Lost in Translation: First to Third and Back Again

Lots of commenters on the previous post said, “Write it in third and then change it back to first.” That doesn’t work for me (I’ve tried), which doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. But for me, it’s two different languages. It’s like saying, “Write it in English, and then translate it into German, and then translate that back into English.” If you’re talking about a page full of dialogue, it doesn’t matter much, but for anything else, I lose a lot in the translation both ways.

Here’s a piece from Maybe This Time:

Andie looked around the room and saw ancient heavy furniture and a bed covered with old blankets in various shades of drab. The only interesting things in the whole room were the stacks of comic books, papers, and pencils on the bedside tables that said Carter did something besides glare and eat, and the carpet at the end of the bed that was riddled with scorch marks. Pyro, she thought, and was grateful the house was mostly stone. She looked up to see Carter watching her, his face stolid, so she nodded and began to close the door only to stop when she took a second look at his bedside table.

That’s third person limited, in Andie’s point of view; it’s deep in her head, but even so there’s some distance there. Now here it is put into first person by changing only the pronouns:

I looked around the room and saw ancient heavy furniture and a bed covered with old blankets in various shades of drab. The only interesting things in the whole room were the stacks of comic books, papers, and pencils on the bedside tables that said Carter did something besides glare and eat, and the carpet at the end of the bed that was riddled with scorch marks. Pyro, I thought, and was grateful the house was mostly stone. I looked up to see Carter watching me, his face stolid, so I nodded and began to close the door only to stop when I took a second look at his bedside table.

Andie comes across cold here, just reporting what she sees, with a couple of snarky references. If somebody is actually telling you things, there has to be more personality there, more immediate emotional response, unless the character is one of those just-the-facts-ma’am guys:

I looked around the room and saw heavy furniture that was older than God and a bed covered with blankets that were older than Mrs. Crumb. But there were stacks of comic books, papers, and pencils on the bedside tables, so Carter did something besides glare and eat, which was cheering. Then I noticed that the carpet at the end of the bed was full of blackened holes. So the kid really was a pyro. Fabulous. Thank God the house was mostly stone. I looked up to see Carter watching me, no expression on his face at all, so I nodded, trying to look cheerful and supportive, and began to close the door only to stop when I saw what else was on his bedside table.

If you’re in first person, you’re not in narrator voice, telling what’s going on deep inside Andie’s head, you’re Andie, giving a running impression of what she’s seeing and feeling. The voice, the outlook is completely different.

So why not write it that way in third person? Take the first person and put it back into third:

She looked around the room and saw heavy furniture that was older than God and a bed covered with blankets that were older than Mrs. Crumb. But there were stacks of comic books, papers, and pencils on the bedside tables, so Carter did something besides glare and eat, which was cheering. Then she noticed that the carpet at the end of the bed was full of blackened holes. So the kid really is a pyro, she thought. Fabulous. Thank God the house is mostly stone. She looked up to see Carter watching her, no expression on his face at all, so she nodded, trying to look cheerful and supportive, and began to close the door only to stop when she saw what else was on his bedside table.

The change from first back to third works better than the others, but it’s too frenetic. If you’re writing an entire book in third person, that intense, colloquial voice gets tiring because you never get any distance. Plus, there’s just too much stuff in that paragraph, seventeen more words than the original third person paragraph that did exactly the same thing. First person needs more words because of all the stuff that people think; third person can elide right through that.

So let’s go the other way. Here’s a first person piece from Lavender’s Blue:

I saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one bright April afternoon when the air was crisp with the scent of rain that might turn to snow (spring in Ohio is iffy). You only have to stay for an hour or two, I promised myself, but right before the turn-off to my mother’s street, I felt that old clutch in my stomach that said, Get out of here. My mother’s a lovely woman—well, okay, no, she’s not, but she’s not a beast, that’s my aunt ML—but life had been nothing but bad for me in Burney and nothing but good since I’d left, and Terri Clark was singing “Bigger Windows” from my iPod speakers egging me to keep on going to Chicago, so I floored the Camry, running from my home town like the rat I was. The old car coughed a little because it does not like being floored, but it was hurtling along like a champ when I heard the siren. I looked in the rear view mirror, decided that of course the cop had to be after me, and pulled over onto the muddy edge of the two-lane highway.

