Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Maintain Identification, Even in Third-Person

When you’re writing prose from a first person POV, it’s easy to maintain identification: Your hero can only see what he can see, only hear what he can hear, only think what he can think. When you’re writing omniscient third-person, on the other hand, you’re free to jump from head to head, POV to POV. But a lot of fiction is written from limited third-person POV, which splits the difference.

This narrative voice can theoretically go anywhere because you’re merely on the hero’s shoulder, and not stuck in his head, but practically, in order for this sort of voice to work, you have to agree to limit yourself just as much as you would if you were in first-person: You’re nailed down on that shoulder and unable to move.

Most limited-3rd person is essentially the same as 1st person: the narrative voice is even privy to the hero’s thoughts, despite referring to the hero as he/she. The key to maintaining that sort of privileged access is that you have to be privy to the hero’s thoughts and only the hero’s thoughts.

It’s tempting to cheat. In one book, a hero was talking to a social worker, and it described something the social worker saw in the hero’s eyes, “She had seen that sort of look before.” This is a no-no. That’s flirting with entering the social worker’s head, which would break our full identification with the hero. Instead you have to say, from the hero’s point of view, “He saw that the social worker had an I-know-what-you’re-going-through face”. That’s the hero’s POV. That’s all the hero can know of the mind of the social worker: what he can see.

In an old post, I talked about the limitations George R. R. Martin imposed on himself while writing “Game of Thrones”: He had chosen his heroes and couldn’t go places they didn’t go. But it’s even more limited than that: even in the rooms he’s in, he can only know one character’s perspective on anything.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Oh dude, no. Third-person omniscient has a long and impressive history. Third-person limited is the preferred style in modern genre fiction, but it's absolutely not a requirement.

The trick is that you go third-person omniscient, you have to commit to it. If you go third-person limited, commit to it. Head-hopping third-person limited is confusing.

James Kennedy said...

It's worth mentioning that one of the advantages of third-person limited is that it allows the author to write in "free indirect style," which James Wood explains lucidly and engagingly in his short book "How Fiction Works." To get up to date on that, read points 6-14 here (should take less than 10 minutes, and is a better explanation than whatever I could compress here):


TL;DR, prose POV is much more rich and complicated than "first person" vs. "third person limited" vs. "third person omniscient." Free indirect style gives a suppleness by blurring the line between first person and third person. But it has to be done artfully.

I expect this kind of issue will crop up more and more as Matt makes the transition from this blog being screenwriting-only to screenwriting-and-novel-writing. There are many technical issues in prose writing that don't appear in screenwriting.

Sean said...

[Upon preview: pretty much what James said!]

Very rapid changes of POV are possible and sometimes useful, but it takes finesse. James Joyce does some neat work in that way in the opening of "The Dead."

-The first sentence - "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet" - is a bit of that free indirect style that James mentioned: Joyce borrows Lily's idiom (the misuse of "literally") to suggest her feelings without entering explicitly into her head.
-The next paragraph doesn't assert a direct perspective either, but it cites the memories and opinions of a delimited group, the social circle of the Morkan sisters.
-The third paragraph is plainly from the perspective of the Morkans ("they wondered what could be keeping Gabriel").
-Gabriel finally appears in the fourth paragraph, and the narrative POV settles slowly onto his shoulders over the course of the next few lines. It will stay there for most of the story's remainder.

What's practically the first thing Gabriel does? He badly misreads Lily's mood. (She's overworked, as we know, and she has no time to indulge his sentimentality.) This sequence wouldn't work nearly as well if you cut those first three paragraphs out. The ironic charge would be lost, along with an early insight into Gabriel's self-centeredness.

Joyce gets away with all the head-hopping because he keeps a tight control on the degree of identification (modulating between indirect discourse and full revelation of thought) and the transitions between perspectives (matching them elegantly to his paragraph structure). The technique is difficult to pull off if you're not one of the greatest stylists who ever lived, but it's at least possible, and it's nice to have the option.

James Kennedy said...

Oooh. That's some good analysis, Sean. And of one of my favorite short stories of all time.

Matt, I think this rule might need to be rephrased. (It's not just hifalutin literature that uses free indirect style.)

Anonymous said...

> Instead you have to say, from the hero’s point of view, “He saw that the social worker had an I-know-what-you’re-going-through face”.

Drop “He saw that”. 99% of “He saw/heard/felt/knew/thought/believed” is noise, just like 90% of adverbs and 80% of adjectives.

Also, I’ve read novels that jump between limited and omniscient all the time, and wouldn’t work without that. I couldn’t do it, neither could most writers, but it’s not something only the best of the best can do either. (besides, it’s just what most movies do)

Jonathan Auxier said...

I'm generally wary of absolutes in writing. BUT I think that Matt's general advice is sound. Primarily because most new writers who break POV don't realize they're doing it -- nor do they realize how such breaks quietly dissolve the tension and impact of their scenes. I say this as someone who breaks POV in all my novels. However, I've become more disciplined about controlling/maintaining POV in later books, and the reception to my prose has improved substantially.

Jame's comment (and wonderful link) highlights how slippery the subject can be. True POV has almost nothing to do with "first person" vs "third person" and exists almost entirely on the question of identification.