Pick One Person: Maintaining Narrative Mode

by Liz Bureman | 22 comments

I was planning on continuing our adventurous foray into the modern use of Latin, but then one of my coworkers sent me this screengrab from her Facebook news feed, and I immediately knew I had to share this with all of you.

Who can pick out the mistake here? I'll give you a hint: it's not the semicolon. That's actually being used properly.

The real problem is the fact that Gabe here switches between third person and first person in the same sentence. That's just poor form.

There are three narrative modes that are most commonly used in storytelling: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. A description of those three modes is blog fodder on its own (and I'll probably cover it next week), but the important thing to take away here is that when you commit to a mode, you need to stick to it through the sentence/paragraph. There are writers who mix narrative modes because they might have multiple characters who the plot revolves around, but the switches generally don't take place until a break in the text, perhaps at a chapter break.

Please don't make the same mistake that Gabe did. He has the added indignity of broadcasting his ignorance of narrative mode rules all over Facebook. You are Write Practicers. You are better than that.


Well, we like taking rules and then pushing them to the exact opposite of what we tell you, right? So your mission today is to write for fifteen minutes while changing narrative modes as many times as possible. Post your practice in the comments, and take some time to read the work of other writers here.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.


  1. CRXPanda

    Coincidentally, I attempted this action in the last practive. One of my current stories speaks from a narrator, a main character POV and another character POV. It is set in the past and the present as well. I will be thinking about this practice while working my job today. This will be fun.

  2. Emily P.

    Thanks for this post! My current WIP has a section written in 3rd person omniscient, then the next section switches to first person for 3 different characters, then it finishes out 3rd person omniscient again. It’s good to know that this is acceptable – and of course, keeping it logical and organized is important. 

  3. Jason Ziebart

    Can we add the overwhelming misuse of “you” to the list? Too often, we incorporate the second person into our writing when it does not belong. In my opinion, this happens when you are not aware of your audience. (See what I did there?)

    • Katie Axelson

      That’s one thing I find myself doing a lot right now, slipping into “you.” I blame it on working in marketing and blogging where “you” is all the rage.

    • Sophie Novak

      So, so true. And I agree with Katie that marketing and blogging contributes to this misuse. Thanks for pointing this out Jason. 

    • Joe Bunting

      Yeah, that’s probably a good point. Nice use of pov shift btw. 🙂

      You know who uses “you” beautifully? Annie Dillard. She slips into it all the time in her essays and it works so well. I posted on it a while back:

      Personally, I love “you.” (Wow. I phrased that awkwardly.) Like any seasoning, it can certainly be overused, but I think it brings the reader closer to the action of the story. Maybe I don’t know the difference between correct and incorrect use of second person though.

  4. Dave H

    Excellent topic. I notice many short stories are written in 1st person, well the ones I’ve read anyway. I have always preferred 3rd person in both short stories and novels. I have been bouncing POV from character to character in the piece I’m working on, 3rd person limited, and I think I finally have the proper one.

  5. Jte3rd

    Wow, this was fun!

    Marla had been scoping around the party looking for a likely candidate when
    she saw the tall man nursing a beer in the corner. Thin,
    reddish-brown hair with stands sticking out, he was hoping to blend
    into the wall, wondering why he had come. Janie didn’t know he was
    here. She was at home going over the notes for next book club
    meeting and she didn’t want to come because she and the tall guy,
    Chris, had had a fight.

    Now I’m pretty good a nursing a beer. It comes from my background, my
    childhood, where pleasure was frowned upon. Chris’s father said to
    his wife, “That boy just likes peanutbutter too much. Start giving
    him tuna instead.” Charity, Chris’s sister, decided she would tell
    him how she used to eat her candy bars. She took one little nibble
    and chewed and swallowed it as slowly as possible but completely
    before nibbling anew. Their mom thought that while they were at it
    they should pull Charity off chocolate as well.

    When you’re at a party and you’re trying to be invisible so you can slip
    away without being missed and a cute girl comes kiki-walking at you,
    you take notice. Marla knew she wasn’t gorgeous, but experience had
    taught her that guys thought her interesting. Freddy, her boyfriend
    from college, used to tell his brother that she was the most
    beautiful funny looking girl he had even known. My beer was less
    than halfway gone. I like to take a sip and swish it around in your
    mouth and get it all down the man’s gullet before putting his lips to
    the can again.

    Wanda watched the two of them from across the room. She thought is was
    good that Chris was finally talking to a new girl. Janie at her
    house didn’t like what she couldn’t see. If Chris couldn’t be happy
    with you can’t be happy with anyone. When you like to control things
    it’s easy for her to feel that way.

    gave Chris the thumbs up from my vantage point across the room.
    Marla didn’t see it. She was looking the other way.

    I lowered my beer and you try to be nonchalant in these situations.
    Sometimes Chris pulls it off and sometimes I don’t.

    Chris and Marla hit something off that night. Afterward, we would remember
    it as the beginning of a long time together. When Janie got the
    wedding invitation, I tore it up and threw it in the trash. That’s
    what you do when she lets what you wanted slip out of her hand.

    • Lorithatcher

      Can’t actually reply until my head stops spinning.

