor Axel. No matter, what did you think of each story? How does one compare to the others in terms of narration, suspension of disbelief, the details and the clarity of what’s going on? Do you prefer one to the others? How would you write it differently if you were the author?

If you happen to have your own blog or website somewhere, why not do the same exercise with your own experiences? I’d love to read what you come up with. It could be pretty cool to compare our stories and see what we can learn from them.

Have fun writing–and don’t let the ocean eat you!

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3 thoughts on “Me, You, and Them

  1. I am currently writing (aside from what I’m actually currently writing, I mean) a fictional story in first person, present tense. I don’t think I could possibly imagine a more complex and uneasy writing perspective, but it’s crucial to the theme (a psychological breakdown, leading to a state of depressive psychosis, and succeeding misfortune would be rather difficult for the first person to retell; at least, given that I want the first person to think like someone currently psychotic) that I use it.

    That’s not what I came here to say, though. This is:

    The opening chapter is second-person, present tense, and it details a lengthy guided hypnotic fantasy. It works well because it is assumed that someone already believes it is working well, i.e. the suspension of disbelief is self-fulfilling, it being an inherent prerequisite of the hypnotic induction.

    As you said, under conventional circumstances, it should be incredibly difficult to have the reader suspend his or her disbelief to such an extent that the story remains graphically potent.

    • Indeed, you’ve summed it up well. If the narrator makes it a habit of talking to the reader, I see no reason why a trustworthy and compelling narrator couldn’t send an avid reader through a series of hypothetical second-person scenarios. In fact, it might be an apt challenge to try. I shall consider this.

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