Advice on writing in first person is abundant, but not all first-person narration is the same. It can be breezy and immersive, playful and satirical, close or distant. This time, let’s cover first-person retelling, a powerful narrative premise that allows writers to get close to the freedom of omniscient yet manage high immersion when it matters the most.
What Is a Retelling?
A character retelling is a type of narrative premise: the implied explanation for how the story is being told to the reader. First person can be told with three different narrative premises:
- Unfolding Events. Narration qualifies as unfolding events when it makes readers feel like they are directly witnessing everything that’s happening – though usually from the perspective of one of the characters. This no-frill premise minimizes the barrier between reader and story, increasing immersion. That makes it a great choice for tenser works. Unfolding events can be told in either past or present tense. Examples of books using this premise with first person include Twilight and The Hunger Games.
- Epistolary Records. An epistolary story presents some supposedly-real documents, recordings, or other records to the reader. Many of these – such as journal entries, letters, or emails – are likely to be expressed in first person. When done well, the epistolary format adds fun and credibility to the story, but it makes creating an immersive experience difficult. Books that use this premise with first person include The Martian and Maplecroft.
- Character Retelling. In a character retelling, the point-of-view character is telling an outside audience about events that previously happened to them. This means the narrator is a future version of the character in the story, and they can know things the character undergoing the story doesn’t. This makes the narration more flexible but less immersive. However, the true miracle of a character retelling is that it can smoothly transition to unfolding events and back again. This means you can have your commentary cake and be immersive too. Character retellings are always in first person. They’re told primarily in past tense, but present tense will pop in to say hello. Examples of works in this category include The Murderbot Diaries and The Dresden Files.
Compared to other first-person options, a character retelling is both fun and practical. However, that doesn’t mean you should never choose the unfolding events premise. For many stories, it makes more sense to be immersive from start to finish. Sticking with unfolding events gives you the option of using present tense for extra immediacy, and it makes it feel more likely that the viewpoint character could die.
Take the opening teaser of Twilight. The book is told in first-person past tense, but as unfolding events, not as a character retelling.
I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me.
Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.
In the wild, writers also manage subtle shades between unfolding and retelling. Sometimes the future narrator is quite subtle, leaving the narration to focus more on unfolding events.
For instance, in Annihilation, the first book of the Area X series, the future narrator generally stays in the background except for the occasional comparison between what she thought at the time and what she concluded later.
“Paralysis is not a cogent analysis?” she said to me with a pointed stare. I felt a kind of itchiness come over me, but I said nothing, did nothing. The others did not even seem to realize she had spoken. It was only later that I realized the psychologist had tried to bind me with a hypnotic suggestion meant for me and me alone.
While this is a great example of using future commentary for suspense, by default character retellings lean in the other direction. When in doubt, choose a retelling when you want to add more fun to the story even if it’s a little less tense as a result.
Using the Power of a Future Narrator
The narrator of a character retelling isn’t quite omniscient. In comparison to the character in the story, they know the future. They’ve had more time to both think about what happened and do relevant research.
What they can’t do is tell readers something that a person without god powers* wouldn’t know, such as a blow-by-blow account of what other characters were thinking at the time or doing out of sight. They can relate what other characters told them later. However, they need to explain how they know, and such details should be very limited in comparison to their own experiences.
The future narrator can also hide information – but not all of it. At Mythcreants, we discourage writers from creating what we call meta mysteries. This is when the writer withholds relevant information the point-of-view character knows just to reveal it later. In a character retelling, that means readers should know anything important that the past character knows; they need that to be immersed in the story.
That means the future narrator is free to hide any knowledge they’ve gained since then – or give hints about it whenever they want. This is a really handy way of inserting tense foreshadowing. Let’s apply this to an example story.
Naya is headed to meet an old friend, Sal, at a secret location they agreed on. The two were previously close, until the day Naya ratted out Sal for being a resistance member. Years have passed, and Naya’s now part of the resistance herself. She wants to reconcile with her old friend and make up for what she did. She doesn’t know that after getting turned in to the authorities, Sal was forced to become a government spy. The meeting is a trap for her that Sal’s about to spring.
Now, let’s say future Naya is recounting her arrival at this secret meeting. Future Naya knows this meeting is a trap, but she doesn’t have to tell readers. However, she still might give heavy hints that something will go wrong. That will help raise the tension as past Naya goes into the meeting. To keep Sal’s betrayal a surprise despite these hints, future Naya’s hints might mislead readers into thinking the government is onto both Naya and Sal.
On the other hand, the history between Naya and Sal is something that past Naya knows. It’s also very relevant to the character interactions and the emotions Naya experiences during the scene. Future Naya should fill readers in about that; otherwise, they won’t be able to feel the full emotional power of the moment.
For instance, below is an example of narration that could set up for Sal to call in a troop of government enforcers.
I was so careful to put my best foot forward with Sal. I’d recited my apology, brought a thoughtful gift, and my action plan for repairing the damage I’d done was all ready to go. Unfortunately, I was less careful in making sure that no one could crash our party. I figured I could wait until after our meeting to install surveillance around the new site.
