Thursday, 3 May 2012

Can Too Many Pronouns Spoil The Story?

There will be times when you suspect you have too many pronouns in your story. I, I, I or he, she, he, she. And as soon as you become conscious of this problem you will start seeing them everywhere and it will feel like a big problem.

First thing to realise is that it’s not a big problem. Pronouns are part of writing stories, you’re just being hyper-sensitive. A good way to calm yourself down is to pick up a book by a good writer and look through it. You’ll find pronouns packed to the rafters and pouring off the page. It’s normal.

However, there are times when you genuinely need to reduce pronouns, and that’s what this post is going to be about.

The two main issues are these:

1) In first person POV, even though you will definitely end up with I, I, I all over the place — which is to be expected — sometimes you will have a paragraph, maybe only a few lines long, where the letter 'I' appears stacked up against itself so it becomes very noticeable. And you may also find that as you look down the left hand side of the page, every paragraph seems to begin with I. This needs to be dealt with because it's distracting to the eye.

2) In all POVs, but particularly in third person, there will be times when there are multiple characters in a scene, two or more of whom will be of the same sex. When you start using pronouns it won’t always be clear which person you’re referring to. And having to keep using their names feels clunky.

To deal with the question of the ubiquitous 'I' first, in order to reduce all the self reference in first person POV takes a lot of tedious reworking of sentences. And it requires a good knowledge of grammar and syntax. Wait, come back...

I held up my hand to ward off the photographers. I closed my eyes against the blinding flashes of light. When I opened them again, I realised I was trapped and I would have to go back the way I had come.

What you don’t want to do is change the writing into passive language, or have body parts or inanimate objects take on a life of their own.

So changes like ...realisation dawned on me.... or eyes closed.... is just going to read awkwardly. Unless the action is truly involuntary (e.g. My stomach churned at the sight of her mangled corpse...), this kind of phrasing makes the story read passive and makes the characters feel distant. Realisation moves like a separate entitiy. Eyes close independent of the person.

What you have to do is look at the scene as a whole, not line-by-line, and shift things round. 

As I said above, pronouns don’t trouble readers, but what is distracting is when similar words are all bunched up together. If you can fit in description, add small details, give actions to other characters, all these things can create space between words, which reduces the negative effects. 

But to do this you need a strong idea of the purpose and emotion of the scene, an understanding of what is passive writing and what isn’t, and a willingness to rewrite in a fairly drastic way.

The photographers rushed forward. I closed my eyes against the blinding flashes of light. When I opened them again, photographers blocked every exit. The only escape route was behind me, back to the car.

By shifting the emphasis onto experience (what’s happening) rather than the narrator’s reactions, you can cut down a lot of pronoun usage, and at the same time keep the reader within the character’s experience. It’s very easy to lose the meaning of the scene in convoluted syntax, so if you show it to a reader and they get confused, don't bother trying to explain it to them, you need to go back and clarify events on the page.

The second situation, where two or more characters of the same sex are present, is a lot simpler to sort out. Basically, clarity trumps brevity. You need to use character names, identifying features and new paragraphs to help the reader follow what’s happening.

Just having it be technically correct is not good enough. It’s always going to be easier for the writer to be able to tell which pronoun refers to whom because they have an understanding of the scene already. The reader doesn’t. 

Even if you have to use the same names again and again, that’s perfectly fine.  Readers want to know who’s doing what, they’ll go with the flow, so make sure there’s a  flow to go with.

It also helps if you structure the scene so not everybody is involved simultaneously. You may think you can have people do whatever they want whenever they want, as they do in real life, but you can’t. Not if you want to keep the reader engaged. You have to choreograph it like a dance.

Breaking up a scene with twelve characters in such a way that only two or three are active at any one time, and then switching between groups, makes it much easier to follow. This is a very technical thing, and the reason why you don’t often read a scene with twelve characters.

It also helps to give people things to do. It may sound a bit simplistic, but if one character is flipping burgers and another is watering the flowerbed, it becomes much easier to use their actions to help identify them. Sitting around a table all mirroring each other’s actions very quickly becomes a mess. Often choosing the right setting can make all the difference, and that choice is always up to you. A meeting can be held anywhere you damn well say.

And allow the focus to stay with each character a little longer. Don’t jump between characters too quickly. Allowing the reader to see what a character is doing helps them work out the geography of a scene, who is where relative to each other. 

In a fast paced scene, you can use actions to pinpoint characters.

Mike fell from the ledge. Dave leaned over and saw him hit the ground far below. He hit the ledge with his fists and cried out in despair.

Even though it could be debated, technically speaking, who hit the ledge with their fists, because I've placed people geographically it is much more likely Dave than Mike. And more importantly, it can be read at speed without losing the flow. And that's the most important part. There's no point being right if the reader has to go back and reread to check, they're no longer immersed in the story.

I realise this can be very technical to sort out, and not everyone has the aptitude for it (not naturally anyway). But if you are struggling with this problem, feel free to post a sample in the comments and I’ll be happy to help if I can (and if I can’t I’m sure some of the other writers who visit this blog will be able to).
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Kaye Draper said...

Nice post! I write a lot of first person, and there are a lot of ...I...
I'm always going back on proof reading and changing sentence structure to avoid it. I wonder though, if I need to look again. I still keep my action focused on the MC, for example:

"I held up my hand to ward off the photographers, closing my eyes against the blinding flashes of light. When I opened them again, I was trapped."

mooderino said...

@Kaye-trimming and simplifying will get rid of the pronouns, but it will also tend to lessen the tone or emotion so it reads more neutral and matter of fact.

PT Dilloway said...

I'd prefer to err on the side of caution and having too many than risk having too few and no one knows what I'm talking about. Or one story I read recently kept referring to people like "the blond boy" or "the blond youth" which is just lame when you could easily say Joe or Bob or Sam or whoever.

mooderino said...

