Getting Started
Choosing Topics
Description
With Feeling
Using Verbs
Situations and Stories
Story Problems
Begin with the End
History
Struggle
Point of View - 1st Person
Point of View - Limited 3rd

Other Uses of Third Person

What's Your Story?

For more information on point of view or other aspects of writing a story, try my book, What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction. Both young writers and adults—especially adults writing for young readers—find it helpful.

Point of View, other ways to use Third Person

We have talked about different points of view from which a story can be written: first person, when a character tells the story directly, referring to himself or herself as I; third-person limited, when a story is told through a single character, but the character is referred to as him or her.
But there are other choices in third person. They are somewhat more complex ones, however. In most cases it takes an experienced writer to handle them.

One is a narrator who tells the story from the outside, not sharing anyone's thoughts, just describing action and telling us what they are doing. That's the way most old fairy tales are told. It's the way most picture books are told, too. Such a use of distant third person is called the objective or dramatic point of view. The reader witnesses the action as one would in a play or movie but doesn't get inside anyone. In picture books that works because picture books are written as poetry is, an action signaling the feelings that lie below it. Setting off those feelings is called resonance, and it's what makes it possible to return to a picture book again and again and again. Those same satisfying feelings come up every time. In fairy tales it works for a different reason. The characters in fairy tales are rarely individuals. They are known stereotypes—the handsome prince, the beautiful, young maiden, the ugly witch. So we don't need to know much of anything about the contents of their minds. In most modern fiction, though, we want characters who are individuals.

Some fiction is written through an omniscient—all knowing—narrator. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, most stories were told that way. The all-knowing voice can tell the story from outside but also move inside any character. Your narrator knows everyone's history and knows what everyone is thinking, what each character intends. No surprises. Your story, told in an omniscient point of view, can follow any character any place, whether your main character is on the scene or not. And it can, as a consequence, gather great richness.

That richness can be difficult to contain and control, however. Your narrator can, too easily, begin to sum the story up and hand it to the reader as a package, not as action to be lived through. Or even more likely, your story can become splintered. The readers' loyalty and attention can be divided between too many characters. When that happens the commitment needed to a single main character can be lost. The no surprises I mentioned earlier can be a problem, too, because story tension is often based on information's being withheld from your main character and, consequently, from your reader. If your reader knows more than your main character, that knowledge can sap story tension. Sometimes, however, used just right, having the reader know what the main character doesn't can build tension, too. The classic example is the perspective shifting between the hero and the train he doesn't know about bearing down on him.

Charlotte's Web is an example of omniscient point of view, but if you read it, you will see that it is an omniscient point of view used very sparingly. The narrator's comments slide in and out through the entire story, but that voice doesn't call attention to itself. We inhabit Wilbur from time to time, too, more than any other character. Sometimes we know what he is thinking, feeling, what he's perceiving through his senses. Sometimes we know all that about other characters, too. But much of the story is presented objectively. We watch it play out and resonate with it emotionally even as we observe Wilbur's panic over the idea of becoming bacon. It's masterful work by a masterful storyteller. Unless you have been writing fiction for a long time, though, you probably aren't ready to balance such a demanding technique.

It's important to know about it, though. And it's important, if you want to write fiction, to begin to read stories differently. Notice the point of view from which a story is being told. Notice what advantages a writer gains from choosing first-person point of view, or third-person limited, or objective, or omniscient. What are the limitations of each choice?

And, of course, there are limitations, whatever choice you make. Art is built out of limitations, though. The ones you accept for your telling give your stories shape and power . . . if they are the right limitations. Usually, it is the limitation of the perspective of your main character that commits your readers to that character, keeps them from getting out ahead of your character by gathering more information than the character has, and gives your story emotional power. But there are other choices. Learn about them. Notice them when you read. Try them out in your writing.

 

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