Point of View: How exactly do I write in limited third person perspective?

Doing rewrites

Okay, you now understand the basics of third person narration. So how exactly do you write in limited third person perspective? Sonny Whitelaw explains.

 

Read Part One: Point of View Basics: Whose Point of View is it, anyway?

Read Part 3: Point of View: Avoiding Exposition, or what’s commonly known as ‘the info dump’

 

The basics: grammar, punctuation, and formatting

Yes, they really, really do matter, and your story is no exception.

An editor isn’t going to ‘fix’ your grammar gremlins for you. The publishing industry is drowning in poorly written stories and it’s not economical for them to teach would-be writers how to use their most basic tools.

By now it should be clear that character development is crucial to good storytelling. When poor punctuation in dialogue, incorrect grammar, and careless formatting make it difficult to distinguish characters, your story is never going to get off the ground.

So, here are some of the key conventions of writing that you need to know, and more importantly, use:

  • Dialogue: When character A speaks, it’s one paragraph. When character B speaks, it must be a new paragraph.
  • If character A speaks and then character B reacts, in most instances, B’s reaction should be a new paragraph just as if B had spoken (this is not always the case, but for now you are better off sticking with this for the sake of clarity)
  • When only two people are speaking (A and B), by following the above convention, it is self-evident that each new paragraph means that A and B are speaking in turns. So most of the time there is no reason to tell the reader who is speaking through the use of speech tags (‘s/he said’ or similar). Some publishers reject MSs out of hand because of excessive ‘s/he said’.

 

Speech tag: “But now I’m on a mission,” said Diana.

No speech tag: Diana sat up straight and crossed her arms. “But now I’m on a mission.”

 

In the second example Donna shows the reader her mannerisms in addition to what she said.

 

  • When you do need to use speech tags, ditch the high school teacher’s missive to use variations. Writing ‘he asked’ after a question mark, or ‘he exclaimed’ after an exclamation mark, is showing (punctuation mark) AND telling (‘he exclaimed’). Remember, show, don’t tell, and that applies to punctuation as well as content.
  • A corollary to that is ‘laughed’, ‘groaned’, ‘grunted’, ‘screamed’ and an assortment of other vocalisations, that are not speech tags. You cannot do any of these actions while simultaneously speaking. You can, however, have one action follow the other. Some verbs such as mumble and whisper can be used to describe the voice, but be careful to use only actions that allow the character to speak at the same time.
  • If you must use a speech tag, then it becomes part of the corresponding dialogue to form a complete sentence. For example, where the speech follows the action described (the verb ‘said’ or some variation):

Diana said, “But now I’m on a mission.” (or) “But now I’m on a mission,” said Diana.

Simply put, if you write any variation of ‘said’ before or after dialogue, then you use a comma, but put the comma in the right place! Use the above example as your guide. If you write any behaviour that does not describe the action of speaking (i.e., it does not use a speech tag) then it’s a new sentence and requires a full stop. This applies both before and after dialogue:

Diana sat up straight and crossed her arms. “But now I’m on a mission.” (or) “But now I’m on a mission.” Diana sat up straight and crossed her arms.

  • When more than two people are speaking, you need to use other mechanisms to identify the speaker. The occasional ‘said’ is often necessary at these times, but most times you would better off using actions to break up dialogue so you don’t end up with talking heads. This applies no matter how many people are speaking. It’s also more effective than describing the tone of voice, because it adds an action to a scene that might otherwise be nothing but dialogue. Compare these:

“But now I’m on a mission,” Diana said in a determined tone. (versus) “But now I’m on a mission.” Diana sat up straight and crossed her arms.

Yes, the difference is subtle, but it is these subtleties that together create a complex, multi-layered tapestry of character traits. Anyone can speak in a determined tone, but actions speak louder than words when it comes to character development.

“But now I’m on a mission,” Diana said in a determined tone. She got up and jumped out of the plane. (versus) “But now I’m on a mission.” Diana shot to her feet and jumped out of the plane.

 

  • When the PoV of the scene is from character ‘A’, because it is his/her PoV, by definition s/he is the only one whose thoughts and feelings you can use. Any other character can only act and speak, not think or feel, because there is no way for character A to know those thoughts or feelings (the exception is telepathy, but that requires its own set of rules outside the framework of this discussion). Character A might ascribe or guess character B’s thoughts and feelings based on expressions, verbal responses, or actions then, or much later in the story. This is a great way to cause havoc between characters, because A can misinterpret B’s motives, but A may not know that B screwed up her nose because it was itchy, not because she dismissed A’s plan to save Earth.
  • When the POV of the scene is from character ‘A’, and A is staring at the ground, A cannot see events out for his/her line of sight, unless he/she looks up or around. S/he may hear or smell them, or feel pounding through the ground:

“But now I’m on a mission.” Diana (couldn’t see her father from this angle, but she) heard his grunt of dismay.

  • Similarly, when the PoV of the scene is from character ‘A’, A is not going to be conscious of the colour of his/her hair/skin/eyes or any other body part, unless some unexpected unfamiliar element forces them to take notice:

 

“But now I’m free.” Diana ran her hand across her newly shaved head, enjoying the sensation. She kicked the tangled mass of black hair on the floor towards her mother. “You loved it, so you can have it.”

 

How do you indicate a thought?