@PT-I think any time you make it too noticeable you distract from the flow. It's like when characters find themselves in front of mirrors so the writer can describe what they look like, comes across as too deliberate.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My critique partners had me change a few 'he's' to names to designate who was speaking.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Good post.

It amazes me how frequently readers aren't aware of the rule that a pronoun ties to the last-used proper noun.

That would often simplify things...but we have to write for everyone.


Carissa said...

Great post, thanks for sharing! These are all really good tips, and now I want to go back over my WIP to check for this!

mooderino said...

@Alex-better safe than sorry.

@Mac-even with that rule it can get confusing when there are lots of characters present, especially whem long complicated sentences are in use.

@Carissa-my pleasure.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Ever since my editor pointed it out to me, it bugs me to read too many consecutive sentences starting with the same word - and most often it's pronouns.

Golden Eagle said...

I've wondered about reducing pronouns, noticing them in what I write, but there really aren't that many posts about it. Thanks for this!

Yesenia said...

Thanks for the post. I just started writing again today, and boy, was I aware of how many times I was using those pronouns. But I made myself ignore them and worry about it later in the rewrite. This made me feel better about doing that :)

dolorah said...

Too many pronouns (or I statements) will keep me from finishing a novel. And I get tired of reading descriptions of persons quite easily. Maybe its just me, but I prefer a name instead of physical or relationship description.

Really good post moody :)


mooderino said...

@Ciara-you can become overly sensitive to it. Nobody really notices if they're into the story, unless it's really obvious.

@Golden-I noticed the lack of useful posts on this too. Weird.

@Yesenia-definitely worth cracking one and sorting it out later.

@Donna-I think it's one of those things where once you start noticing it's hard to stop.

Sophia said...

I've heard the advice you give about reframing the sentences many ways, but your line about 'shifting the emphasis onto experience (what’s happening)' really nailed it for me. The narrator wouldn't experience life as 'this is what I'm seeing/feeling/thinking', and I knew that filter words should be removed, but your way of expressing it just cemented all these ideas in one neat and easy to remember phrase. Thanks!

Julie Dao said...

YES. Great post. My WIP's in first person and I do use the "I" a little bit too often. It's good practice to see if I can take it out and rewrite it to be just as or even more effective :)

Lydia Kang said...

I mostly write in first person POV so I often need to take care of the I-I-Itis disease.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Super post and very timely for me as the WIP I am writing is in the first person POV and I feel I have a tendency to go berserk with the I-I-I syndrome.

I will have to bookmark this post for frequent reference.

Beverly Diehl said...

Good tips. Even when there are only two people in a scene, one male and one female, it can get annoying if it is simply He and She. I want a name, a characteristic, something to sink my (eye)teeth into.

I have heard pronoun placement is particularly tricky in writing menage sex scenes (though I have yet to try 'em).

nutschell said...

I think this is why I avoid writing in first person--all those I's! At one point I know I'll challenge myself but for now I feel very safe in the cocoon of my third person writing--not too much trouble with pronouns there:)
Happy weekend!

mooderino said...

@Sophia-it's harder when the character is doing things themselves, but using the result of actions can stop pronouns getting logjammed.

@Julie-it's pretty easy to take them out and mkar the writing less effective. Making it as or more effective is the trick.

@Lydia-If only there were pills for that condition.

@Rachna-I always enjoy being bookmarked.

@Beverly-I'm not sure I know what you mean. Can you provide examples? And type slowly.

@Nutschell-Happy Weekend to you too!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I read this last night on your tumblr page.

mooderino said...

@Michael-that's where all the cool kids read my posts.

Charmaine Clancy said...

This is something I worry over, so I appreciate the post! Action and description are good suggestions for breaking up the pronouns.

Sharing and implementing this advice. Legend as always Moody.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-glad my ramblings were of use.

Anonymous said...

Making the rounds after the A to Z Challenge to say hello! Enjoyed your post.


Maria said...

Some good tips and suggestions here. Thank you.

Nas said...

Enjoyed your post. It is great.

mooderino said...

@Susanne- thanks, good luck doing the rounds.

@Maria-cheers,and you're welcome.

@Nas-thanks very much.

Jenny Woolf said...

Good exposition - I agree with it all.

Unknown said...

I am reading a book right now that has lost my attention because it seems that every sentence begins with a 3rd person pronoun. It's driving me crazy so I had to stop. Putting it down was the only way to save my sanity.

Unknown said...

Just looked at mine, and oh boy, have I got work to do!
Thanks very much for the free advice.

Unknown said...

Just looked at mine, and oh boy, have I got work to do!
Thanks very much for the free advice.

Ireth Seregon said...

Hi, how about avoiding confusion of having 'you's in a scene with many characters? I read many novels and some have this problem to me, and they are bestsellers. I don't want to make the same mistake

Fair Trade Photographer said...

Unfortunately, I read it as Mike hitting a ledge lower down as he fell...

Unknown said...

He sat upright and threw his legs over the side of the bed. Standing, stretching, as he walked over to the chest of drawers under the television. He pulled on a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt. His belongings rested on the table top. The necessary items he shoved into his pockets and the others, he moved out of the way. He moved to the front of the hotel room closet, reached for a case, and threw a nylon strap over his shoulder. His left arm rested on the case that sat against his hip as he pulled a baseball cap low over his forehead, shading his eyes.

Unknown said...

Any thoughts on this? The character is an unknown through out the book. Does it lose appeal if it 'Flows' better?

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idressyou said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm reading a novel, now, where too many characters of the same gender are interacting. The writer assumes the reader knows which she or he has spoken or acted. It's frustrating to keep going back paragraphs or pages, to clarify which one it was.

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