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The I(s) Have It…But Should They?

When writing from the first-person point of view, it’s easy to trip into the pitfall of expressing each and every detail from the protagonist’s perspective, which too often leads to opening each paragraph––too often each sentence––with I. I this. I that. I,I,I. Aye-yie-yie!

Does that mean first–person writing is taboo? Certainly not. But consider that reading an abundance of I,I,I on every page can dull a reader’s senses. It can also detour writers into becoming lazy and committing one of creative writing’s cardinal sins––TELLING not SHOWING. Think about it. When the protagonist continually describes what they sense with I saw, I watched, I heard, I smelled, etc., it limits the reader’s ability to imagine the scene, and deters their desire to actively participate in the story.

So what’s a writer to do? How about relying on description? Instead of telling readers what the protagonist sees, hears, or smells, describe the scene, its sounds, and/or its odors, particularly when the protagonist is the only character in the scene. In that instance, readers already understand that everything sensed is from the protagonist’s perspective. The perfect scenario to give the I(s) a break.

In my first novel, for example, I have Murphy P.I. sitting on the St. Louis riverfront, contemplating his next move, while eyeing maritime activities on the Mississippi. The first draft read like an I convention––I saw, I stared, I realized, I heard. My remedy to disrupt the convention amounted to utilizing description to dump the I(s) and switch focus to the objects being seen, smelled, and heard. Doing so allows those sensed items to become the subjects of the sentences, which now permits readers to picture the scene in their minds, rather than being told what happens.

Learning that lesson heightened my awareness toward I(s) overwhelming the page, and also served to improve my descriptive skills. But be aware that dabbling with description is like seasoning a roast: Sprinkling the right amount of well-chosen spices enhances the meat’s flavor. Too little spice makes the roast bland as shoe leather. Too much spice and the roast fades, replaced by an overbearing sensation that can destroy an otherwise terrific meal.

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