11.28.2017

When Third Is the Same as the First

On first blush, the difference between the I-voice and the omniscient voice appears to be a wide gulf. As with any aspect of storytelling, however, the approaches are bent toward some degree of union according to the dictates of each individual writer. If you grow comfortable with a third-person character, you may come to see that the differences are barely distinguishable. You may choose that character to carry the entire narrative burden for you. This is known as third-person limited narration.

A hallmark of this style is how deeply inside a character’s thoughts the author probes. If Meghan launches into a full paragraph of how distressed she is after learning her father is gay and leaving the home, the pronoun “she” is virtually the same as the pronoun “I.” The two can appear interchangeably throughout the text, depending on how distinctive an author wants the thoughts to be.

Indeed, when authors are not getting inside a character’s head sufficiently, I enjoin them to write a passage initially in the first-person voice, then convert it to third- later. A find-and-replace of “I am” to “she is” may accomplish fifty percent of the conversion in one stroke. This process can be worked in reverse as well. This technique exposes times when the author’s hand is too heavy. When I read a sentence like “She thought her father was suffering from the workaholic ethos of his law partners,” I think, “Try pulling that off with ‘I thought . . .’”

That narrative distance shows one of the primary pitfalls of the third-person limited voice. It is so easy for an author to make anything he wants to write into a character’s thoughts. This leads to the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. The key to stopping such laziness is to avoid all telling of plot events and secondhand commentary within interior passages. Once the thoughts are divorced from exposition, they are free to roam where a person’s mind will. In the example above, for example, maybe she tells of one Sunday when she went into work with her father, only to be stranded for hours in a conference room. How did she feel with nothing to do, thinking about all the fun things she could be doing?

Where the author best intrudes is in summary work. You want to cover minor scene setting quickly, or want to denote a lapse in time. You pull back from the character’s intense gaze in order to avoid wasting the reader’s time during a bridge between scenes.

Exercise: Review the manuscript looking for interior monologues. If you are explicating plot, even of events that have already happened, stop to consider whether it should be converted into an action scene. Is it important enough for such treatment? If not, see if you can convert it into her feeling or opinion about the event.

“I go straight from thinking about my narrator to being him.”
—S. E. Hinton

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



 





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