Ruminating On: Narration

Recently, I made a new friend on Goodreads, Richard Van Holst. We’ve been talking back and forth over Skype about blog ideas. I’m always looking for a new topic or a topic worth expanding upon. About a week ago, Richard suggested I talk about Narrative Styles. Instead of asking him where I should go with the topic, I decided to delve into the subject my own way. What works and doesn’t work for yours truly. This isn’t exactly gospel. This is just how I see things. Facts will be blended with personal opinions. So there. You’ve been warned.

We’ll start will my least favorite and work our way down to the style I use in over seventy-five percent of my works. Then, I’ll talk about two forms of narration I absolutely will not read anymore.

Third person omniscient (TPO) – The best way of describing TPO is to imagine God telling the story. The narrator knows everything. And I mean everything. There’s only been two books written in this style that I’ve been able to finish without effort. Stephen King’s It, and The Hobbit, by Tolkien. I managed my way through The Lord of the Rings, but it took me almost two years. The problem with omniscient is, normally, it’s pretty boring. Most TPO books live and breath by exposition. You’re bashed over the head with world building, descriptions of places and things that are suppose to give you the lay of the land and scene development, but I feel there are far greater ways of accomplishing such. These books also tend to skip over character development by telling about the cast instead of showing, as the narrator cannot get far enough into the mindset of their characters. Once again, these are only my dealings with TPO. A perfect example of TPO gone wrong is in Stephen King’s Under the Dome. In the book, King takes over the POV of a missile as it glides over New England. King drops from the sky into the dialogue and thoughts of people on the ground as the rocket shoots overhead, then back to the missile again. The chapter is completely and utterly needless. We never bump into the people on the ground in New Hampshire. Their input is obvious, at best—the reactions of any persons seeing a missile being fired over US soil. The only reason omniscient even exists, in my opinion, is because certain authors can find no other way of having their characters describe the details, as in, the characters are not present, but the scene or info given is pertinent to the overall thread of the story. Also, some writers love to head hop, and in TPO, its almost expected if not entirely welcomed.

Third person limited (TPL) –  I wrote Dastardly Bastard in TPL, and I did an all right job of it. The reason I chose TPL was I couldn’t tell the story any other way. There were too many characters and each one of them had their own story to tell. Head hopping is a constant problem to watch for when writing anything in TPL. If you’re in one character’s thoughts, you cannot describe what the character looks like without having them find a mirror. Here’s where most people get confused. In omniscient, it’s quite all right to say that your character’s cheeks turned red because they were embarrassed. But in limited, you can’t do that. Your character cannot see themselves (without some kind of reflective surface, of course) so you have to fall back on different descriptors like, “He cheeks grew warm.” You can only give one character’s thoughts at a time. Chapters and page breaks must be applied if you’re going to switch character POVs. Here’s an example of what not to do in TPL.

Carmine drove west on the interstate. The road reminded him of a movie he’d once watched, The Neverending Story. In the passenger seat, Monica laughed, an inside joke running through her mind.

Sure, it reads well, but the issue is, you started off in Carmine’s head and hopped over to Monica. This is confusing, as there is no way Carmine could know what Monica was laughing at. TPL is the norm in modern day literature. It’s also a great way to lengthen a novel. The more characters you have, the easier it is to build your word count, hopping back and forth from one member of your cast to the other, just in different chapters. One last thing on TPL. It seems readers appreciate this style of narration more than any other. They like knowing what’s going on with all the different characters, something they lack when reading pieces in the next style we’re coming to.

First Person (FP) – I love this form, but a great many readers do not. The biggest problem with FP is that the only things the reader is privy to is the information bouncing around in the narrator’s head. If your main character (MC) isn’t there for something, they can only theorize about it. If your MC runs into other members of the cast, he/she can only know about them what he/she sees and hears. Of course, you could cheat and have your MC be a psychic, but not every MC in every story can be a medium of some kind. If you’re writing in FP about some world altering event, you better make your MC someone in the know; a scientist, a military or world leader, someone with access to vital information, or you run the risk of readers bashing you because you didn’t explain enough. This is why FP is usually reserved for smaller, more personal stories. The main reason I use FP in most of my work is because my characters come into my head telling the story in their own voice. If I write in third person at all, it’s as if I’m forcing the story out. FP is natural to me, as I don’t feel like I’m the one who should be telling another person’s story. I’m just here to transcribe what they’re doing.

The Patterson Effect (TPE) – I, for one, do not like James Patterson. Also, I know that he’s not the first author to write like this, but he’s made it a common thing. TPE is where you jump back and forth between third person and first person with alternating chapters. I’m a pretty literal guy, in the sense that I don’t understand how Patterson’s MC could possibly know what’s going on in the third person sections. Patterson’s cheating. And for a third time, that’s only my opinion. I’ve tried numerous times to turn off that literal side of my mind, but I can’t do it. The only book in TPE I’ve ever been able to read without great effort was Jack Wallen’s Hell’s Muse. In that book, the style makes sense. There’s a reason for the switching of styles in Wallen’s book. The novel is layered like an onion, a book within a book within book. It makes sense. Patterson, not so much.

