First person: I woke up, and there before me stood the grim reaper – things were not looking good.
Third person: He woke up to find the grim reaper stood before him. Great – just what he needed.
Omniscient: When John woke up he was startled by the grim reaper, who stood before him. He decided immediately – unusual for him – that things were not looking good.
I think it's fair to say that I have placed these in order of evocative potential:
First person has more intimacy, allows the reader inside the head of the main character(s) and discloses what they are feeling – but the downside is you can only reveal to the reader what the character can feel or see or sense, not what other characters are thinking or subplots unknown to him. And, of course, if he's in a life-threatening plot…well, he's still here to tell the tale. Of course, readers suspend their disbelief when taking the ride – and there are worse fates than death, if you want to circumvent this paradox in a first-person thriller.
Omniscient is the polar opposite: we can provide far more detail, and reveal all the fabric of the plot and the characters' inner traits – the downside being that it lacks the intimacy of first person; you're looking down at the story rather than through the narrator's eyes from within. An unwieldy example of such narrative summary is at the beginning of the previous article (#3): Character and Exposition.
Third person, the most popular style, provides a kind of compromise, whereby we can reveal the story from the accumulated knowledge (and attitudes) of the characters and also allow the reader more or less into their heads by revealing their thoughts, as above. We call characters' thoughts Interior Monologue, and this will be explored further in a coming article.
And we can mix and match PoVs, though it's not recommended to inexperienced writers, other than a soupçon of bare omniscient as a backdrop/intro to a third person narrative point of view. When setting out to write in pure omniscient point of view it is very easy to slip into third person because of the involvement with your characters. In third person we can slip into 'head-hopping', that is, switching points of view of the characters in the scene in an attempt to convey more:
"I don't know why I even bother," Sarah complained. After all these weeks they still hadn't designed her a simple logo.
"It's not that straightforward," Luke countered. It looked like she was going to be trouble, after all.
"Straightforward? Ha!" Janet cut in. "Well you haven't been here to see things go straight or forward." She was sick and tired of covering for Luke's laziness. Enough was enough. Sarah was a close friend.
This compelling scene I cobbled together is shifting from one (third person) point of view to the others: first we have Sarah's frustration, then we have Luke's facile indifference, followed by Janet's indignation at it. But I'm trying too hard to inject extra info and jerking the reader around in the process. Fact is, readers get more from your scenes if you choose the best PoV character for the majority of the scene and show what you want to expose about the others.
There's little we can do to resuscitate the above prose, but as an example I will place the scene in Janet's PoV.
"I don't know why I even bother," Sarah complained to Janet. "I mean, how hard is it to knock up a digital logo using Photoshop? It's been weeks, now."
Janet winced. There was little she could do to mitigate the awful service provided here, aside from dragging her useless manager into the office every day and ramming a rocket up his lazy ass.
"Luke!" she called, "can you come over here for a minute? A lady needs your attention." There, that should lure him over – a honey trap with a sting. She held back a smile.
Luke sidled casually up to the reception desk. A spike of recognition flashed in his eyes as he realized who was waiting to receive him.
"Mrs. Parker," he oozed. "Nice to see you again. I expect you're here about the logo. Thing is, it's not as straightforward a process as the layman imagines."
"Straightforward? Ha!" Janet cut in. "Well you haven't been here to see things go straight or forward." Enough was enough. Sarah was a close friend.
Even this bland example should serve to illustrate that the flow is smoother without head-hopping. There are occasions where it's effective to switch PoVs (once, usually) in a scene, usually toward the end. The way to help your reader make this jump smoothly is quite simple: insert a line space – the reader will pick up this cue. So let's imagine we have inserted an indented line space because it's important to change to Luke's PoV for the sake of exposition:
Luke was flabbergasted. Janet, the bitch, had thrown him a curved ball. He knew of the soccer mom's reputation; worse, that of her son – that was one goon he didn't want on his case. He held up his hands to both women.
"Okay, I admit I've let things slide this last couple of weeks. It's been hard dealing with…a rather upsetting domestic issue," he lied, "but I'll make sure it's completed by close of play tomorrow."
