Third-person point of view takes two forms: omniscient point of view and third-person-limited point of view.
Omniscient point of view comes in three styles:
• GOD'S EYE VIEW
1. The storyteller sees all the action—even action that the characters can't see—and sometimes expresses opinions about it.
2. The storyteller knows all the characters' thoughts and feelings, and can move from one character's "head" to another's.
3. The omniscient narration is always in third person, unless the narrator is God, or a magic dog, or a ghost, all of which are problematic, to say the least.
4. The narrative contains a tone of authority that unifies the story. ("Once upon a time there were three bears. . . .") Readers feel they are in the hands of a reliable storyteller who will deliver all the relevant aspects of the story in the proper order.
• CAMERA EYE VIEW
1. The storyteller sees all the action, but does not know the characters' thoughts and feelings.
2. The storyteller has no opinions about characters or events. The story is reported but not interpreted.
1. The omniscient storyteller sees all the action, but enters only one character's thoughts and feelings.
Third-person-limited is the other kind of third-person point of view.
• The story is told in third person, but through only ONE character's point of view.
• The reader is not privy to anything that is outside this one character's sight or hearing. The reader knows only what this character knows.
• In third-person-limited, the reader experiences the character from the inside out: "The rain made Emily's hair feel like cold snakes on her back." The reader is made to feel he or she is inhabiting the point-of-view character's body.
Good description flows from point of view, and vice versa. When determining point of view for your next story, remember your choices: first person, second person, and third person. The first-person point of view requires an engaging and convincing narrator. The second-person narrative has a distinctive tone and offers you slightly more descriptive latitude than first person. The third-person point of view offers you the most descriptive freedom. You may use an omniscient narrator who has access to any and all characters, who may or may not express opinions, and who may reveal as much or as little of a character, or characters, as he likes. The third-person-limited narrator, on the other hand, has access to only one character, and may not venture outside that character's perspective or reveal anything that the point-of-view character does not see, feel, or know.
Once you have a good grasp of the limits and freedoms of the various points of view, be sure to match the descriptive style to the point of view you have chosen. Children see the world differently from adults; old people have a different vocabulary than young people. An invisible omniscient narrator adopts a more formal tone than a fully present omniscient narrator. An educated first-person narrator has a different speaking style than an uneducated one. A third-person-limited narrative can be so distant as to feel nearly omniscient, or so intimate as to feel a half-step removed from first person.
Physical descriptions of your characters should not violate point of view. These details must emerge as a natural part of the story and not simply as information for the readers' benefit. Be careful also to separate yourself from your narrators, whether or not they are in first person. The "I" or "Eye" telling the story is not really you, it is a character you create.
Don't be discouraged if you have to refer back to this chapter many times before point of view becomes second nature. It is a problem of craft that even the most experienced writers grapple with again and again.
A writers style is composed of hundreds of choices big and small, from point of view to sentence length to word choice. As you work through the first drafts of a story, you should be struggling with certain questions: Is the main character the right one? Am I using the best point of view? Does the structure enhance or hinder the story's progress? Do I need more scenes and less narrative? Should I change tense? Are the paragraphs too long or too short or too similar? Am I using too many modifiers or too few? These questions help you form your descriptive style.
If you have already "found your style," however, and always write in a certain way, these questions become moot. If you always write in present tense with nineteen-year-old narrators who favor compound sentences, your stories may eventually run out of energy and start sounding alike. Examine any writer's body of work and you will find stylistic changes (some of them dramatic) between the early work and the later. Try to stay open to changes in your own style, to keep yourself interested in and challenged by your own writing.
Many inexperienced writers overlook the fact that style evolves as much from the characters as from their creator. A style that suits the first novel may wreck the second, because the characters in the second novel see the world differently from the characters in the first novel. Wedding yourself too soon to a writing style can squelch your natural instincts for adventure and experimentation. Think of the hundreds of characters you might never meet!
