effective narration 101: third-person narration, part two

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.

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 look at perspective, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of third-person narration.

Advantages of Third-Person Narration

The great advantage of third-person narration is that you, as an author, get a ton of flexibility when making decisions about how you want your story to be conveyed. As we addressed last week, you have a lot of freedom when deciding where your narrator is in relationship to the scene that is unfolding. Also, since you’re not tied to a character in the story (or a single character at all) it’s a lot easier to add scope and perspective to your story arc without a lot of narrative pyrotechnics. I mean, look at Vonnegut. His third person narrator often transcends space and time in both directions! And it’s awesome!

It’s also a lot easier to execute on these decisions in third-person. Making an unreliable second-person narrator is hard to pull off. Spending a lot of time describing the mountains in first person is hard to pull off. Want an unreliable narrator that spends a lot of time looking at the trees? Third person! (Still, be careful. Unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien or John Steinbeck, your readers are not going to have a lot of patience for your description of the scenery. Once you’ve penned a few bestselling books, though, go crazy.)

Another advantage of third person is that you’re not limited by the perspective of your character. In first person, it’s hard to give more information to the reader than what the first-person narrator experiences. The character needs to see what’s happening in order to tell the reader about it. In third person, though, you can show the reader more information than any one character knows. You can show the reader events that happen outside of the immediate narrative arc. This access to information allows the reader to spend time piecing things together as they read, which is a rich, interpretive, and engaging experience that helps create the feeling of total immersion.

Third person is also more accommodating of multiple characters’ perspectives. Even if the narrator rides really close to the main character, you can include information about the other characters that the main character may not notice or see. You can definitely have a book with multiple first-person narrators (The Help, for example), but it’s much more difficult to effectively orient your reader with many first-person narrators. With third person, slap a character’s name at the top of the chapter, and you’re a lot closer to effective multiple-perspective narration (The Game of Thrones). Hooray!

Finally, you’re not bound by the limitations of your character in third person. In first person, if your character is flighty and self-absorbed, it’s going to feel out of character for him to give the reader a bunch of unbiased information or to be thoughtful about another character’s pain. In third person, you don’t have to worry about making your narration “fit” into the characterization. You also don’t run the risk of your reader not relating to your narrator, like you do with first person. If your narrator is effectively a video camera, what’s not to like?

Disadvantages of Third-Person Narration

Unlike second-person narration, these disadvantages are not necessarily deal breakers. Instead, it’s just important to address in advance how you want to treat these elements of third-person narration. These aspects of the narration have to be established up front and maintained throughout the text. If you change the orientation on the reader, you run the risk of confusing them.

The first concern, narrating character thought, is not an issue in first person. The narrator IS the character, so it would be natural that they would have access to their thoughts about the scene as it unfolds. In third person narration, though, the narrator does not necessarily have access to the character thought (although they can if you’d like them to). If you have a video camera that’s not lodged into the character’s head, how does it have a direct pipeline to the character’s thoughts? Effective thought narration is, again, a blog post of its own, but be very careful when directly narrating character’s thoughts in third-person narration. I generally suggest first-person, present tense italics for direct character thought.

Another stumbling block I see a lot in third person is poor narrative orientation, especially in time. With first person, the reader always knows who is talking and what to expect. Even if we come back to the first-person narrator after time has passed or they have changed locations, the narrative perspective is constant. With third-person, each new scene could have a new orientation in time, location, and character focus. It is crucial that you indicate to the reader exactly when and where the story is happening and who it is happening to. Even if you just start the beginning of the chapter with, “The next morning, Julie…” we get a good idea of when and who and so the where could come later. It’s hard for the reader to understand the story if they don’t know who it’s happening to or how it relates to the information they already know.

(Also, while we’re talking about time, here’s a pro tip: Unless you want your reader to be very confused, don’t jump hours or days in the middle of a paragraph.  Give your reader a hand and give them AT LEAST a paragraph break, if not a line break and a couple of asterisks or something. While there are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule, nine times out of ten a single paragraph should not include the passage of twelve hours of time. Do this editor a favor and give your reader a visual break.)

Finally, pronoun use can get really confusing in third person. If everyone is “he” or “she” you have to be VERY deliberate about using pronouns in conversations among characters of the same gender. If you have two men talking, how is your reader supposed to separate one “he” from another? Even worse, what if you have two females and a male having a conversation? With two people, you have the advantage of the back and forth mechanism of conversation. When three people talk, they don’t necessarily take turns. Be very aware of this and make sure your reader knows who is talking at all times.

Examples of Third-Person Narration

The majority of books you pull off the shelf will be written in third person, but here are a few examples. When reading, look for the tense of the narration and the narrative perspective in the scene–is the narrator half inside a character’s head or outside of a character’s head? Are the thoughts narrated? How does the author convey character emotion? How does the author give you (the reader) more information than the characters have? Read with purpose! It will make you a better writer, I promise.

  • The DaVinci Code (Even without the first-person perspective, Dan Brown creates a lot of suspense. How?)
  • The Game of Thrones (How does Martin establish narrative perspective and orient the reader? Does he change his narrative voice depending on the character? How does he weave together the separate perspectives into a cohesive story?)
  • His Dark Materials (Pullman is a master narrator. Even though Lyra is the main character, he allows you to feel close to the other characters in the story. How does he do this? How does he convey the other character’s emotions to the reader? When does he narrate thought? Why?)

Alright, that wraps up our look at narrative perspective! Next week, we tackle characterization! Onto greener and less complicated climes!

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