Adding omniscient PoV to third person
As stated, it can be effective to open with a little omniscient to set the scene before launching into your third person PoV.
The opening scene from the talented Graham J. Sharpe's Purple – the transition is smooth-to-invisible:
Ellie Arnold believes in reincarnation and thinks she may have been Marilyn Monroe in a previous life. When Ellie told her parents about this, they laughed out loud.
Twenty-three weeks later, June 22nd, one a.m. to be exact, Ellie tidied her freshly-bleached Marilyn Monroe hairstyle in the mirror. She applied a coat of red lipstick, pencilled in a beauty spot and blew herself a kiss.
She’d turned the light off at ten, but insomnia must be an eight-hour virus that lurks in toothpaste. As soon as she’d cleaned her teeth and put her head on the pillow, the symptoms appeared. Too late to prevent infection, she lay alone in the dark and imagined the blood rushing AWAKE round her system: swoosh…swoosh…swoosh. It made her feet burn, her legs restless and her shoulders ache. It caused a sudden onset of wriggle-squirm-roll-flip. When it finally reached her brain, triggering an explosion of thought, she gave up and trudged downstairs to the lounge.
Desperate to get on Facebook, Ellie opened her laptop and held her breath for an Internet signal. No! Still nothing!
She flicked on the TV to watch The Five O’Clock Announcement’s midnight repeat. The usual pinched and bespectacled face stared out from the screen.
“Welcome Golden Oldies and Bright Young Things! Thank you for tuning in. My name is Penny Treasure.
“Over five months have passed since Purple Monday, that horrific day in January…”
Ellie flicked the TV off. She’d already heard today’s message and it hadn’t brought her any comfort. “Penny Treasure…with her helmet hairdo…she’s weird…she gives me the creeps. Looks like she’s enjoying herself too much.”
Frank purred and leapt up onto the sofa.
Ellie despaired that so much time had passed since Purple Monday because her memory still hadn’t returned to normal. The past five months had drifted along in a blur. The details of that day remained a complete blank and the memories of her life before it seemed patchy and confused.
An experienced writer can even place bare omniscient PoV in the middle of a scene – it's not recommended to use often and it often falls flat and/or exposes the narrator. To save you clicking around, here is the excerpt, courtesy Russell Blake's Geronimo Breach featured in article #2. We're not in the main character, Al's PoV in this third person scene, we are in his reluctant passenger's PoV. You will see how the bare omniscient reflection on fortune and prayer blends in and enhances the scene – harder than it looks, I warn you:
Ernesto inspected the bank of warning lights reflecting off Al’s face. “Your gas gauge says empty,” he observed.
“Yeah. Been like that for a while. It’s broken,” Al explained. “I put some gas in before I picked you up. We’re golden.”
Ernesto tried again. “Aren’t you worried about all the hazard lights being on? Like the check engine light?”
“Nah. Those are just to let you know the manufacturer wants you to pay the dealer a bunch of money to verify everything’s working. I know everything’s working – if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be moving right now…” Al’s brand of logic was unassailable.
Ernesto changed his opinion of Al. He modified his internal evaluation of Al from idiot to sub-custodial mouth-breather. He just prayed they would make it to the rendezvous point so he’d never have to see the cretin again.
Unfortunately for Ernesto, tonight wasn’t the night for prayers to be answered. At least, not his. A loud clunk and a series of shuddering slamming sounds came from the engine compartment, followed by silence, other than the motor running and the tires on the pavement.
“What the hell was that?” Ernesto asked.
“Dunno. Never done that before,” Al observed. “But hey, she’s running like a scared rabbit, so no worries.”
Which was true, until after a few minutes they both began to notice that the road was getting darker. The dimming headlights were soon barely illuminating the pavement. Al uttered an oath and pulled to the side of the road – in this case, the muddy shoulder.
Further related articles on here:
Next up: Dialogue Mechanics
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Other Self Editing articles:Self editing 4 fiction #7 ~ Interior Monologue
Self editing 4 fiction #8 ~ Master of the Beat
Self editing 4 fiction #9 ~ Sophistication