Do you want to know the one thing that will make me close a book faster than anything else? Even faster than Tom Hiddleston begging to shag the bejesus out of me? (A girl can dream.)
Overuse of the pro-noun ‘I’.
Da, da, daaaaaaaaaaaaa! (very dramatic music)
So why does the over use of ‘I’ annoy me so much? (And what does that have to do with Tom Hiddleston?)
Firstly, let me set the stage...
First person is a deeply intimate perspective. As a reader, we are inside the main character’s head and, thanks to our mirror neurons, we have trouble remembering that what is happening to our favourite character is not happening to us.*
It feels so real that we cry, laugh, get spooked, feel our heart race in fear, sexiness, excitement, yadda, yadda, yadda. In short, we are thoroughly engaged.
Those of you who write will be aware of how difficult it is to write something that will engage your reader. How hard do you work to capture the attention of your reader in the first place and then keep it? Your goal is to have your readers so engaged that they continue turning the page until they come to the one that says ‘The End’.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But it’s not.
It’s easier for me to get my four year old to eat a Brussels sprouts than it is to engage someone for the duration of a novel.
Why does overuse of ‘I’ annoy me soooooo much?
Overuse of the pronoun ‘I’ serves as a reminder that we are reading about a fictional character. It takes us outside the character’s head simply because it’s a reminder that we are meant to be inside the character’s head.
It’s a bit chicken and egg, but essentially, we have disengaged.
It withdraws us from the deeply personal connection we have established. The one that the author slaved to create.
Let me show you an example from the novel that has become popular fiction’s punching bag, Fifty Shades of Grey:
With a shake, I clear my head. I just want to go. All my vague, unarticulated hopes have been dashed. He doesn’t want me. What was I thinking? I scold myself. What would Christian Grey want with you? My subconscious mocks me. I wrap my arms around myself and turn to face the road and note with relief that the green man has appeared. I quickly make my way across, conscious that Grey is behind me. Outside the hotel, I turn briefly to face him but cannot look him in the eye. (Page 50)
This has seven uses of ‘I’. That means that as a reader, my subconscious connection has been lost seven times in one paragraph.
My question is: How many paragraphs like this will it take until my connection is gone completely?
After fifty pages, my copy of Fifty Shades was tossed in a drawer where it remained until writing this piece. It has since been donated to the local charity shop because this very simple error irritates the utter, utter bejesus out of me and made it impossible to continue reading the book. This was a huge letdown because the sexy parts hadn’t even started at that point.
Imagine if it had been written differently:
With a shake, my head clears but the need to leave is still all-consuming. All those vague, unarticulated hopes have been dashed. He doesn’t want me. Of course he doesn’t – why would Christian Grey want me? My subconscious mocks me. Thankfully, the green man at the traffic lights has appeared and my path is clear. Quickly, I cross the road, conscious that Grey is behind me. Outside the hotel we briefly face each other, but my eyes cannot meet his.
This is by no means quality writing on my behalf, but can you see the difference? Six ‘I’s have been removed by a little rejigging of sentence structure. The passage still conveys the same actions and thoughts, it’s still loaded with telling rather than showing, but we aren’t being constantly disengaged.
Yes, it is harder and more work to restructure a sentence so that ‘I’ will not be overused. Yes, it will increase the word count. It will also force the writer to show more and tell less, seeing as the excerpt above is loaded with telling. Overall, it will require more work, there’s no doubt about it.
But on the upside? It will increase the writer’s knowledge of the craft, it will stretch him/her to become a more articulate writer, it will encourage exploration of words, and the discovery of how beautiful they can be when formed into carefully constructed sentences.
What does any of the above have to do with Tom Hiddleston?
Absolutely nothing. He’s just H-O-T, in a very bad, bad, bad way.
* Nikki Logan’s fabbo book ‘The Chemistry of Reading – Arousing your Reader’