I shook my head unbelieving. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

No, impossible. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

The first example uses external body language and the second internal monologue. Does the latter make more sense in first-person narration? Why or why not?


6 Answers 6


On what level is the narrator communicating to us?

Are they conscious of the fact that there's a reader (or perhaps a listener), and trying to present themselves in a particular way, or are we getting perfect access to their thoughts?

Are they trying to give us access to their thoughts, but don't know quite how to communicate them?

Are they trying not to give us access to their thoughts, but give themself away unknowingly through their own descriptions of their actions?

Are they the sort of person who is very focused on how they come across to others, or on the relationship between their body and external world (and so will tend to notice what they're physically doing when they react to something) or are they someone who may not notice these things, and instead focus on what they feel internally?

Are they someone who will notice their emotions at all, or will they instead notice how other people are reacting to them (and we learn about them through that)?

Nobody else can answer these questions for you. They depend on you, and the character that exists (for now) only in your head. Get to know your narrator, and the answer will be obvious to you in a way that it never can be for anyone else, because nobody else is you.


There is a third, and, to me, preferable alternative. The two alternatives you have given are both attempts at what we might call invisible narration. The reader is not listening to a narrator but somehow eavesdropping on a scene.

No, impossible. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

This is the reader essentially eavesdropping on the POV character's internal monologue. It is rather awkward position from which to observe a scene long term.

I shook my head unavailingly. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

This is a mixture. The first sentence is kind of fly on the wall. It is third party observation narrated in the first person, which is kind of weird. The second sentence is eavesdropping on internal monologue like the first.

A much simpler and more natural approach is actual first person narration. That is, you write it as a person would say it if they were telling the story to the reader:

I shook my head, wondering who someone I barely knew could know so much about me.


I wondered how someone I had barely met could know so much about me.


I was surprised that someone I had barely met could know so much about me.

This is the most natural and straightforward form of first person narrative. It is the easiest for the reader to follow and the easiest to write. It will largely avoid the need to ask yourself exactly these kinds of questions. Unless there is a really good reason for them, exotic narrative modes generally just get in the way of telling a good story, which should be any author's main concern.

  • 3
    I thought it was better to directly write what the character is thinking/feeling as opposed to tell the reader these things? (Using "filters" vs showing actions?) By omitting filters I also avoid writing "I" all the time. I'm not sure if this is the best approach, though.
    – alex
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 13:37
  • 4
    @alex The first rule of all forms of writing is, be clear. Say things simply and avoid awkwardness. Specific narrative techniques may sometimes achieve effects that you could not achieve otherwise and provided that they can be executed without awkwardness, their use is fine. But as you yourself have intuited, both your examples here are awkward. Awkwardness always pulls the reader out of the story. There is no effect worth being awkward for. Nor is any complex narrative technique worth doing at all unless it achieves a specific and worthwhile narrative effect.
    – user16226
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:13

I agree with Surtsey, but I'd like to add that it's also a good idea to balance the two. If the external gesture is conscious, feel free to describe it; if the gesture is an instinctive reaction, go with the internal thought.

If one sticks only to either gestures or internal thoughts, no middle ground, it can get repetitive, while at the same time focusing too much on the inside / outside. Balance is key.


Again, you are asking for a rule on a practice - the truth is there is no rule. Different writers use different methods. Ergo, different readers prefer different styles.

Addressing your examples I prefer the second simply because I'm not convinced how aware people are of their own natural gestures. If you want the reader to be aware of the gesture - have somebody else highlight it.


How could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

"Penny for them?" Tracey interrupted my thoughts.


"You were shaking your head and you looked . . . kind of sad."

"I'm fine," I replied, forcing a smile.

  • 1
    -1 "Different writers use different methods. Ergo, different readers prefer different styles." Hardly. Different writers use different methods for all kinds of reasons, some of them good and some of them bad, some of them related to reader preferences, some not. Works don't see on the minutia of style, but on the story or its politics. But we do know as a sound general rule that simplicity and directness are best in every communication.
    – user16226
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:25
  • @MarkBaker, tell that to James Joyce.
    – Wildcard
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 1:10
  • "But we do know as a sound general rule that simplicity and directness are best in every communication." - This is not applicable to novel writing. It's a lemon you've been sold. The theory results in appealing to the lowest common denominator. Great storytelling relies on voice, cadence, rhythm, and many other factors, There is a difference between producing a classic symphony and a simple pop tune. The best lines are often ambiguous or cryptic. One of my faves . . . "The man is a toad, a keeper of ugly tadpoles.". . . What does that mean?
    – Surtsey
    Commented May 20, 2017 at 2:38

I'll go out on a limb here and argue the second example is objectively better.

The problem with the first is that it changes perspectives in the same paragraph. The first sentence is something that only an outside observer could notice, while the second is completely first-person. As a reader trying to get into your head, I feel like I'm being jerked around.

You could salvage the first by rephrasing it to something your first-person observer might notice. For example:

I felt my head shake in disbelief. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

This could probably be cleaned up more, but the idea is there. This version reports only things your first-person observer would have noticed.

  • Does someone actually feel their own head shake in disbelief? Seems like an extraordinarily convoluted way to say this.
    – user16226
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:07
  • @MarkBaker - You're not wrong. I'd say when you perform a semi-involuntary reaction, you're likely to notice it happening during or after the fact if you do notice at all. I brought it up here because I've bought books from at least one popular author I read who liked to use this formulation to cheat their way into slipping involuntary reactions into a first-person narrative. However, my reaction the first few times I read it was little different from yours.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:28
  • 1
    I think there are a number of authors out there who succeed because of their storytelling skills (or their successful pandering to a particular audience), who nevertheless have bad narrative technique. Narrative technique won't make or break you, if you have a good story. But I think narrative simplicity is still to be championed when the subject is raised, if only to encourage the writer to focus more on story rather than on narrative effects that are not really going to make a difference to their salability..
    – user16226
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:38
  • Again, completely agree. Still, this means this is something done professionally, which made it past professional editors. I grew to accept it eventually, because, even though its cheating a bit, it really does open up a useful extra dimension to the storytelling. If I have to suspend disbelief enough to encompass Dragons, Spaceships, or superhuman reasoning skills, I figure I can swing it for dim awareness of involuntary reactions.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 15:49

I shook my head unavailingly. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

This gives the impression that the author makes a conscious decision to shake their head. This would be a strange thing to do, except when they are intentionally faking their body language.

This line would actually work really well in a situation where the character wants to convince the other character that they are surprised even though they are actually not.

No, impossible. Could someone I barely knew know so much about me?

This seems far more natural when you want to convey bewilderment. When the character is indeed surprised, they might not even be aware of their body language. They are far too mentally occupied with pondering the implications of what they just heard to wonder about subconscious gestures.

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