|Photo by Jackie, via Flickr|
On the contrary, there’s a case to be made for arguing that reportage is the very essence of first person narration. This is owing to the narrow restrictions in first person vision and perspective. Information pertaining to setting, atmosphere, backstory and plot can only be layered into the narrative through the medium of the narrator’s self-expression. First person reportage is thus both highly selective and highly subjective.
Jane Yolen. A particularly clear demonstration of first person expository technique in practice can be found in the opening paragraph of her YA novel Snow in Summer, (Philomel Books, 2011):
I have an old black-and-white photograph on my wall of all the things Papa loved. Its edges are curling and brown. In those days in the small towns of West Virginia, we didn’t have cameras that could take a picture in color. I’ve no idea who took that photograph, but I do know how it came into my hands. Cousin Nancy gave it to me years after this story happened.This short passage – a mere 70 words long – serves several narrative functions simultaneously. Let’s take a closer look.
The focal “prop” is the old black-and-white photograph. This photo anchors the narrative in place (“small town West Virginia”) and in time (the past, within the living memory of the narrator). By alluding to “all the things Papa loved” the narrator establishes her credibility as a witness to the events of the past. Her use of the childlike term “Papa” in preference to the more formal “Father” infuses the narrative with a tone of retrospective tenderness. This small detail defines the essence of their relationship.
The fact that the narrator doesn’t immediately reveal what is in the photo engages our curiosity: what are these “things Papa loved”? The unanswered question concerning who might have taken the photo is trumped by the disclosure that it was given to her by “Cousin Nancy”. This familiar reference signals that Nancy also has a significant role to play in the story which is about to unfold. By now, the reader is hooked. We read on, eager to find out how these different pieces of the puzzle fit together.
It’s true that Jane Yolen makes it look easy. But if you’ve ever struggled with exposition, take heart: performance improves with practice.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.