CHOOSING DESCRIPTIVE STYLE
In a first draft we don't yet know our characters or fully understand the situation we have placed them in. The first draft of a story usually has a vague shape, an approximation of a beginning, middle, and end, and a theme that is barely discernible. The only thing we can literally "see" in a first draft is the writing style. Florid or bare-bones, it is there on the page. Perhaps because we are so grateful at this stage to have something we can see, we are reluctant to alter the style that brought us the gift of a first draft. In subsequent drafts we may change the main character, manipulate the plot, alter the sequence of events, add scenes and jettison others—but the original style we leave alone. Why? Doesn't it stand to reason that changes in plot or character should affect style? Writers often forget to go back and check for stylistic harmony, and yet that harmony is the very thing that gives a story its final polish.
Let's analyze descriptive style through some examples. A first-draft passage set in a rural backwater might sound like this:
Version One: Franny sat on the porch, cracking one knuckle after another, squinting out at the ragged, dusty stretch of asphalt that passed for a road. Tuckered and heat-weary, she hissed a ribbon of air through her lips. Her brother Emmett was on his way, so they told her, but she'd believe it when she saw his mud-ugly face and not one minute before.
This descriptive style is peppered with imagery in keeping with a rural setting. But what if you decided, midway through the fifth draft, that your story about this estranged brother and sister would be better served in a more suburban setting? Fine, you say, let's move the story from Rural Route 1 to a Cape Cod-style house on Maple Street:
Version Two: Franny sat in the breezeway of her mother's neat white Cape, cracking one knuckle after another, squinting out at the sedate blacktop of Maple Street. Tuckered and heat-weary, she hissed a ribbon of air through her lips. Her brother Emmett was on his way, so they told her, but she'd believe it when she saw his mud-ugly face and not one minute before.
Something is suddenly wrong with this picture. The stylistic flourishes don't work in a non-rural setting. Phrases like "tuckered and heat-weary" and "mud-ugly" clang against the ears. Down-home phraseology doesn't sound right unless the setting is down-home.
It is nearly impossible to change a story without altering style at least a little; even if the characters are essentially the same, they have a different address now. The story requires a different descriptive tack:
Version Three: Franny sat in the breezeway of her mother's neat white Cape, cracking one knuckle after another, squinting out at the sedate blacktop of Maple Street. The trees, fully leafed, seemed vaguely military, lined up and staring. She cast her eyes down, letting a noisy ribbon of air escape her lips. Her brother Emmett was on his way, so they told her, but she'd believe it when she saw his unwelcome face and not one minute before.
Can you see the style evolving into something else as the story changes? The first version, with its dust and heat, conjures expectations of ancient family feuds set amidst the unforgiving southern landscape. The second version, with its suburban setting and down-home phrasings, conjures a variety of expectations that don't go together very well. The third version suggests a subtler, more tightly controlled family conflict, with its military imagery and sophisticated language.
By the fifteenth draft you may decide that the rural setting is more in keeping with the story's intentions after all. By this time, however, you've developed a style that feels comfortable to you: a present-tense omniscient narrator with a "writerly" vocabulary. The lyricism feels true to the story's lofty theme of betrayal and forgiveness. Do you have to alter the style again in order to go back to the original setting? Probably not, if this is indeed your fifteenth draft. The style is solid enough by now that it can withstand a change in setting:
Final Version: Franny sits on the splintered porch rail, draping her bare legs over the edge. They dangle like ropes: long, delicately knotted, burnished by the sun. Her fingers, too, are long, and she works one hand over the other, her knuckles making chips of sound in the hot, empty day . . .
This passage seems more whole, more finished, than any of the other examples. The down-home phraseology is gone, but the poetic language that replaces it evokes a hot country day just as effectively. The prose is delicate and strong at the same time, like the character you are describing. The individual images are gentle—"draping her legs," "delicately knotted," "chips of sound." And yet the resulting picture—the actual thing being described by these images—is a strong, knuckle-cracking, sunburned young woman. Here is a person of limited prospects who has the potential to do something extraordinary when faced with a family conflict. Style and content harmonize, and the story feels finished.
As you can see by the number of examples here, stylistic harmony rarely happens by accident. You have to play with different kinds of description, over a great number of drafts, before you discover the right notes. This is not a matter of "hitting" the right style, like turning a roulette wheel and hoping for a black seven. Style develops, little by little, as you work a story through its paces. So, don't be in too much of a hurry. Your goal, after all, is not to make the writing effortless, but to make it seem effortless. That marvelous fraud is achieved only one way—through relentless hard work.