Chuck Palahniuk is an author quite well known for writing first-person stories. He has a simple piece of advice for others who wish to do so as well: "Have your narrator say 'I' as little as possible." To my knowledge he doesn't elaborate on the quantity of "I" that is allowable.

After diving into a first-person story, I'm having difficulty writing narration without using "I" very often. In some situations, it just seems impossible to reformulate a passage to use it any less.

So how much is too much? Is it okay to use it often in some situations where it's just unavoidable? Should I worry less about it? Is Chuck totally wrong?

The biggest problem comes from narrating actions:

"I stood up and walked across the room, but even as I did so, she turned away."

It just seems hard to reformulate some sentences like that.

  • 4
    It's an interesting piece of advice, but is it meant to stand on its own? Is there any further context around where he said that? Did he offer an alternative? It's possible to interpret this as, rather than a condemnation of the word itself, something akin to 'focus your narration on the surroundings, other characters, and the protagonist's physical reactions (when possible, phrased with them as the subject), not the protagonist's direct actions,' but I have no idea if that's what he was actually going for.
    – AmaiKotori
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 17:58
  • He doesn't give much context, simply offers the example of "If you can't figure out what to do, talk about the inside of your character's mouth." I would guess he means what you do, that attention should be focussed elsewhere. But I can only describe my character's mouth so many times ;)
    – thanby
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:26
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    I am Jack's Colon. I get cancer. I kill Jack.
    – Andrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 22:00
  • Related writing.stackexchange.com/questions/15942/…
    – Andrey
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 22:01

2 Answers 2


Going out on a limb a bit here, but I feel like "I" in a first person (non-dialog) narrative is redundant in a way. It's already first person, so "I" doesn't really add anything of value. I wouldn't say it's inherently bad, but an alternative is almost always better.

In real life we only really think of ourselves in terms of "I" when we are actively thinking about our whole self ("I think I will go the store"). Most of the time, however, our thoughts are more specific than that. When writing, for example, you don't think to yourself "I am currently writing", you simply see the page, the pen and your hand and they are doing the writing. Sure, your brain is telling your hand what to do, but that's not what you are thinking about. From your own perspective, you are not the actor; the objects, people and events around you are.

So, to actually answer your question: "Am I using 'I' too much?"
Without seeing more than the sentence you gave, I can still say, with absolute certainty: yes and no...probably. Sometimes the story does actually focus on the characters actions (more like over the shoulder 3rd person in a way) and frequent use of "I" helps reinforce that. Sometimes there is just no other reasonable way to write the sentence and you have to make it work.

I think the two biggest things to keep in mind are:

1) Using "I" often reduces immersion (for reasons stated above)

2) There is often a better, more desciptive and immersive way to rewrite it without using "I"

For example, we could say:

"I started thinking..." >>> "My thoughts began to drift..."
"I nervously wrote..." >>> "The pen trembled in my hand..."
"I couldn't focus..." >>> "My mind refused to stay on track..."
The example in @Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica 's answer illustrates this perfectly


Is "my" and "me" prohibited?

I stood up and began to walk across the room. She turned away at my approach.

My urge was to comfort her. Standing up and walking across the room, she turned away from me.

Other than that, I'd say buy a book and read the guy.

  • 1
    Those are allowed and in fact preferred. I like how you've rewritten the sentence, that's the kind of thing I'm struggling with. Incidentally I've read most of his books, and that's what inspired me to try writing first-person to begin with.
    – thanby
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:34

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