And here it is again, in third with just the pronouns changed:

Liz saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one bright April afternoon when the air was crisp with the scent of rain that might turn to snow (spring in Ohio is iffy). You only have to stay for an hour or two, she promised herself, but right before the turn-off to her mother’s street, she felt that old clutch in her stomach that said, Get out of here. Her mother was a lovely woman—well, okay, no, she wasn’t, but she wasn’t a beast, that’s was Liz’s aunt ML—but life had been nothing but bad for Liz in Burney and nothing but good since she’d left, and Terri Clark was singing “Bigger Windows” from her iPod speakers egging her to keep on going to Chicago, so she floored the Camry, running from her home town like the rat she was. The old car coughed a little because it did not like being floored, but it was hurtling along like a champ when she heard the siren. She looked in the rear view mirror, decided that of course the cop had to be after her, and pulled over onto the muddy edge of the two-lane highway.

That paragraph doesn’t even make sense in third person as it’s written. Who’s making comments about Ohio weather and Liz’s mom? That becomes authorial intrusion and moves the third limited POV close to third omniscient which is fine if you want a narrator’s voice to dominate (see anything by Terry Pratchett for an excellent example of this), but if you want the voice to be Liz, then it has to belong to Liz, it has to be put into thoughts–My mother’s a lovely woman, Liz thought, well, okay, no, she’s not, but she’s not a beast, that’s my aunt ML—and they don’t fit in the immediacy of that situation. She would not think that then. So you cut out everything that’s not authorial intrusion and you get this:

Liz saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one April afternoon. You only have to stay for an hour or two, she promised herself, but right before the turn-off to her mother’s street, she felt that old clutch in her stomach that said, Get out of here, so she floored the Camry and raced past the turn-off. The old car coughed a little because it did not like being floored, but it was hurtling along like a champ when she heard the siren. She looked in the rear view mirror, decided that of course the cop had to be after her, and pulled over onto the muddy edge of the two-lane highway.

That’s perfectly good third person, but you lose all of Liz’s commentary. For me that’s always been a good trade-off–I’d rather have short and clean than long and chatty–but not for this book. This book is about Liz going home and revising everything she thought she knew, so it’s felt right to do it in first person all along. I really do like third better, I think it’s sharper and cleaner and easier to read and gives the reader a lot more white space to collaborate in, plus shorter: the original first person paragraph was 195 words; the last third person version was 115. It took me eighty more words to write that in Liz’s first person POV; for me that’s the writing equivalent of eating a dozen Krispy Kremes: I’m a little sick afterwards and feel the need to get rid of some of it.

Then try to put that back into first person:

I saw the Welcome to Burney sign around two o’clock one April afternoon. You only have to stay for an hour or two, I promised myself, but right before the turn-off to her mother’s street, I felt that old clutch in her stomach that said, Get out of here, so I floored the Camry and raced past the turn-off. The old car coughed a little because it did not like being floored, but it was hurtling along like a champ when I heard the siren. I looked in the rear view mirror, decided that of course the cop had to be after her, and pulled over onto the muddy edge of the two-lane highway.

Again, first to third works, it’s clean, but it’s flat. If Liz is that just-the-facts heroine, it’s fine, but if she has a lively inner voice and an opinion on things, she’s just not on the page.

Which brings us to the non-sex scene I put up. It’s basically that last paragraph: flat impersonal summary. Putting it into third person won’t help fix it because I wrote it in third person with first person pronouns, subconsciously trying to get that distance back. What I have to do is junk that entirely, stop being a wuss, and write it in first person this time. Point of view is not pronouns alone, it’s voice and distance and worldview. I always knew that, but knowing something in the abstract and remembering it when you write are two different things. So I owe you all for making me think about this. Argh People to the rescue once again. Thank you.

37 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: First to Third and Back Again

  1. It is amazing that you could figure this out. I think that type of reasoning process is pretty unique.

    Thank you for walking us through it. Not only did I learn quite a bit, it was fun to stretch myself trying to wrap my brain around it. Once I got it, it was obvious, but I certainly wouldn’t have figured it out on my own. Not at this point, anyway.

    Hopefully the scene will now be much easier to write!

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  2. You are an amazing writer. I am not a writer – I can see what you’re saying and I can respect and get what you are driving towards. But honestly I think each of you examples has merit. I love a great story and you tell a great story. The craft is a vital element but your voice shines through in each example. Liz is there on the page – even in these small samples I feel her.

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  3. This does not relate to first or third person writing, but you may find it helpful with the whole “Liz going home and revising everything she thought she knew” thing.

    I am 45 years old. I have spent my whole working life avoiding the family business like the plague – right up until six months ago. What started as a few hours a week has gone up to a minimum of 20. I have had a lot of emotional stuff to work out over the last few months.

    Point 1: Don’t let things get to me. I am not the same person I was 20, 30 or 40 years ago, and by extension neither are my siblings or parents. Sometimes people pull a certain face, or say things in a certain way, just because they have always done it that way. It does not mean I am a waste of space.

