10.7.13

Five Rules for Using Pronouns in Fiction Writing (Part II of II)

A few weeks ago, I threw out some reasons for and against using pronouns in fiction. This week, I'd like to explain a bit about how these are pros and cons.

If you'll recall, there are five reasons I came up with to use or not use pronouns in fiction writing. This post will discuss them in a bit more detail (although there are links for each pro and con in last week's post).



1. Don't confuse the antecedent.

Typically, "he" or "she" refers to the person last mentioned.

Joni gulped from her cup. She lowered it and stared at Kim.

"Her" and "she" both refer to Joni.

If we rewrite the sentence to say:

Joni and Kim sipped their drinks. She put it down.

Then we get confusion. Who is "she?" Is it Joni? Kim? Neither? In a situation like this, reuse their name. Or, preferably, rephrase the sentence(s) to clarify.


2. Don't overuse "I" in first person POV.

In first person point-of-view, the page can be a minefield of "I." Not only does it make the book seem unreasonably self-centered on the protagonist, it can be distracting from even the best plot.

Consider the example below, taken from one of my recent WIPs, which I've referred to throughout my blog as "StM."



In retrospect, I was lucky I'd held on to my phone so I could dig out Mother's address from the depths of my contacts list. I hoped, as I begged directions from a stranger on the street, that she'd not moved in the two years since I'd seen her.

This is a rough draft of a scene where my main character is lost in London and has just been pick-pocketed. She's finally decided to seek out her estranged mother. But while the focus is on the main character, it could be written better. 

A revision trying to minimize "I":
In retrospect, holding onto my phone was a lucky break. In the dusty layers of my contact list lay Mother's phone and address. After accosting a stranger on the street for directions, I headed north, hoping Mother hadn't moved in the past two years.

This shows how many "I's" you can eliminate if you try. I got it down from six to one.



3. Make sure you know how to use pronouns correctly.

This is one of those cons which can be corrected by grammar lessons.

Remember: the pronoun should agree in number and person with its antecedent noun, as well as clearly refer to the prior noun(s).

E.g.

Incorrect:
She grabbed the violin off the stand and raised them to her shoulder.

Correct:
She grabbed the violin and bow off the stand and raised them to her shoulder.

Or:
She grabbed the violin off the stand and raised it to her shoulder.


E.g.
Correct:
The airlines had assigned Adrienne a middle seat—in cattle class. Which meant she was directly in the center of the aircraft, smashed between a generously proportioned woman who seemed to have poured a perfume bottle all over herself before the flight, and two boisterous talkers on Adrienne's left—one of whom was a middle-aged, lecherous flirt with a propensity for airsickness.

The Adrienne's is not "her" because it would create ambiguity to use "her."

Incorrect:
The airlines had assigned Adrienne a middle seat—in cattle class. Which meant she was directly in the center of the aircraft, smashed between a generously proportioned woman who seemed to have poured a perfume bottle all over herself before the flight, and two boisterous talkers on her left—one of whom was a middle-aged, lecherous flirt with a propensity for airsickness.

Whose left am I talking about in the incorrect version? Adrienne's or the woman with perfume?

I'm not even going to get into the grammar lesson aspect of this, but here are some great websites if you are confused about pronouns.

Grammar: Proper Pronoun Usage 101
Grammar Girl: How to Use "Myself" and Other Reflexive Pronouns
Purdue Owl: Pronouns, Using Pronouns Clearly
Purdue Owl: Using Appropriate Pronouns, Appropriate Pronoun Usage



Pros

Intimacy:

Only reflexive pronouns used--

The airlines had assigned Adrienne Talbot a middle seat—in cattle class. Which meant Adrienne was directly in the center of the aircraft, smashed between a generously proportioned woman who seemed to have poured a perfume bottle all over herself before the flight, and two boisterous talkers on Adrienne's left—one of whom was a middle-aged, lecherous flirt with a propensity for airsickness.

Sighing, Adrienne strapped herself into Adrienne's own personal ninth circle of Hell and winced at the screech of an infant behind Adrienne. Adrienne leaned Adrienne's head against the leather headrest, feeling the press of the woman next to Adrienne and the lech's broad shoulders on Adrienne's other side, reducing Adrienne's seat to the size of a postage stamp. These types of plane rides were the worst for people like Adrienne, who had personal bubbles the size of Alaska.


Yikes! Does anyone else's blood pressure rise at the second paragraph? Every repetition of her name grates on my nerves--I don't even want to repeat it here! Let's check out the example using pronouns properly.

Using pronouns--

The airlines had assigned Adrienne Talbot a middle seat—in cattle class. Which meant she was directly in the center of the aircraft, smashed between a generously proportioned woman who seemed to have poured a perfume bottle all over herself before the flight, and two boisterous talkers on Adrienne's left—one of whom was a middle-aged, lecherous flirt with a propensity for airsickness. 

Sighing, Adrienne strapped herself into her own personal ninth circle of Hell and winced at the screech of an infant behind her. She leaned her head against the leather headrest, feeling the press of the woman next to her and the lech's broad shoulders on her other side, reducing Adrienne's seat to the size of a postage stamp. These types of plane rides were the worst for people like her, who had personal bubbles the size of Alaska.




Aids suspension of disbelief:


According to Dictionary.com, the suspension of disbelief is: "a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment." Similar to intimacy, when proper nouns are used repetitively in a passage, the reader is distracted from the story and removed from it. Like "said," "he," and "she" are nearly invisible. The reader's eye skims over them, and they can often be omitted from the story entirely. This is why the current fiction trend is to replace a tag (he/she said) with an action (E.g. "I've been waiting for this." He slid his finger under the flap of the envelope.)



The Verdict:

Pronouns go a long ways in creating intimacy between reader and protagonist. However, the danger is in creating ambiguity in the antecedent. 


~I.E.


I hope this has helped explain why pronouns are the better choice. If you've found this useful, please give it a share!

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