The Use of “I” in First Person Narration
Graham Broadley wrote:
If I am writing a short story in the first person are there any tips or tricks for avoiding the overuse of the word ‘i’? My usual writing style leans towards short sentences but this seems to increase the frequency of the word “I” popping up. Are longer sentences a way round the problem? Also, I’m trying to avoid sentences starting with “I”. Do you have any advice, tips and tricks for writing in the first person?
It is inevitable that writing in first person will require frequent use of I, me, and my–especially I. This should not present a problem.
In a first person narration, the pronoun “I” is probably as invisible to the reader as the word “said.” Besides, the point of writing in first person is to establish an intimate bond with the reader. The reader becomes the “I” of the story. Listen to your own words and thoughts during the course of a day. The word “I” is probably the most frequent word that forms in your mind and comes from your mouth.
Plenty of websites discuss the use of first person narration, but I think the best way to see what works and what doesn’t is to analyze a published work of fiction. You might want to analyze some of your favorite writers to see how they deal with the pronoun I.
For example, in preparing this post I took a close look at the way Laurie R. King handles it.
Laurie R. King is a prolific writer, averaging a book a year since the publication of her first novel in 1993. She has created not one, but two mystery series. One is set in contemporary California and features Inspector Kate Martinelli. The other is set in the era of Sherlock Holmes and features Mary Russell. King has also written several stand-alone novels.
So far I’ve read only some of the Mary Russell books. I find them intelligent, entertaining, and unputdownable. I’ll analyze a few pages to see how King deals with the problems mentioned by our reader.
In the first chapter of A Letter of Mary, about 2,000 words, the pronoun “I” appears 60 times.
Note: All of these figures are approximate.
Here’s the breakdown on how the pronoun I is distributed:
Dorothy Ruskin (in a letter) 14.
The paragraph with the greatest number contains nine:
”Megalomania, perhaps; senility, never.” I stood and watched a small fishing boat lying off shore, and I wondered what to do. The work was going slowly, and I could ill afford to take even half a day away from it. On the other hand, it would be a joy to spend some time with that peculiar old lady, whom I indeed remembered very well. Also, Holmes seemed interested. It would at least provide a distraction until I could decide what needed doing for him. “All right, we’ll have her here a day sooner, then, on the Wednesday. I’ll suggest the noon train. I’m certain Mrs Hudson can be persuaded to leave something for our tea, so we need not risk our visitor’s health. I also think I’ll go to Town tomorrow and drop by the British Museum for a while. Will you come?”
Sentence length does not seem to have much to do with the frequency of I. King’s sentences tend to be long. Sentences that begin with the pronoun I don’t particularly jump out. In the analyzed passage, 14 of the narrator’s 39 subject pronouns begin sentences.
Bottom line: Write your first person story without worrying about the pronouns. You can always see ways to reduce them in revision, if you think it’s necessary.
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