    Which leads to point 2: I’m clever, and good at what I do. I know a lot of stuff. I need to keep mixing with people who freely acknowledge that if I am going to stay sane.

    Point 3: If something needs doing focus on the task. Generally ignore personality clashes and just keep talking in a voice of sweet reason.

    Point 4: Don’t be afraid to tell a family member that they’re being a dickhead and you’re fed up with their behaviour. Sometimes a chain needs to be yanked.

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    1. Very interesting! I have a sibling who has started consulting for our parents’ business, and I’m passing along your words of wisdom.

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  4. Thanks. This helps clarify my usual aversion to first person. I like a little distance, too, and the conciseness. Look forward to your first person sex scene, though. I think I’m going to like Liz 🙂

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  5. And now I understand why the book I’m writing in third person sounds so flat and distant to me. First person comes so much easier to me and in the third (which may not even be written well, I can’t tell at this point) my protagonist feels absent to me.

    Ugh.

    Crusie, I love that you are so learned, and I have gleaned a lot from reading what you have to say about writing, but sometimes I wonder what the heck I think I’m doing writing books. I know absolutely piss all about what I’m doing. Luckily, (or not depending on your thoughts on the matter,) I’ll have forgotten that I know nothing by tomorrow and I’ll try again.

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      1. I agree, this is my problem too. My book sounds completely flat, I had it originally in first person but as you said Jenny it sounded fake and it was exhausting as I was telling every single tiny detail. I went back and realized many of the books I love to reread are in third person so I started over in third. The only problem is I’m still over detailing, I need to learn to back off but still make it engaging.
        I’m starting to wonder if I should take a creative writing course to re-establish to basics… any one have any opinions if this would help?

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        1. Any course you take on any subject always depends completely on the teacher. Deb Dixon is phenomenal is she’s giving a workshop anywhere near you.

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    1. KG, your comment makes me worry some. With many things, you need to know enough to start but you don’t need to be an expert to continue. You become an expert by continuing. I would fully support your desire to learn more of your craft, but would hate if you put off the practice of your craft to get to where you “know what you’re doing”. If you ever watched Big Ideas (title?) with Donny Deutch, a truly inspirational show about entrepreneurs, almost universally the most successful didn’t know what they were getting into but kept doing it. It’s one thing to learn from others to avoid some mistakes but we can’t prevent all mistakes or all “bad” writing in advance. Just write what you can now. If something is truly not working you can take courses and study and fix it but don’t let it stop you.

      You did say you’d be back at it tomorrow but still, I see a lot of women who put off doing until they have credentials and think it’s a giant mistake we perpetuate that if we aren’t the best we have no business trying until we’re credentailed or not better than some arbitrary barrier. I’m not saying go build a bridge without engineering training or write without knowing grammar but you should not restrict yourself because you don’t feel qualified. I think only the young and ignorant ever feel truly qualified.

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      1. What C.O. said. Lots of people with MFAs are terrible writers and lots of people with no degrees are fabulous. I think the only credential you need to be a writer is somebody saying, “I like this,” even if that somebody is you.

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    2. Whatcha writing? Moonlighting in Vermont and California Schemin’ are both first person. Something really different?

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      1. I wrote the entire Glimmer Girls in third person. I’m currently rewriting, still in third person – although Lani reccommended I write it in first. I just haven’t given up on writing third person yet, but I’m thinking it’s too distant at the moment.

        I’m also writing a short story in third person – two POVs so we’ll see how that goes.

        In addition to those I’m finishing up the third Bree novel in first person. It’s still my favorite way to write, although I know many people don’t like to read first person.

        And don’t worry C.O. I have abandoned projects mid-stream, but not when I’ve got people bugging me every day to continue! I hate to disappoint people. Especially readers.

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  6. I wrote my first three books in third person. They told the stories of three women in their late twenties. Then my editor told me that the publishing house decided to focus on an older target group and had I ever considered writing about older heroines that were closer to my age (I just turned 55)? Since I had been pondering that question myself, I happily agreed. Just recently I sold my sixth manuscript to them, ever since then dealing with women in their mid-forties to fifties. And guess what? Without even consciously deciding it, I wrote the three last books in first person. Because it’s so much closer to my own experience. At least that’s what I think is the reason.

    I don’t write sex scenes, however. Like romance movies, I lead to the moment, then fade out, and return at the point when the hot and sweaty part is over. It’s probably the way I am – I’d never talk about my sex life to anybody but my husband and my gynecologist.

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  7. Where else but here would I learn this: Point of view is not pronouns alone, it’s voice and distance and worldview.

