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I'm writing a novel, called Animal Suicide, about a girl who tried to commit suicide but then postponed the plan after a phone call she received. Everything OK. But then I realized...wait a minute...this is 1st person narrative, obviously she cannot die. Can I still create tension (will the reader eventually "forget" about this)? Or should I change the narration to the present tense (that way it is possible for the main character to die)?

(Here's the short story version for those who are interested.)

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not quite a duplicate but very relevant: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/7612/… –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 10 at 15:31

6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

One possible solution would be to structure the narrative in such a way that the reader might come to believe it is a (rather long and drawn out) suicide note, explaining your character's reasons for her act. Obviously, this would only work if the potential suicide is right at the end of your story, rather than in the middle...

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First person narrative is just a device, and it doesn't necessarily imply that the narrator lives through the story. For example, plenty of horror stories end with something on the lines of:

And then the beast's bloated tentacles began to squeeze me. The world grew dark, and I knew no more.

...or some such. (Shel Silverstein did this in True Story, although that's tongue-in-cheek...)

The point is, first-person doesn't mean the narrator actually sat down after the story ended and wrote a book about it. It's just a choice of style and narration.

I will grant that some readers will expect (incorrectly) that first person means the character lives, but if this were a serious barrier, you could have no first-person fiction relying on suspense from danger to the narrator's life. (Suicide isn't your problem here; it's "did the character make it to the end of the book or not.")

Your best guideline is to write the story as you see fit, and then get some reader reactions to it. If people tell you "Listen, this didn't work because I knew the character lives," then fine, figure out a way to change it. If they don't then you're fine.


The one exception to this is: if you first person narrator is actively referring to things that happen "later." For example, How I Met Your Mother is essentially in past-tense/first-person, but the narrator is established as "telling the story to his kids." He drops references like "That's how I met your Aunt Robin" or "Of course, we only found out about that years later" - which clearly establish a lot of facts about what happens after the primary story is over. If you do that, then yes, suspense over "Will the narrator live through the story?" will be very weak (similar to how in How I Met Your Mother, suspense over "Will this relationship be Ted's Happily-Ever-After?" was very weak and usually not the focus).

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I agree that the "rule" is another of those ones that doesn't really exist, and that first person doesn't mean the narrator can't die at the end. However, I just wanted to flag up that I've had a story rejected in the past because it was first person and the narrator died at the end. –  CLockeWork Aug 11 at 8:14
    
@CLockeWork: Ouch. Harsh :-/ Here's hoping that's an outlier... –  Standback Aug 11 at 10:29

There is a very simple solution to the first-person-narrators-cannot-die-at-the-end rule:

Set the story in present tense.

If the story is set in present tense anything that happens later happens in the narrator’s future.


And the last breath of air rushed from my lungs, as blackness claimed my life.

Becomes

And the last breath of air rushes from my lungs, as blackness claims my-

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The tense in narrative fiction is not a time specification but a narrative convention.

When a story is narrated in present tense it does not mean that what is told happens now, which is why linguists call it "historical present".

Tempus in literary writing does not have the function of locating an event in time, but, among others, of creating immediacy or distance.

There is therefore no reason, why a character telling a tale in the past tense, cannot die in the course of the telling.

The past tense might make some readers expect that the protagonist will not go through with her plan to kill herself, but page count will be a much stronger hint: The consciousness of the narrator can only extinguish in the last sentence on the last page. If there are pages following the attempted suicide, I will know that either the narrator did not kill herself, or tells the tale from her afterlife.

In any way, you can lead the reader to believe what you want, by (falsely) foreshadowing the outcome you want them to believe will come true. This is called a plot twist and works here as it works anywhere else.

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Are you writing a ghost story? A ghost story can be written in first-person, and have the narrator die at any point -- including before the story begins, partway through the story, or at the end. You can even have the story be entirely about when the narrator was alive, so the narrator dies after the end of the story.

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I understand the question so that the story continues after the (postponed) death. Usually the reader knows how far into the story he is, so if there's too much story left, the reader will know, or at least expect, in advance that the first-person narrator will not die (unless it's a ghost story, as Jasper guessed).

But then, tension may still build up on what event will cause the suicide not to occur, or to occur but not be successful. After all, in the classic criminal story we know from the beginning that the crime will be resolved. Yet it would be a bad criminal story that would not build up tension anyway, because we don't know in advance how it will be resolved.

The more you make the suicide seem inevitable, the more tension there will be how this suicide is ultimately avoided.

Of course if that postponed suicide is close enough to the end of the story that the reader could reasonably expect it to occur at its end (or you're not close to the end, but the pace of your narration makes it still reasonable to expect the suicide to be at the end), then the question of whether the character commits suicide may of course also be a source of tension.

Note I've not read your short story, so I can't comment on if it creates tension as is (but then, given your spoiler I would have known what will happen anyway, which certainly reduces the probability of tension building up significantly).

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