When I finally snuck out during curfew and mounted the rickety courthouse steps, I should have seen the warning signs. The building had no litter, debris, or weeds. No place the government overlooked was that clean.
Future narrators are also omniscient-like because they have no time restrictions on their commentary. For them, the story is long past, and they’re probably recounting it as they lounge by the fire. This is different from a limited narrator during unfolding events, who creates commentary by thinking about events as they happen. A future narrator can pause right when their old self is about to be beheaded and rant about their philosophy on life. If an unfolding narrator did that, it would suggest the executioner is standing around doing nothing while the viewpoint character has a good think.
For instance, take this excerpt from All Systems Red, the first book in the Murderbot Diaries.
I yelled, “No!” which I’m not supposed to do; I’m always supposed to speak respectfully to the clients, even when they’re about to accidentally commit suicide. HubSystem could log it and it could trigger punishment through the governor module. If it wasn’t hacked.
Fortunately, the rest of the humans yelled “No!” at the same time.
The above commentary doesn’t feel like it’s creating an unnatural pause in the dialogue because it’s not happening when the dialogue happens. It’s easy to tell because the narrator switches to present tense.
In addition to having all the time in the world, the narrator of a character retelling knows they are talking to an outside audience, not just thinking to themself. That means they’ll deliberately shape the story to make it more engaging. Are you stressing over how to tell your readers what your viewpoint character looks like? No need: the future narrator can just straight up say what they looked like at the time, for the explicit purpose of informing their audience. “Back then, I still had a full head of curly black hair, but I didn’t get out much, so my muscles were more like limp noodles than brawny iron pumps.”
Together, the time and intention of a future narrator gives writers a lot more breathing room when it comes to adding fun commentary or important exposition. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Just because we can interrupt the narration to go on rants doesn’t mean we should.
The more the narrator pushes pause on the past events they are recounting, the more the pacing of the narration and the movement of the story slow down. Readers will get bored or annoyed if the story they’re trying to enjoy is constantly interrupted. If there’s too much commentary during dialogue, readers could forget the gist of the conversation. If action scenes are continuously paused, they’ll lose immediacy and feel less tense as a result. A flexible narration style can’t replace a writer’s good judgement.
Moving to Unfolding Events and Back
Because any commentary by a future narrator is out of the time and place of the actual story, it will reduce reader immersion. When events are light and the pace is slower, it often adds enough value to be worth this tradeoff. But when the story enters moments that are tense, whether that means action or emotional drama, future narration will dull those moments significantly. That’s when the future narrator should get out of the way.
First, let’s look at how you can even tell the future narrator is there. Sometimes they’re pretty subtle. The distinguishing signs of a retelling are:
- The narrator gives exposition that their past self is unlikely to think about at the time of the story, sometimes implying a change in perspective. “I was still training with my sword every day, as though my mother would actually let me use it.”
- The narrator occasionally refers to something ongoing in present tense instead of past. “And then I stole some of the fresh baked bread out of the oven. I love fresh bread.”
- Some, but not all, retelling narrators use second person to address their audience. “I know what you’re thinking, I should have just fessed up. But I was afraid that if I did, he’d dump me on the spot.”
An active future narrator also needs to clarify when character thoughts belong to their past self instead of their future self. That generally means distant narration of the past. The narrator will summarize past thinking with words such as pondered, wondered, believed, or decided. Direct thoughts from their past self will be in italics, and emotions are more likely to be directly named, e.g., “I was afraid.”
To transition the narration to unfolding, focus on the past and fade out future commentary. Then you can slowly close the distance. Let’s compare the difference.
- Future narrator: I was still training with my sword every day, as though my mother would actually let me use it.
- Distant narration from past character: I’d been training with my sword every day. I planned to do it in private until I was good enough to impress my mother, hoping she’d let me use it.
- Close narration from past character: I’d been training with my sword for hours every day. When I was good enough, I’d impress my mother, and she’d finally let me use it.
Most retellings don’t actually go past #2. This fades the future narrator to the background enough to keep it from dulling action sequences, but doesn’t achieve the intimacy and immersion of #3. However, staying distant allows the writer to reintroduce future commentary whenever they’d like, without ado.
If you do get all the way to close perspective, reintroducing the future narrator will require a more careful transition. If the close narrator casually mentions something the past character doesn’t know, it could feel like a break in perspective.
One option for transitioning back is simply to go slowly, using more narration at level #2 for a bit before reintroducing the future narrator. For instance, take this excerpt from Storm Front, first book of the Dresden Files.
I lit a few candles for her, then took one with me into the bathroom. Think, Harry. Get awake, and get your head clear. What to do?
Get clean, I told myself. You smell like a horse. Get some cool water over your head and work this out. Linda Randall is going to be here in a minute, and you need to figure out how to keep Susan from prying her nose into the murders.
So advised, I agreed with myself and hurriedly got undressed and into the shower. I don’t use a water heater, and consequently I am more than used to cold showers.
