The challenge of writing fiction in third person; how to quote dialogue
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: December 8, 2009
|Q: I'm only able to write fiction in first person. When I try third, it ends up sounding stiff and boring. What can I do?|
You're bound to throw your fair share of gutter balls and splits before you score strikes. Give yourself the opportunity to improve on third person through practice. The early attempts may not be the kind of writing you want to send out into the world, but that's OK. You're trying a new technique and it's going to take some work to perfect. Brandi Reissenweber
As you practice, consider the fact that third person should be as rich in voice as first person. Don't let individuality drain from the narrative when you use third person. A story will wilt when delivered in a bland voice.
Take a look at the opening of the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates:
Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it.
Compare that to this opening passage from Francine Prose's short story "The Witch:"
Struggling beneath the thickening snow, the windshield wipers croak why why why why, which is what Zip wants to know. Why the hell precisely is he out here in a blizzard, on a winding road, at midnight, taking the curves at fifty? It's got to be a bad sign when your wiper blades start talking. Getting killed would be a worse sign, a billboard lit up by that final flash, giant letters spelling it out: Zip's pushed his luck too far.
Each passage has a distinctive third person narrative voice, but there are differences. BOth are informal, but Prose's narrator is a bit more casual, using more colloquialisms. Oates' narrator is distanced from the main character, Connie, and talks about her. Prose's narrator, on the other hand, seems closer to the main character, Zip, as if the ideas are filtered through his thoughts.
Crafting voice in first person point of view can feel natural because you're writing using the voice of the character who is telling the story. You can picture the character in your imagination and hear how he speaks. With third person, this process is a bit more obscure. If you struggle with this, think of your third person narrator as an actual character. He or she won't appear in the story, but having a specific image or personality trait in mind may help you write with more sensitivity to voice.
|Q: How do I indicate that a character is repeating someone else's words when speaking? Using quotation marks inside of quotation marks seems confusing. |
When a character is quoting someone else in dialogue, use quotation marks for the character's spoken words—as you normally would—and single quotation marks to indicate the other person's words.
Let's say Gillian is going through a rough patch at work. She talked this over with her friend, Mark, and something he said really resonated for her: "Just get yourself to tomorrow." It's so comforting that she repeats it over and over when she's particularly stressed. Gillian wants to share this with her co-worker. Here's how that line of dialogue would look:
"Mark's mantra is the only thing keeping me sane. He said, 'Just get yourself to tomorrow.'"
The use of single quotation marks helps to clarify what words, exactly, are attributed to Mark. It might look weird—especially when the single quotation mark is immediately followed by the regular quotation mark at the end of the line of dialogue— but that's the way to do it.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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--Posted Dec. 8, 2009