Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Third Person Narration: Friend or Foe?

I struggle more with third person narration than first person. Third person disguises itself as a simpler style (at least it did to me), removing the limits found in first person and allowing the writer to keep the narrator’s voice neutral. There is, of course, a danger in oversimplifying anything with writing, and I drifted inadvertently into a minefield.

Omniscience. This is an awesome power for the narrator, but I’ve found that it can easily wreck a story. Unfiltered character thoughts can flood a page and kill suspense. When I used this poorly, I left nothing to the reader’s imagination. My narrator told them everything, to the point that there was no reason to continue listening. A better strategy for me was to limit the text to one character’s thoughts, at least within each scene. The narration then picks up some of the attributes of the character, giving life to what might otherwise lack personality.

Besides revealing the nuances of all my characters, my third person narrator had a terrible habit of showing too many details. A room became cluttered with so much junk that the story became an inventory list. It was like I was writing a play, and I needed to give direction to the stage crew. My solution for this was to be subtler, to show only what needed to be shown and to reveal bits and pieces as the story unfolds.

A final problem (among many) with my narrator was that he was simply too busy. Sentences contained too many adjectives and adverbs. Minute actions became paragraphs. He needed to be succinct in order to tell the story effectively. I will always prefer to err on the side of too many words than not enough, but my narrator is not nearly as verbose as he once was. The old adage is true: some things are better left unsaid.

The narrator should work for you, not against you. Don’t let him or her become a loquacious monster of infinite knowledge. Write yourself detailed notes if you must, but limit third person narration to the story and its purpose. This is, after all, your story.

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