The first paragraph above is in close perspective. Harry’s thoughts aren’t marked in any way; they are just the narration. In the next paragraph, they are specifically attributed as Harry’s thoughts, widening the distance. The next paragraph gets even more distant by summarizing more; his thoughts are no longer written out at all. Finally, the narrator makes a statement in present tense, indicating a future perspective.
If you need to move faster, time transitions will make the change in narration style clearer:
- Years later, I would come to think of that moment as…
- At the time, I thought I was clever…
- As it turned out, that was the last time I saw her…
- Nowadays, I ignore such nonsense, but back then…
If you used second person to address readers in the story’s opening, you can also bring that back as a pretty blatant sign you’re shifting perspective. Just follow whatever conventions you established previously.
Developing Your Character Voice
A first-person retelling is a great way to practice creating a character voice. It gives writers the freedom to express themselves and encourages the type of writing that brings a narrator to life in any perspective. While a retelling requires an engaging voice to make up for lost immersion, it doesn’t put nearly as much pressure on the narrator as omniscient perspective does.
What a Conversational Style Looks Like
Writers have more than one way to entertain readers with their narration. Great atmosphere and beautiful description will help in any perspective. However, a first-person retelling is particularly well suited to a conversational tone, because the conceit is that they are in conversation with the reader. This can both add novelty and build attachment by making the main character more personable.
A conversational tone means the narrator is speaking as though they are in a relaxed atmosphere with a close friend. They are more likely to:
- Share frank opinions about the people and places in their life. “Ed was a sweet old guy, but his cookies tasted like they had more cigarette ash than flour.”
- Make jokes. They could make dramatic understatements or even make false statements only to say they’re just kidding. “The lock was stuck, but I fixed it, no problem. Of course, by ‘fix,’ I mean I just smashed the whole chest open.”
- Add in colorful anecdotes or details, as though the narrator is briefly sidetracked. The trick is to keep from doing too much. “When I got on the bus, only the third seat on the left was open. That was the one our class dog peed on during our field trip last year. So I shared a seat with Maggie instead, even though I knew she would poke me in the ribs every minute.”
- Use casual language. A conversational narrator is less likely to use obscure vocabulary and more likely to use slang, swearing, idioms, or pop culture references. “So Raven went off to do her science thing while I was left to roam the mall all day like it was the eighties.”
Like with any narration style, using specific and evocative language is a plus. For instance, saying cookies taste like they have “more cigarette ash than flour” is more novel than saying they taste generically “bad” or even that they taste like “ash.”
Below is an example of conversational narration from The Ten Thousand Doors of January.* The narrator shows self-awareness that indicates she’s talking to someone.
Something in the world shifted. I know that’s a shit description, pardon my unladylike language, but I don’t know how else to say it. It was like an earthquake that didn’t disturb a single blade of grass, an eclipse that didn’t cast a single shadow, a vast but invisible change.
Finding Your Conversational Voice
The easiest way to get started creating a character voice is simply to use your own. Since you are a human who engages in conversation, you too have a conversational voice waiting to be used.
Unfortunately, writers who have lots of exposure to academia or other types of formal writing can pick up habits that make their writing sound stiff. If that’s you, you may need to break the pattern of adopting a formal mindset whenever you use a keyboard.
Sometimes, simply using first person helps with this. If you still sound formal or bland, you can try:
- Imagining you’re talking to a specific person, such as your partner or best friend, when you type your story.
- Switching the context. You might type your story into an email, use letter paper, or record yourself speaking out loud before typing it up.
- Reading books that have a conversational voice right before you work on your story. However, if your style is easily influenced this way, you’ll want to stick to the same book.
It’s possible to get so conversational that your narration becomes filled with run-on sentences and sentence fragments, making it hard to read. If you’ve already kicked your clutter habit, that could also become an issue again. However, it’s usually easier to correct these problems with some editing than it would be to breathe life into bland prose.
Last, some settings are much easier to be conversational in than others. If you’re writing historical-ish fantasy, you’ll be doing this on hard mode. Much of what we consider conversational feels anachronistic in such fantasy settings. Modern day settings, followed by futuristic settings, will make it much easier to include the casual language and fun quips that come naturally.
Getting Into Character
If you have no problem creating a conversational voice, but it always feels the same or feels too much like you, you might want to focus on getting in the mindset of your narrating character. The internet has abundant advice on this, but in brief, below are some of the methods that appear to be the most helpful.
- Write up your character’s backstory in detail. Just don’t include all of it in your story! I have advice on how much backstory to include.
- If you engage in tabletop roleplaying, roleplay as your character or someone similar to them.
- Acting classes are good training for getting into character.
I also have an article that’s targeted toward understanding a character’s skewed perspective or emotional state: Reconciling Character Choices With Your Plot. It includes some advice for writing in a character’s mindset.
Once you get into character, remember: there are two different versions of your character! Consider how they’ve changed since the events you’re retelling.
Next time you open a book written in first person, ask yourself which version of the narrating character is telling the story. If it’s a version of the character from the future, does the narrator intrude often, or do they leave events to speak for themselves? Do they address the reader directly, or simply imply they’re entertaining an audience? If you want inspiration, you have many works to turn to.
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