effective narration 101: third-person narration, part one

This week’s installment focuses on third-person narration. If you’re new to this series or want to review some narrative background information, I would recommend starting with the first post in the series on first-person narration and last week’s installment on second-person narration.

Once again, there are five crucial aspects to consider when deciding how you are going to convey the events of your story:

  1. Perspective: From what perspective is the narrator telling the story?
  2. Characterization: Is your narrator participating in the story as a character or is your narrator telling the story from a distance?
  3. Time: Is the narrator telling us the story as it happens or after it happens? If it’s after the story happens, how much time has passed?
  4. Omniscience: What outside information does the narrator bring to the events that are unfolding?
  5. Reliability/Bias: Is the narrator to be believed?

For the final installments in the perspective category, we’re going to be deconstructing third-person narration and returning to our trusty example scene, where James and Julie are still in heated conversation in the hotel room, and Kent is still entertaining his voyeuristic tendencies in the air duct feeding into their room. This week, we’ll look at the general narrative considerations.

General Considerations of Third-Person Narration

The third-person narrator is characterized by he-statements (or she-statements). In our example, we’d write about our scene in third person like so: “James was pacing by the window, and Julie sat down in a huff, impatient for his answer. He was trying to appear disinterested, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from glancing in her direction. He knew she would notice the color in his cheeks. Kent, still in the air duct, held his breath. This was the development he had been waiting for, and one stray sneeze could destroy the entire operation.”

Notice that there is no “I” in this narration. The person who is telling the story does not “exist” as part of the story, and they are not noticed by the characters. I like to think of the third-person narrator as a video camera. As the author, you get to determine where the video camera is placed, what angle it’s pointing at, and what information it records.

This video-camera-as-narrator conception is useful, too, in helping us maintain a consistent narrative perspective. If you include the camera in your scene blocking, you’re more likely to notice when you change perspective or orientation without making the reader aware of it (a big red flag for narrative efficiency).  While this concept warrants its own post, the gist of the idea is that you can’t make drastic changes in the camera’s perspective without reorienting the reader. Don’t give your reader narrative whiplash.

While a lot of popular books are in first-person, third-person is by far the most common narrative style and generally the most flexible as well. Because you’re not tied to a narrator that is participating in the story (or even a single narrator), you have a lot of freedom to include information that may not be readily available to the characters. You also have a lot of freedom when determining how you want this perspective to interact with the other elements of good narration, as we’ll look at below.

Characterization: Is the narrator participating in the story?

Most third-person narrators do not participate in the story and are not recognized by the characters, as you saw in our example above. However, this does not necessarily have to be the case. The most typical way to accomplish an involved narrator is to start with a prologue or an introductory chapter where the narrator speaks in first person and then continue into the rest of the story in third person.

This method, framing, has a tendency to dilute the story. Instead of just allowing the story to unfold, you’re creating reader awareness of the fact that they are being told a story, which draws attention to an aspect of the narration that you’re trying to avoid. Effective narration, no matter what perspective, engages the reader in the events, but that’s hard to accomplish if you are pointing out the fact that everything they are reading about is being told to them.

When you frame a story, you’re also dating your narrative to the time when this technique was popular: Victorian-era literature. If you’ve read Poe, Lovecraft, or Henry James, you see this approach to narration all the time. Dickens was one of the first authors to break this mold, and he made a zillion bucks. So, if you’re going for nouveau-Victorian, or want to impart a legendary air to your story (or just hate money), this could be a useful technique, although I would generally recommend against it.  If you really want your narrator to be involved in the story, consider first person.

While the clear majority of third-person narrators are not actually participating in the story as it unfolds, there are a lot of third person narrators that ride very close to the main character in the story–this is the overwhelming trend with third-person narrators today. In this kind of setup, the video camera is basically lodged partway into the main character’s skull. The narrator is not the main character, but the narrator is privy to the main character’s thoughts in a way it wouldn’t be if it were a completely discrete element from the main character.  If you decide to go this route, be aware that you can only lodge your camera into ONE CHARACTER per chapter. (I would recommend one character per book, but George R. R. Martin is a master at weaving a story out of multiple third person narrators, so it can be done.)

Time: Is the narrator telling us the story from the present or future?

Most third-person narrators tell the story in the immediate past tense, where discrete actions happen in the past: “Kurt scratched his nose, hoping that he could prevent himself from sneezing.” or “James sat down.” Some third-person narration happens in the present, but this limits the omniscience of the narrator–if they’re narrating it as it happens, there’s no way for them to know what is going to happen since it hasn’t happened yet: “Julie opens her mouth to speak, but James holds up a hand to silence her. He looks up at the air vent and squints.” Third person present can have a tendency to feel like a sports announcer calling a game, so be careful.

Omniscience: Is the narrator all-knowing? 

This is 100% your call. No limitations here.


Reliability: Is the narrator believable?

Again, your call. Just be careful to be intentional about this choice. Having your narrator use words like “seems” or “might” or “could” or “possibly” gives the reader the impression that your narrator could be wrong, which is fine if it is intentional. Most times I encounter this in editing, though, I have found that it is not. Also, don’t make a liar out of your narrator. There are a lot of times that I see narrators saying, “This would be the last time that James saw Julie” trying to make things dramatic…but then Julie and James see each other again two chapters later. Bad!

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And with that, we’ll adjourn until next week, when we will examine the advantages and disadvantages of third-person narration and look at some examples. Tally ho!

Trackbacks

  1. […] This week, we’re looking at the advantages and disadvantages of third-person narration. If you’re new to this series or want to review some narrative background information, I would recommend starting with first-person narration and working your way through second-person narration and third-person narration, part one. […]

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