A first person narrative structure is often the first structure that we try as children. It is the structure that is most commonly used verbally throughout anyone’s day, and yet it is actually quite difficult to pull off effectively. Here I will posit a review of sorts for Steven King’s Ride the Bullet, but in actuality I will be utilizing his excellent, yet brief, first person narrative to explore the difficulties present in such a narrative.
Why is (or rather why do I think) the third person perspective is actually easier? Writers are control freaks, they have to be, if they aren’t then their own narrative will run them over and it will, quite frankly, not be very good. This is why third person is so helpful, the writer can describe and show everything that they want to and skip anything they don’t like. Third person doesn’t have all of the loose ends and expectations that first person carries. In a first person narrative the writing itself has to be explained. As soon as you start using “I” and “me” outside of dialog then the reader will start asking questions about the narrator that would not be asked of a third persons narrative. Who are they? Can I trust them? Are they writing this in the moment or has everything in this book already happened? Knowing which questions to answer and, perhaps more importantly, how to answer them is key to the success of the narrative.
And for anyone who asks, “But what about second person?” Shut up, right now, because second person requires courage enough not to ask.
At its heart Ride the Bullet is a ghost story. Many ghost stories take on the first person perspective, but in doing so they imply something that endangers the tension that a ghost story should generate. It implies survival. “I came to understand that there are things underneath, you see—underneath—and no book can explain what they are. I think that sometimes it’s best to just forget those things are there. If you can, that is.” Our narrator has survived to write it all down, how scary can it be?
The narrator doesn’t seem to care if the reader thinks the story invokes fear or not, but what’s important is that what he is writing down has affected him, “I’m not afraid of the dark—or wasn’t then,” and so by extension the reader expects to be affected in a similar way. King is constantly building tension without giving things away. The way the narrator establishes the dichotomy between then and now, between ignorance and fear could be done similarly in a third person narrative but it could easily come off as cheesy, instead, here, it comes as a sincere aside.
This Bullet is quickly headed into spoiler territory, and for a ghost story, that’s a real killer, from this point forward you are reading at your own risk. Do you have the guts?
It looks like you do. I hope you do. I sincerely hope. The answer to this next question is a doozy. If the narrator lives to tell the tale then how does the story make up for the lack of tension? Well, it could do it in a lot of ways, and it does, the source of tension keeps changing and shifting throughout the story. At first we don’t know what happens to him, he doesn’t seem to die but as other narratives have proven time and time again, there are fates far worse than death, so we have that to think about. Also we have no idea what-so-ever what is going to happen, the narrator has been very careful to avoid such foreshadowing.
At first we are tense because we have to keep filling in the blanks for what the future may hold, and what’s worse (or really what’s better from a writer’s perspective) King keeps changing the questions. First we question the old man, then the cemetery, then the rolling mist, then the car, until finally we find the culprit. He sits behind the wheel, and he is dead, and the dead drive fast. We still don’t know what will come next. This particular ghost, zombie, apparition, or being doesn’t have a cause to harm our narrator, and that almost makes it scarier, for the same reason that a serial killer is more frightening then a person out for leisurely revenge.
But unless the narrator is writing from the grave (a valid storytelling perspective but usually not all that interesting anymore) then he survives. A life does not hang in the balance. Until a dead man driving fast puts another life on the scale. Our narrator must choose, either he dies, or his mother dies. King doesn’t end the tension there, but you get the idea.
So why does this first person narrative work so well with its structure working against it. It works because the narrator is not telling the story the way a person would tell the story, he is telling it the way a storyteller would tell it. It isn’t a communication of facts, it looks like one, and talks like one, but it’s really a communication of emotion. You cannot communicate emotion directly. Happy, sad, and scared are just words, and very rarely can those words evoke the emotion that they represent. Instead an inexact formula of different words is utilized to create the desired emotion. Here King shows off his mastery of the formula for fear.
I have long pondered the next review subject, and I have settled on another classic, and another blind spot, please don’t hate me for what I do not know, for there is so much to know. Next I will read Foundation by Isaac Asimov.