    Thank you, Jenny.

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  8. I see what you’re saying, the scene clearly comes across as being flat in the change to first person. I’ve only ever written in third, just naturally started there. We’re a family of avid readers and they’ve often asked why don’t you write in first person…give it a go. Perhaps it’s like acting, you have to pretend to be somebody else. Thanks for this great lesson. 🙂

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    1. Great point, I think there could be a certain similarity to acting, particularly in trying to write in first-person the sort of things that you personally find very difficult to talk to people about. For some, it’s specific sexual experiences; for others, it might be family issues or traumas. So you have to become the kind of person who *can* talk about such things, for the length of the scene (whether it’s one acted or written). Maybe looking into the techniques that actors use to portray believable sexual passion would help? I would guess that with the standardization of Method, it’s commonplace to think of one’s own fantasies and then transpose the emotions those arouse (pun unintended) into one’s acting out a scene that might not really be what the actor is personally into at all.

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  9. You’ve given us a nugget of wisdom, concise, and precise in illustration. Thank you for sharing. I’ll carry this chunk of narrative knowledge forward within me.

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  10. Thank you for making us a part of this.

    This bit is exactly what I agree with I really do like third better, I think it’s sharper and cleaner and easier to read and gives the reader a lot more white space to collaborate in.

    I just wish anyone who scoffs at romance novels/ romantic fiction would see this. They need to understand that just as much craft goes into the writing.

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  11. I discovered the same thing when I wrote the first Kristina Douglas book. I started it in third person, got almost halfway through, and realized it wouldn’t work. So I switched to first, and was amazed at how different the tone was. With first person the narrative was much livelier, much funnier. Then my editor made me strip most of the humor out (clearly she didn’t think it was as funny as I did) but it was an amazing lesson in the difference. I wrote my first six or seven books in first person before switching, and at that point it was fairly seamless (or maybe I was too young to notice, being in my 30s at the time).
    Ah, youth!

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  12. Huh. One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how Japanese people try to speak Japanese in English. Frex, instead of saying, “hey, thanks!” they want something more convoluted like, “thank you so much for your kindness.” (bad example; my friend is editing an English textbook, though, that has tons of “Japanese in English” examples of awfulness.)

    Anyway, my point is that it seems like you are writing the sex scene in first person, but you are feeling it in third person.

    (-: LOL, still trying to think my way through it. Makes sense in a very visceral way, but it’s really hard to put it into words without waving my hands around to show space and distance. (I’m trying to re-explain it to myself, you see.) (-: You manage to do it without the charades!

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  13. Ok, am I the only one who stopped short, trying to remember what was on the bedside table? Now I have to go look it up.

    I don’t write any more (did a bit in middle school), but I read a lot, and this is very insightful. It reminds me of the paper I did where I was supposed to analyze language usage in college, and I chose a paragraph in one of Terry Pratchett’s books (one of the paragraphs on the Library). It wasn’t until then that I really understood that his writing was not only entertaining and engaging, it was truly well written, too! Thanks!

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    1. Pratchett is brilliant. Good choice.

      Bedside table:
      “There was a lighter on it, a cheap plastic job. She opened the door wider and saw two more on the other table.”

      That’s from my final draft in the computer; the finished book may have been slightly different, but it was definitely a lighter for setting fires.

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      1. Ooh, thanks! Now I don’t have to dig through things to find my copy.

        Maybe you could think of first person as talking on the phone to your best friend, rather than on a bus? I don’t typically dish details about sex there either, but it’s far more likely than on a bus (too many potential listeners). Either way, good luck!

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  14. Great examples!! I’ve written both in first person and in third. After just finishing a first person novel, I’m now under deadline to write one in third and my head feels like it’ll explode lol.

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  15. I am currently re-reading the “Outlander” books by Diana Gabaldon. They are written, for the most part, in the first person from Claire’s point of view. Claire has plenty of sex with Jamie, especially in the first book. Perhaps reading other first person examples might help get the creative juices flowing?

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  16. I once rewrote something in third as an exercise and even the dialogue changed. How could the dialogue change! But it did.

    I love first, but I wrote a whole book in third and a whole book in omni to prove I could.

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  17. Thank you for this! I have been working on a manuscript that is in first person. I tried switching it third person to see if it would be cleaner and easier to read, and I even spent some time reading Suzanne Brockmann’s really helpful write-up on deep third person POV, but it just lost the sparkle it needed and wanted to have. This blog post really articulates why.

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  18. You’re so right. Parenthetical statements within a description of a character’s thoughts always take me right out of the book. I wonder if they happen from people following the advice and changing from first to third person?

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