Reading back your first-person narrative, you realise you’ve started nearly every sentence with the pronoun ‘I’. It stands out to you, and feels repetitive and unimaginative.
The first thing you probably do is start to fiddle around with sentence structure. Here are a few ways you can quickly fix too many sentences starting with ‘I’:
The Quick Fix
Start with a prepositional phrase. A propositional phrase lets us know where the subject of the sentence is in time or space, or what the relationship is between two entities.
They can be easily to add to the start of a sentence, e.g. ‘From across the street, I saw the hooded figure’, ‘After breakfast, I got dressed in my finest dinosaur costume and headed to work’.
Swap the clauses. Simple, complete sentences can be made of a single clause – and the minimum requirement for a clause is a subject and a verb. If your sentence contains more than one clause, you can often shuffle them around so the clause that starts with ‘I’ is not at the start of the sentence.
So ‘I ordered the rocky road because marshmallows are the best’ could become ‘Because marshmallows are the best, I ordered the rocky road’ and ‘I whistled to myself as I strolled down the street’ could become ‘As I strolled down the street, I whistled to myself’.
Cut out unnecessary actions. We don’t always need a blow-by-blow account of what the character is doing. Listing out all the actions the character takes often leads to a shopping-list style of sentences beginning with ‘I’.
Often, though, many of these actions can be cut out completely without risking the reader losing the thread of the action, e.g. instead of writing ‘I pulled up the hand break and turn off the ignition. I then opened the car door, climbed out and shut the door behind me. I locked the door and went to buy a parking ticket’ we wouldn’t lose anything if the narrative just said ‘I parked the car’.
Avoid filter phrases (I thought, I saw, I heard). When we’re in a first person narrative, we often don’t need certain phrases that indicate which of the character’s senses are being engaged.
These are known as ‘filter phrases’ because they act as an unnecessary filter between the viewpoint character and the reader. We know that what’s being narrated is what the character is thinking, seeing, hearing, tasting, etc. because we’re aware that we’re experiencing their point of view.
So instead of writing ‘I saw the clouds gathering above field’ you can just write ‘The clouds gathered above the field’. Instead of ‘I heard a manic laugh in the darkness’ you could write ‘A manic laugh rang out in the darkness’.
TIP: Don’t fall into the trap of rewriting everything in the passive voice.
A sentence become grammatically ‘passive’ when emphasis is put on the person or thing that experiences the action instead of the person or thing driving the action, e.g. instead of ‘I gave the opening speech’ you’d write ‘The opening speech was given by me’.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice, even if some writing advice recommends avoiding it. However, if you end up making too many of your sentences passive to try to avoid starting too many with ‘I’, this will certainly weaken your writing (or make it sound strange).
The Deeper Fix
Those sentence revisions are a good way to quickly change things up if you occasionally run into the problem of too many of your sentences starting with ‘I’ – but what if the majority of your narrative ends up this way?
Tweaking all your sentences might leave you with a strange rhythm and cadence to your prose.
Instead, trying getting deeper into your character’s point of view.
This might be especially important if you find that removing filter phrases from your sentences can make your writing a bit confusing. It shows that the narrative isn’t necessarily as closely aligned to your character as it could be.
Try doing the following:
Dig deeper into the character’s voice. A first person narration should sound as though it’s coming from the character, not the author.
So think carefully about the kinds of words your character would use, the kinds of sentence structures they favour. This will help you make the narrative flow more smoothly after taking out those filter words.
Dig deeper into the character’s viewpoint. Really put yourself in your character’s shoes.
Instead of describing a list of their actions, consider what kinds of things make up their subjective experience. Are they observational or do they focus inwards? Are they empathetic or are they fairly oblivious to the emotions of others?
Once you change the focus from the author looking at the character to the character looking at the world, you’ll find you naturally write fewer sentences starting with ‘I’.
- Include more observations. Even if your character isn’t particularly observant, including at least some descriptions of what the character sees, hears and smells around them can help you disconnect from that shopping-list style of actions.
Include more inner monologue. In a similar but opposite way, focusing the narrative inwards can help, too. How is your character interpreting the world? What thoughts are occupying their mind?
Scatter more of this through your prose to give you opportunities for more varied sentence structure.
Tips in Action
Take a look at this bit of prose:
I shouldn’t have come to this party.
I’m not even sure I belong at this party. I’m not bougie. I just think there are just some places where it’s not enough to be me – either version of me. I’m at one of those parties now.
I squeeze through sweaty bodies and follow Kenya, her curls bouncing past her shoulders. I see a haze lingering over the room and it smells like weed. I feel music rattle the floor. I hear some rapper call out of everybody to Nae-Nae, followed by a bunch of “Heys” as people launch into their own versions. I watch Kenya hold up her cup and dance her way through the crowd. I have a headache from the loud-ass music and feel nauseous from the weed odor. I’ll be amazed if I cross the room without spilling my drink.
By removing many of the filter words and diving deeper into the character’s viewpoint, we end up with something like this:
I shouldn’t have come to this party.
I’m not even sure I belong at this party. That’s not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me. Big D’s spring break party is one of those parties.
I squeeze through sweaty bodies and follow Kenya, her curls bouncing past her shoulders. A haze lingers over the room, smelling like weed, and music rattles the floor. Some rapper calls out of everybody to Nae-Nae, followed by a bunch of “Heys” as people launch into their own versions. Kenya holds up her cup and dances her way through the crowd. Between the headache from the loud-ass music and the nausea from the weed odor, I’ll be amazed if I cross the room without spilling my drink.
— Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
Much better, right?
So, to wrap up: if you find that too many of your sentences are starting with ‘I’ while you’re writing your novel, there are ways you can edit your sentences to avoid this – but if it seems like a deep-rooted issue, try to dive deeper into your character’s viewpoint and see how that changes things.