 

  • Thoughts are always italicised and therefore you do not add ’s/he thought’, as it is the equivalent of showing (italics) plus telling (s/he thought)

 

  • Thoughts are always in the first person present tense, even though the main text is in the third person narrative (past tense)

 

  • Thoughts are not dialogue, and therefore you do not use inverted commas or speech tags.

 

Unless you use these conventions correctly, it will be very hard, if not impossible, for the reader to know who’s saying what to whom, how the characters feel and what they think, and crucially, why they act as they do. In short, you don’t have a story.

 

More Rules of PoV

 

  • Stick to one PoV per chapter

This is crucial for the reader to make that all-important emotional investment in your key characters. Give the reader time to get to know them, and make sure the reader is not confused by other characters, (the archetype ‘cast of thousands’). The simplest way to do this is to stick to one POV for each scene, preferably each chapter:

Chapter 1: Character A.

Chapter 2: Character B.

etc.

 

But this scene is really important to all of my characters, so which PoV should I use?

Use the PoV of the character with the most to lose. This creates the most dramatic tension.

If you really think other PoVs are necessary, then wait until character B is in a new scene where s/he reflects on this previous scene. This does NOT mean re-writing the entire previous scene through character B’s PoV. It means B calling back to the element/s in that scene that triggered a thought/feeling and perhaps subsequent reaction in him/her (see also 3.7 Exposition). The reader already knows what happened in the scene. Now all they need to know is why character B is thinking about it or acting on it (motive).

 

  • Orientate the reader at the beginning of the chapter

Stick with the basics. Begin each story (and new scene) with who, what, when, and where. A hint of why and how is useful, but don’t show all of your cards, hold the most important revelations for later. Right now, you want to firmly anchor your reader in the basics.

So, you’re a reader and you start to read a new chapter beginning with:

As they rounded the corner of the house to the front door, Fred and Jane stopped.

Whose PoV is this chapter being told from? Possibly Fred, because his is the first name that appears in the sentence. But conventional grammar dictates that we refer to others ahead of ourselves. So is it Jane?

Using ‘they’ is the textbook definition of third person omniscient narrative (refer to page 1).

Informing the reader whose PoV it is early in the chapter orientates the reader. This is particularly important as the story progresses. The reader gets to know the characters, is inside their headspace, and so they start each chapter with certain expectations from the characters.

For example, if this is part way into the book, the reader may know that Fred is secretly in love with Jane, but Jane loathes him, and is setting him up to be shot by the serial killer in the house, whom she’s tipped off. So the reader brings certain expectations to the narrative. But if the reader has no idea whose POV this chapter opens with, they have no idea how the narrative, ‘As they rounded the corner of the house to the front door, Fred and Jane stopped,’ serves the story. They are reading words wondering what the words mean in terms of the character’s perceptions (hate or love).

 

A better way to start the chapter would be:

 

Fred’s PoV

Fred paused before rounding the corner of the house, checking to see if Jane was in position. He trusted her to have his back, but she’d seemed distracted all morning.

This is very simple, but it has all the elements. We know it’s Fred’s PoV because we know the reason he pauses, that is, his motive: he’s checking on Jane. This orientates the reader while informing them something about each character. Think about all the information this conveys about Fred and Jane’s relationship as characters: trust, love, concern, caution, and professionalism (from Fred’s PoV), whereas Jane’s is the polar opposite. Betrayal is imminent!

 

  • Reveal what motivates the character

People do not act without reason, and neither should characters. When writing from a character’s PoV, the reader should be privy to their thoughts and behaviours, what motivates them. This should not be a mystery to the reader, because they are in his/her headspace with him/her. The mystery can be off-scene because you have chosen not to reveal a different PoV. Take the above example of Fred and Jane. Let’s say the book opens with the above passage:

Fred paused before rounding the corner of the house, checking to see if Jane was in position. He trusted her to have his back, but she’d seemed distracted all morning.

At this point, the reader has no idea what motivates Jane. You can keep that mystery alive by never writing Jane’s PoV, or waiting until you can do so at the most shocking moment. Timing is everything.

You are not writing a screenplay!

Writing stories for an audience of readers is entirely different to writing script treatments or scripts for an audience that will ultimately be viewers.

Scripts are crafted by a writer to be a set of directions with dialogue, presented in an agreed upon format, to the cast and crew who in turn will breathe life into the story for the audience. The final result, film or games, engages the reader through externalities: seeing the actor’s concern, the lighting, the camera angles, and hearing the music and/or sound effects to create the right ambience and prime the viewer with certain expectations. Or in the case of first-person shooter games, to actually immerse the viewer/user in the game. The writing techniques are entirely different because they use different mediums to tell the story, and they target different end users/audience.

If you are writing a story, not a script, the only tool you have to engage the reader is putting them inside the mind of the main character(s) from the opening lines.

This means not opening your story from an omniscient perspective with a huge sweeping landscape view / background history of events so far. Leave this for when you sell the movie rights and let the scriptwriter do this.

 

Read Part Three: Point of View: Avoiding Exposition, otherwise known as an ‘information dump’

 

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About the Author:

Novel Writing Course at NZ Writers CollegeAward-winning author Sonny Whitelaw tutors the Write a Novel Course and the Literary Short and Flash Fiction Course at NZ Writers College.

Sonny has enjoyed a successful career as a writer for more than thirty years. Her work as a photojournalist has appeared in dozens of international magazines including National Geographic. She won a Draco Award for her first novel, The Rhesus Factor and all eight of her novels including five based on the television series, Stargate, have been international bestsellers.

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