by Andrea Lundgren
So yesterday, having written about the benefits of omniscient narration, I thought I’d rewrite a scene from third person close narration, using an omniscient narrator. I figured out the narrator’s identity, his perspective on the characters, and how he came to know the details of the story, and I sat down to see how such a perspective would work.
And I couldn’t get past the first sentence without realizing the differences in distance that so many authors complain about.
It isn’t that omniscient narration can’t be close to a character. (As we saw in my examination of Anna Karenina, it can have moments of very close association). It’s just that the character has less influence on the narration, since it now belongs to the narrator, not the character. Word choice, sentence length, what is and isn’t noticed, and how it’s described all changes with different characters, and when I introduced a narrator, his perspective took over.
Here’s what I was working with yesterday (this paragraph is in third person close narration):
She sat on a balcony off her bedroom, a straitjacket of brick and mortar with barely enough room for her chair. Icy wrought-iron kissed her brain, and she quickly sat upright. She’d forgotten how cold the metal would be. Another reason a girl should have long hair. That’s what her grandfather would say. And her brothers. And Mom. She drew her hood up over her neck, just far enough to protect her skin. She was confined enough without wrapping her head with down and cotton, trading sight for tunnel vision.
Now, I could’ve left this as it was, even if I added a narrator. He could comment on her action and nothing more, but if he doesn’t interact with the story, he might as well not exist. To indicate the presence of a narrator and have the narrator actually work for me and do something, I had to attempt something like this:
In the middle of a dark, cold night, a young woman sat perched on a stone outcropping, dubbed a balcony. Her parents’ house was a grand old house, full of such pretensions, and it’d been named “Everleigh”—doubtless a misspelling of the term “lea” for artistic reasons. The lea had been sold off until a mere handful of acres remained, yet it was an excellent estate, full of beauty and character. But Alaina Valeur couldn’t see it that way. To her, it was a straightjacket of brick and mortar.
Both paragraphs were able to keep the metaphor about the house being a straitjacket, but the first version is more focused on Alaina. We get to her perspective and thoughts without any time spent on description, and when we encounter her surroundings, we do so as her companions. We feel what she feels, and until she notices something—like the coldness of the wrought-iron—it isn’t mentioned.
The second gives a lot more thought to her surroundings, because the narrator is seeing Alaina from the outside. Thus, he sees the balcony, the grand house named Everleigh, and the surrounding grounds, and he comments accordingly. It isn’t until the end of the paragraph that he zooms in and starts examining her mental state. And this is typical of how people interact. We notice other people’s clothes, their surroundings, their posture, and their actions, all in a general moment of sight. Then, and only then, do we start speculating on what they’re thinking and feeling based on our earlier observations.
Because the narrator is a separate entity from the characters, he can introduce all kinds of tidbits of exposition far earlier than otherwise would happen. For example, my narrator could go on to explain what Alaina looks like and what she’s wearing, which I can’t otherwise indicate for some time. Until she interacts with her clothing or notices her own looks, the narration can’t go there.
Unless you change perspectives, that is. I like changing perspective with chapter and scene breaks; it lets me represent a variety of perspectives with the same rules of third person close narration in place. An omniscient narrator can visit person after person, but in third person close narration, I’m locked down to one character, so I have to wait until a scene break to change. Still, this narrative device lets me follow the characters closely, showing the same well-rounded world of the story. I just have to travel in separate scenes, or I’m guilty of “head-hopping.”
Anna Karenina demonstrates the uniformity of omniscient narration. Despite moving from character to character, the tone of the story remains the same. Clothes, the countryside, and descriptions of how other characters look don’t really change. We get more of Vronsky’s perspective and thoughts in his chapters, and more of Anna’s in hers, but it is all delivered through the medium of the narrator. The same sort of syntax and vocabulary are used, no matter who we’re following.
With third person close narration, I have to remember which character I’m dealing with and write accordingly. Some characters will notice clothes and know the names for different garments; others won’t know or care. Some will be very sensitive to sounds or smells, and some characters will be more easily distracted than others. In every case, the narration’s tone will have to change to reflect these differences.
But despite these challenges, I like third person close narration. The narration is an extension of the character we’re following, which lets me indicate a character’s mood and attitude just by my choice of terms. It may require me to see things as the characters see them, actively living in that moment with them, but I feel it lets me and my readers be more involved in the characters’ adventures.
Instead of being as close as thought, we’re closer. In third person close narration, we’ve delved deeper and are as close as perspective and awareness.
Guest post contributed by Andrea Lundgren. See more of her great posts on all things writing and from an authors point of view. She offers advice, insider information, and even free ebook offers.
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Yes, I prefer the first paragraph. I get a sense of the character and because you use “tunnel vision” I know she is wearing a hoody without telling me.
A terrific explanation of the difference between 3rd person omniscient and 3rd person close narrations.
I am a bit unclear, if the narrator is omniscient, why not say that she feels cold. If the narrator can read her thoughts and attitudes, surely the narrator can describe how the cold metal feels to her. In a traditional omniscient narrator’s usage the author could express identical thoughts and sensations. The difference would be the use of the terms “thought” and “felt” forbidden when using deep point of view.
I have been working a lot with deep point of view. The limitations present their own difficulties. Transitions and important events that occur outside the presence of a point of view character are challenging. I’ve had to add an additional point of view character in my WIP. I’ve noticed in some recent novels that authors alternate between deep point of view (another name for third person close narration unless I am mistaken) and third person omniscient narrator. It seems to work, if I weren’t looking for the change because I’m reading as writer, I probably wouldn’t even notice.
I’d love a response explaining why my thoughts don’t reflect an accurate understanding of “close third person narrator.” Or, distinguishing the differences. I am familiar with a third person narrator who only knows the thoughts of a central character, and otherwise acts as an observer but only of the observable. Perhaps using melding these two in the same work could work?
I’d appreciate responses.
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I love the voice of a narrator, if he/she is clever. My favorite genre is humor, though, so that might explain my preference. However, when the narrator in any genre comes up with a spot-on, original comparison, like the “brick and mortar straitjacket” line, my imagination soars.
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Thanks for writing the same paragraph in the two points of view. Really helped me understand the difference and what each voice could or couldn’t do.
I’m chiming in to thank you for explaining the differences in the points of view. I got into a long argument with the editor of a magazine who was publishing one of my stories, but wanted to change one of what I thought was one of the best sentences because it didn’t fit a 3rd person POV – it incorporated attitudes of the character. He was adamant that I couldn’t do that and I couldn’t figure out how to explain to him why I could, knowing I had read similar POVs many times. I finally know now what the problem was – mine POV was 3rd person close and he thought you could do 3rd person omniscient.
Of course, that was 35 years ago and he’s now a well-known speaker instead of magazine editor, so I don’t think I’ll be looking him up any time soon to explain this to him. But I am tempted.
As a reader I prefer close narrative. I feel as if the character is letting me on a secret. It’s such a big secret that I feel special having them tell me. That is a strong connection and as a writer that is the kind of connection I want to make.
Andrea, your post has been a huge help. For quite a while now, I’ve been trying to broaden my skill at writing description. Who would have guessed I needed to change to omniscient.