The first person perspective has huge potential for engaging the reader intimately with the story and presents the opportunity for powerful characterization. Read on to discover five techniques that will creative an immersive narrative and keep your readers totally absorbed in your character’s world.

This article will cover:

A quick overview of the first-person point of view

Filter words: why they create distance and how to avoid them

Why too much wondering can be a problem

Using dialogue tags in a first-person narrative

Using thought tags in a first-person narrative

Why it’s important to keep things objective

What is first-person point of view?

Point of view (POV) is the perspective from which the reader discovers what’s going on in the world of a book. In the first-person viewpoint, the story is told from the character’s own perspective, in their own voice, using the pronoun “I’. The reader has direct access to the thoughts, emotions and sensations of that character; they essentially take up residence in that character’s head for the duration of the story. Some books have more than one first-person narrator. This is called multiple first-person narration, and usually authors stick to one first-person narrator per chapter or scene. By its nature, the first-person perspective draws the reader in close. And yet there are some subtle details that can accumulatively widen that distance.

1. Filter out the filter words

Filter words are verbs that draw attention to the fact that what we are reading is being told by someone else. Here are some examples:

notice, realise, see, hear, taste, feel, decide, remember, recognise

They increase narrative distance between the reader and the viewpoint character because, rather than being shown what happens, as a lived experience, we are being told.

A really easy way to make your prose more immersive is to run a search for any filter words and recast sentences to avoid them. Here are a few examples of how that would work in practice:

I recognised that guy from Sophie’s party last weekend.

That guy… He was at Sophie’s party last weekend.

 

I feel a cold hand grip my shoulder.

A cold hand grips my shoulder.

 

I noticed that there were three loaves of bread missing from the basket.

Three loaves of bread were missing from the basket.

2. Stop wondering

It’s normal and necessary for your character to get absorbed in their own thoughts every once in a while. Getting an insight into a character’s thought processes helps the reader to form a clearer picture of what makes them tick. But the way this is handled is key: too much “I wondered whether” and “I wasn’t sure if” and the character can come across as self-absorbed and, well, a bit wishy-washy. And once again, those “I” pronouns draw the reader’s attention to who is doing the wondering, distracting from what they are wondering about.

Instead, use questions and statements to weave in these moments of introspection more seamlessly:

I wondered if Endor would keep his word and return the crystal to its rightful home.

Maybe Endor would return the crystal to its rightful home. Maybe not. Time would tell.

I still had no idea what the cute guy at the gym was called.

But what was Cute Gym Guy’s name?

I’m not sure how long I’ll have to wait for the next bus.

There’s still no sign of the next bus. This could take a while.

3. Leave out unnecessary dialogue tags

In written dialogue, the part that comes outside and after (or sometimes before) the quoted speech are called dialogue tags. They are used to indicate which character is speaking:

“It’s time for lunch,” I said.

“Yes, I’m getting hungry,” he said.

But they only need to be there if the reader wouldn’t otherwise be able to keep track of who is saying what. When your first-person character is in conversation, especially if it’s with only one other character, you can eliminate a lot of them:

“It’s time for lunch.”

“Yes, I’m getting hungry,” he agreed.

“Shall we go to Fat Leo’s?”

“Hmmmm… I’m not in the mood for Italian.”

“Meg’s Café?”

“Sold!” he said.

4. Ditch the thought tags

Thought tags are similar to dialogue tags, in that they let the reader know which character is doing the thinking. In a third-person narration, a thought might be formatted as follows:

Jasper realised that the bridge had collapsed in the middle. Nope, there’s no way of getting across, he thought.

The italics indicate the thought, and the tag “he thought” specify who thought it. In a first-person narration, the thought tag and italics are not needed, because ALL thoughts are the character’s own.

The bridge had collapsed in the middle. Nope, there was no way of getting across.

5. Keep things objective

By focussing on what is being experienced (the objective), rather than on who is experiencing it (the subjective), you can keep the reader immersed in the moment. To achieve this in your writing, limit the use of the “I” pronoun, so that it serves as a subtle anchor, and concentrate on what is going on around the character in their exterior world.

I’m surprised that Geralt made it. He was at least seven tankards down when closing time was called at the tavern last night.

In this subjective version, the “I” pronoun reminds the reader that the narrator is the one being surprised – it isn’t necessary, because in a first-person narration the narrator’s presence is a given.

That Geralt is here is surprising. He was at least seven tankards down when closing time was called at the tavern last night.

In this objective version, there is no mention of “I”. We are still deeply immersed in the character’s experience of being surprised, without being distracted by a reminder of who was surprised, and our focus is on the events that led up to this moment.

Attention! POV Breach!

A POV breach is when the writing steps outside of the viewpoint character’s frame of reference, such as by describing something that the viewpoint character cannot see, hear or feel, or by giving the reader access to the internal experience of a non-viewpoint character. When this happens, it can reduce the immediacy and plausibility of the novel. At best it will temporarily jar the reader out of the flow of the story; at worst, the reader could find it so distracting that they lose interest altogether.

Summing up

The first-person viewpoint is a good choice of perspective if you want to write a story that keeps the reader close to your main character. There are some tweaks you can make to your writing which, though small, accumulatively will have the effect of maintaining that. Keep this list by your side as a reminder and you’ll be well on your way to creating an immersive novel that your reader won’t want to put down.

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