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Monday, July 02, 2007

Common problems in first person POV, part three

First person internal thoughts also tend to be a lot of backstory, which slows down the reading flow. It might be fun and quirky narrative, but it’s still a backstory dump however you look at it.

Mom ran off years ago with the family lawyer, and while I can’t say Dad was all that great, the lawyer was worse. She finally clued in when she found him groping his admin in his office one day. Mom, being Mom, told him, “I have decided to seek new legal representation.” And then she walked out.

Anyway, the entire incident has made her gunshy about hiring any lawyers, which is why she now bothers me to bother my boyfriend, who will give her free legal counsel without the inconvenience of actually paying for it. Gasp!


The cure for this is the same as in third person POV:

a) Give only snippets of backstory, not a whole bunch at once.

b) Mention backstory only when it’s absolutely vital to the current action.

c) Make a character absolutely need to know—that way your reader will also absolutely need to know. And don’t give the backstory easily—make a character have to fight to get it out of the other one.

d) Create emotional intensity attached to the backstory. Someone repeating an old piece of gossip isn’t going to have the same impact on the reader as someone who had been intimately involved in the incident confessing it to someone else.

“Mom, I am not going to ask Jim about custody laws.”

“Why not?” She shoves her hands on her hips, making her seem larger, but I refuse to back down.

“Because he’s a contract lawyer.”

“He at least would have an idea.”

“He’s also not being paid.” I cross my arms and eye her narrowly.

She rolls her eyes. “He’s your boyfriend. The least he could do is give a little advice to your mother.”

“A little advice? This is the third time this month you’ve come to ask a legal question.”

She shrugs. “I’ve had a lot of questions this month. Shoot me.”

I’m tempted. “Why don’t you just hire your own?”

Her face turns red like the beets in my garden. “I’m not hiring another lawyer, ever!” She stamps her foot.

I set my jaw. “Mom, I’m tired of your tantrums about this.”

She gasps. “Don’t you talk to me that way, young lady—”

“You’re being completely unreasonable about hiring lawyers.”

“Oh, so it’s not unreasonable to find your lawyer sleeping with his admin?”

“So your lover cheated on you. You cheated on Dad when you ran off with him in the first place.”

“Your father was a pig. And lawyers are pigs, too.”

“If you’d run off with the family doctor instead, would you never go to the hospital?”


Don’t use internal thoughts to give backstory. Look through your manuscript and rewrite anywhere you have backstory dumps in the narrative.

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