    • mariannehvest

      Good grief.   I can figure out what is going on but I can see why you should use one person’s POV or thematic mode.  Good for you for writing this.  I tried and couldn’t stand to do five minutes much less fifteen.  

  6. Mirelba

    Tal walked down the dark street, annoyed that so many of the
    street lamps seemed to be burned out. 
    She thought she saw a man standing in the shadows, but she couldn’t be
    sure.  She chided herself and tried to
    laugh at the way she was making herself nervous.  Nonetheless, she sunk further into her
    jacket, as if trying to make herself invisible and quickened her pace.  Just a little bit further, and she’d reach
    her destination.

    Gil saw the young woman walking down the street.  She seemed cold, hunched in her jacket, and in
    a rush.  He saw her glancing around, and
    wondered what she was so nervous about.  He
    wondered if her behavior wasn’t a bit suspicious and debated whether or not to
    follow her.  His captain had told him to
    keep his eyes open, but he hadn’t been quite clear about what he was supposed
    to be looking out for.  Well, she was
    certainly worth looking at, maybe she is what he was meant to be looking out

    “Oh no,” thought Tal.  Did she hear footsteps behind her?  She turned her head, and sure enough, a man
    had taken shape and materialized behind her. 
    She could hear her heart thudding in her ears and see little wisps of
    her breath escaping as she quickened her pace even more.

    “Good Lord,” Gil thought.  “Look at the pace she’s going at.  What is she so nervous about?”  Gil quickened his pace to keep the woman in
    his sight.

    Oh no!  He was chasing
    her!  Terrified, Tal broke into a run.



    • mariannehvest

      This is good going from one paragraph to another. I had no trouble at all following this and wonder if I might even have liked it more for not being in the usual format. Thanks!

    • Mirelba

      Thank you. I wanted it to be clear, glad it worked.

  7. Bruce Humphrey

    John `Stu’ Stewart was a bad person. You could see that just by looking at the many scars in his dark face and the old leather he wore. They say a face reflects the inner soul, in Stu’s case that was not enough. His soul was even darker. 

    ‘Why do I have to wait for that bastard?’ Anger gets my blood to the boiling point. He wants the job done by a professional, but he can’t be here on time. If he wasn’t paying, I would punch his face with ‘meningitis’. Ha! What a great idea that tattoo on my right hand was… ‘meningitis’, because a hit with it either kills you or leaves you dumb.

    Someone approached the tough man from the back, moving silently, expertly. A black steel knife in his hand, the sort of knife which doesn’t give up his owner’s position with untimely bright reflexes. A murderer’s knife.

    ‘I am good at my work. One of the best pain dealers. Why? Because I have trained for it all my life’. As the knife moves towards my right kidney from the back, I step left and let it pass. Then I grab the knife wrist with my whole right arm. I am already turning as my hand goes to his brittle wrist, my elbow controls his. A quick circular upwards movement and his wrist breaks like glass, my elbow controlling his makes it impossible for him to avoid his fate. Then I project him to the ground, he falls badly. Just in case, I kick his groin with a vicious kick, break two ribs with a left one.

    • mariannehvest

      That wasn’t too hard to read actually, but I was confused about who was the stabber and who had the tattoo.  

  8. CRXPanda

    Pan Tilt Dolly … Now I’m Dizzy

    “Noooooo!” I say out loud, “This can’t be happening! The one time I don’t click select all and copy?” I click the back arrow, nothing happens, I try to reload the page, to no avail. I suck it up and close the browser, restart, log back in and start my long post again. When I am finished, I log into Facebook.

    After arriving home from work, Gabe sat down at the computer, ready to post a long tirade on the discussion board. He painstakingly typed a post, proofread, and made necessary corrections. He hit the ‘POST’ button on the screen and nothing happened. He clicked with the mouse again, but a window popped up explaining; Internet Explorer has encountered an error and must close. He reentered and posted then logged into his Facebook account.

    The following was typed into my update box: 
    “I’m thoroughly pissed…”
    “I am enraged…”
    “I am brimming with rage; my board post was deleted and now I have to start over again!”
    “is brimming with rage; his discussion board that he wrote was deleted accidentally while he was typing and now I have to start all over again.”
    I hope my owner understands he made a writers’ error, but alas, I’m only the Facebook page, not programmed for such things.

    “Oh no, Gabe, shame on you!”, says Liz, a writer on the discussion board. “I must post his error and make it a writing practice on our board.” 


    • mariannehvest

      Ha!  I love it, absolutely love it!

  9. Brian_8thdayfiction

    I would just like to say that I feel sorry for Gabe.

    I hope he at least gave his permission to be presented as The Worst Writer Of All Time. Or that he has a sense of humor. Or that he doesn’t read The Write Practice.

    • Katie Axelson

      Or all of the above 🙂

    • Joe Bunting

      Poor poor Gabe. If I were Liz, though, I’d say, “If he didn’t want to be poorly represented, he shouldn’t have represented himself poorly.” She’s a bone crusher.

  10. chingyeh96

    -just finished her essay and now has to edit; Yay for me.
    -thinks that no one should bully others for what ever reason so stop being on my case!
    -is on a full diet except for chicken cause i can’t not eat it.
    -admits that i don’t even need a diet, I’ve decided.

    She posted it on face book and waited for the reply.  
    I should have posted it on twitter. 


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