Starting Sentences with “I”

Anonymous asked: “Most of my sentences start with the word ‘I’ or a character’s name. It makes the writing feel monotonous, but I can’t seem to fix it or change my habits. Any tips?”

What is most likely the issue is that your scenes contain only action. “I do this” or “he does that.” That’s not so much of an issue, but once you include more exposition and especially since it’s first person, the thoughts and feelings of the main character, the issue will likely resolve itself. 

Let’s look at an example though just to see how a pro would do it. We’re pulling out a few highlighted paragraphs from one of my favorite novels, The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt. If you haven’t read it, this won’t give the story away, and I highly recommend. 

I picked this examples because the writing is fantastic and you can see actually with just a quick glance of the page, Hustvedt doesn’t start sentence with “I” or “he” all that much. I highlighted all instances in this excerpt in yellow. 

One thing that she does a few times is vary her sentence structure. You can see those because I highlighted the subject of the sentence – the “I” or “he” – in purple. Varying sentence structure is one way that you can help enliven your writing a bit, it helps to break up “monotonous” paragraphs and actually, it makes your novel easier to read. Too many sentences of similar length in a can be a distraction. 

Here you see any short sentence matched by a longer one. All sentences run a little longer in this example, in part I think, because of the tone of the book. This novel is full of semi colons and things like that to keep sentences running. In this case, I feel like it has the effect of viewing the story through a bit of a haze. There’s less immediacy that you’d get with shorter or choppier sentences. Let’s turn out attention to “I became Iris Davidsen.” That sentence is quickly followed by a much longer one: “It was a defensive act, a way of protecting myself from some amorphous danger, but later that false name haunted me…” (it goes on longer than that, much longer than that.) 

The last thing I did – I highlighted a bunch of things in green. These are all the sentences that don’t begin with “I” or “he” but the subject of the sentence is still not “I” or “he.” Some of these are in dialogue. Overall, though these are important pieces that help make this paragraph interesting. 

Sometimes when your own writing is feeling monotonous, the only real remedy is reading. I turn to old favorites and see how they wrote. I am one of those writers who admires books for beautiful writing – plot is important too, but if the writing bugged me, I probably wouldn’t put it on my “favorites” shelf on Goodreads. It’ll be a matter of reading not only books that you loved, but well-written books that you’d loved to break out of the habit. Reading a bit of a good book and then writing after, I’ll often be better about breaking the habit I was trying to avoid – if only because I’ve just seen how to do it. 

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