Submerging the “I”



First-person narration, for all its immediacy and power, becomes a liability if your reader can't identify with your narrator. Discover Chuck's secret method for making a first-person narrator less obtrusive. Bonus: This essay includes the story 'Guts.'

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Phil Sykora's picture
Phil Sykora is reading Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck September 17, 2014 - 6:22pm

In reply to Bradley (and if there's some better way to reply to comments, please tell me.  I'm new here):

I think he's referring to Nick "killing" Gatsby in his story.  Since Nick is the narrator, he can "kill" whoever he wants in the story, just like George RR Martin "kills" his characters.  Then again, I might be wrong.  Palahniuk could have screwed up, but I kind of doubt he could screw up something that obvious.  This essay must have gone through plenty of revisions and rewrites.  It's too blatant to be unintentional.  Hopefully.

Hook's picture
Hook April 28, 2014 - 4:33pm

Submerging the I seems similar to advice such as "avoid adverbs" and "avoid passive voice".  These are good rules to live by but also dangerous if adhered to dogmatically.  But even so, raising awareness of the issue is helpful (I never thought about this until this essay was pointed out to me by a friend)

IsaacP's picture
IsaacP from London, England is reading A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway January 21, 2014 - 6:11pm

Without trying to discount anything written, I happen to just have a copy of Survivor next to me at the moment (a book I've bought three or four times now because I love it so much and keep lending it to people that never return it) but "I" appears in the fourth sentence. It goes on to pretty quickly establish that the whole book is told from the narrator's point of view and the whole story is about him. 

Maybe this was an earlier work, but I still think it works perfectly well and I love the book. That being said, I'll definitely be trying to submerge the I and see what happens.


Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books October 27, 2012 - 4:39pm

There are two rules to live by when you get advice from other writers. No matter how talented or talentless they are:

1) Hold your own opinion.
2) Regardless of that opinion, make an experiment of applying their advice.

This article itched against my nerves, largely because the narrator of my current novel doesn't "submerge the I" much. It's never fun to hear that your novel qualifies as one of your favorite author's "personal demons." And the voices in my head quickly assured me that my narrator's use of "I" was part of his characteristic voice, that the use of repeating I's reflected common speech. Etc.

Then the experimental workshopping started. As each sentence was re-cast to match this article's suggestion, the truth was difficult to ignore (or admit): The sentences became stronger. My nerves still itch at the notion that submerging the I is always a good idea, but this process definitely strengthened my text in notable ways.

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interest's picture
interest June 18, 2012 - 2:23pm

This is heavy stuff? I would look forward to meeting the writer, hopefully they'll be coming out with more soon.

kbaffledbooks's picture
kbaffledbooks from Barbados is reading Thief of Time April 8, 2012 - 9:53am

That was a kickass essay! As for the story, let's just say I petrified by both horror and fascination.

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing April 7, 2012 - 4:16pm

That was my first time reading "Guts." Now I have to go downstairs and spend Easter weekend with my grandmother. Thanks.

Larry Nocella's picture
Larry Nocella from USA is reading Loser's Memorial by Larry Nocella February 13, 2012 - 6:38pm

Great article. Maybe I missed the point. I usually do, but I got focused on wondering how the candle-kid's piss blood smelled? Did it smell like the fine scent of the candle?


Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from New York is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs November 1, 2011 - 7:02pm

I'm a bit confused about what this means considering Nick doesn't murder Gatsby. Geoge Wilson did it:

"Does Nick make Jay wonderful and then kill him so that Nick’s own chickenshit retreat to his Midwest family seems justified? 

Perhaps the "killing" is in reference to Nick referring to Gatsby as an awesome guy throughout most of the novel while I think he ends up thinking of him as pathetic by its end.