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.