Agree or disagree, there are facts mixed in with my own personal opinions. This is simply the Gospel According to E. Follow the rules or chance confusing the mess out of your reader. Pick the style that best suits your voice. Do not pick a form because it’s the norm. You would be doing yourself a great disservice if you did. And above all, listen to your damn characters. I will say this until I’m blue in the face, because there’s nothing worse than a forced book. Your readers will see through your charade. You’re the old man at the controls, but you want people focusing on the giant, green, disembodied head hanging in front of them. Keep the man behind the curtain hidden. Never spoil the magic.

Oh, and unless you’re writing a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, stay the hell away from Second Person. Friends don’t let friends write novels in SP.

E.

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22 thoughts on “Ruminating On: Narration

  1. A really informative post. I STILL don’t get the TP, FP or any other person for that matter and this is one of the things that makes writing so difficult for me. Seriously, I can SEE you explain it well so why is it so hard for me to understand? It stops me writing or at least posting stuff on my blog because I’m so unsure about it.
    You have given me food for thought though, so thank you for that.

    1. Here’s some examples.

      Third person omniscient – The group went deeper into the woods.

      Third person limited – Bob went deeper into the woods.

      First person – I went into the woods.

      Second person – You went into the woods.

      I hope that helps a little.

      E.

      1. Thank you E, that helps a lot! I just need it spelling out to me over and over again. Sorry! So what is your favourite again? Out of the list above?

      2. Your examples for omni and 3rd aren’t quite right. The only thing you’ve done is changed the subject, not the POV. You need more surrounding text for each to effectively show each.

        Omni does not mean 3rd; it means all knowing. Omni can be done in 1st or 3rd. And 3rd is not the same as 3rd limited. 3rd is more distant. 3rd limited is closer to 1st in style because it’s very deep in the head of the character.

      3. Thank you for stopping by.

        Sorry I didn’t go into First Person Omniscient. I didn’t have an example of such. I know it exists, I have just never read a story done that way. If you would like to provide examples, please do so.

        And I completely agree, my examples in the comments section were vague. It was my attempt at simplifying these different styles. Once again, if you would like to give better examples, the floor is yours. I welcome any and all comments as long as you’re courteous.

        As I said in the post, nothing in this blog is ever to be taken as gospel. If I am in error, I expect people to call me on it. It’s the only way for me to learn.

        E.

      4. The best way to show first person omniscient is to think about the stories where the narrator is telling a story about the narrator.

        “I didn’t know at the time that it would be my last drink ever. If I had, I probably would’ve taken a moment longer to enjoy it.”

        It goes into omni here because the MC is telling us about the future, about something that hasn’t yet happened in the story, and the MC in the story as the character (not the narrator) does not yet know it was her last drink ever.

        As for the 3rd omni, 3rd, and 3rd limited, I unfortunately don’t have time to do it. But maybe I’ll come back in the next day or two to give some. 🙂

        Happy writing!

  2. Ed, very cool post, I like this A LOT – I going to do a “PoV for dummies” post for Indies Unlimited, and you just reassured me on some of my stuff. Many thanks!

    1. I only missed Epistolary and Third Person Omniscient Focalized. Almost no one writes in letter/diary form anymore, and I know very little about TPOF.

      Thanks for dropping by, Chris!

      E.

  3. As narration styles, I consider FP present tense and FP past tense to be different. What do you think? Where would you rank them if they were different?

    1. Wow, you opened a can of worms here. I’ve written FP in both tenses, but I find past tense easier to deal with. Present tense always seems odd to me. I find myself constantly wondering how the narrator is telling the story. Do they have a dictation device clipped to their shirt, capturing everything as it happens? I know, I know, I’m far too literal, but it bothers me. So, I guess I would rank past well above present when reading or writing FP material.

      I completely agree that FP past and FP present are two different styles. Sometimes, they can even be blended together in alternating chapters. I hadn’t thought of that aspect during the writing of this post. Maybe I should do a post on tense by itself. Funny thing is, usually, when they are blended, present tense is used to describe things happening in the past, as in flashbacks. I’ve always found that odd.

      I hope I answered your questions. Thank you for stopping by!

      E.

  4. First person present does often seem so self-conscious — I gasped, and dribble drooled down my chin — but it is often the way we ourselves tell our friends stories — I come around the corner of the shed and there’s this deer there …

    First person past is often a good way to write. It seems easier to avoid accidental head hopping. But the tale has got to call for it. Otherwise the technique can leave you as the writer high and dry, if there’s info to relay and no good way to do it.

    I like to use movies as a guide, since there the storytelling is so straightforward — for the most part you don’t get into anyone’s head (unless there’s narration over the action). Most movies use a form of third person, so they can show scenes remote from the main character — such as the bad guys planning their badness.

    I do like writing third person past, but as I said, it can be tricky catching inadvertent head hopping, and also the blandness that can come from omniscience.

    Enjoyed the blog post!

    1. First person present tense always feel awkward to me. To date, out of hundreds of short stories, I’ve only tried to three times. Out of those three, only one was good. I’ve never even contemplated writing an entire novel in that form.

  5. What about 3rd person present tense? I just reviewed a book written that way and I think, in all my years of reading and thousands of books, that was the first time I’ve ever read a book in TPPT.

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