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If I have a sentence such as this:

Footsteps were heard coming down the alley.

Can I use that in a first-person story? I don't think it's technically third-person, but it sort of feels like it's coming from an omniscient narrator. I'm trying to avoid using the word "I" a lot: I heard, I saw, I felt, etc.

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The subject of your sentence can be something other than the MC when you're writing in first person. For example:

My phone rang

or

Footsteps were coming down the alley behind me

You don't need to always narrate in the active: "I saw", "I heard", "I conquered". You don't even need to specify your character's presence - it's assumed. My first example could just as easily have been "the phone rang".

There is, however, a crucial difference between my second example, and your example. When you say "were heard", there's the immediate question "by whom". Since the story is told in first person, this question should never arise. The answer is always "I - the narrator - heard". On this account, your instinct was right. But if the footsteps "were coming", then it's implied that the narrator heard them, there's no need to specify "I heard footsteps coming."

  • +1 for point out the "by whom" part. I could add, however, that in some rare cases it might be of use to the author as a literary device, precisely due to the disconnect effect. Off the top of my head, I could think of cases where the protagonist might be mentally unstable or something like that. – user16555 Sep 6 '18 at 7:30
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This is perfectly valid, it's just a more passive variant on the first-person formula. The active version is 'I heard footsteps coming down the alley', but this is fine. Especially so if the narrator is supposed to think in a rational or objective/scientific way; passive tone is often a requirement in scientific papers.

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You can do that, yes. It is correct in english grammar, and it doesn't break the immersion of the POV - unless you are writing with a very strictly subjective point of view, where nothing exists outside the character's perception (for example, if you are writing their thoughts, their stream of consciousness, etc.)

What is a bit weak in your example is the passive form. Generally, you want to avoid the passive expression ("footsteps were heard") where you have a valid alternative with the active expression ("Jon heard footsteps"). It is just more fluent and easy to the reader's eye, even though not wrong per se.

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