Into Every Life, a Few Snowflakes Must Fall

In this case, I’m talking about first person snowflakes. Confused? Well, I suppose describing life from a snowflakes point of view could feel intensely personal, but also could be a little confusing to write. And that brings me to what I wanted to discuss today. I’ve been writing a new novel from a first person point of view perspective for several weeks. It’s about Theo, a thirteen year old boy living in 1961. It’s trickier than I thought but I’m doing it for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted the story to feel very personal and immediate. If it’s written well, the reader should be seeing and feeling everything from Theo’s perspective. Second was the challenge of experimenting with a very different point of view from my previous couple of novels.

Writing about anything from fifty years ago presents it’s own challenges. Life was very different in 1961. Everyday language, customs, dress, fads, music, technology, politics, travel, and so on. Readers who are knowledgeable or were alive in 1961 will quickly pick up on story elements that are impossible for that time period, like using a cell phone or using a laptop or iPad to jump on the internet. But I’d like to table those issues and focus on writing in the first person. Everything we learn in the novel is filtered through one person, in this case Theo. There’s an internal dialogue that can be observations or reflections, and external dialogue when the character is speaking.

Here’s an example of an internal observation from the novel:
My father’s footsteps got louder, then stopped. His deep voice rolled up the stairs. “Theo, come down here, we want to talk to you.”
We learn from Theo that he hears his father’s footsteps and then his father asking him to come downstairs.

Here’s an example of an internal reflection from the novel:
I wish I could erase the image of my dead grandmother, Nana, standing in her jonnie waving to me at her wake. It all really started three days ago as I lay on my bed trying to count the dead squished mosquito bodies, some outlined in blood, on the ceiling.
In this passage, we learn a little about what Theo is thinking, as he lays on his bed staring at the ceiling.

The power of this writing approach is that it pulls us immediately into the novel. There are at least a couple of drawbacks. First, it’s easy to slip into a third person point of view and have an omniscient narrator who isn’t Theo. So for example, if I wrote: Theo’s Dad worried that his son was being being bullied at school, I’d no longer be writing in the first person, and the effect would be to pull the reader out of the novel and create some confusion.

Another drawback is that Theo can’t know everything that is going on in the story. So it forces the writer to consider carefully how Theo will discover and plan things that will keep the reader engaged and the story moving along. It also means the writer must consider what other story elements have happened that Theo doesn’t yet know about and how will these be brought into the story.

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