MOST WRITERS DON’T ACTUALLY THINK OF THEMSELVES as God. We are much too humble for that. But within the world of our story, we do have nearly absolute power. Our characters live and die by our decisions; their families and friendships, location and livelihood depend on our whims. They go through the most terrible suffering because we thought it would be more interesting if they did, and just when they finally settle down to live a normal life again, we close the book and snuff them out.
Unfortunately, all that godlike power is usually used in private. We may be manipulating our characters like tormented puppets through the landscape of our own demented minds, but we conceal all that from our readers. All our artistry as performers of fiction is designed to give the audience the illusion that our characters do what they do for their own reasons, that our story is a natural, believable series of events.
The only time we can act out our godlike role in front of the audience is when we write using the third-person omniscient point of view.
OMNISCIENT VS. LIMITED POINT OF VIEW
As an omniscient narrator, you float over the landscape wherever you want, moving from place to place in the twinkling of an eye. You pull the reader along with you like Superman taking Lois Lane out for a flight, and whenever you see something interesting, you explain to the reader exactly what’s going on. You can show the reader every character’s thoughts, dreams, memories, and desires; you can let the reader see any moment of the past or future.
The limited third-person narrator, on the other hand, doesn’t fly freely over the landscape. Instead, the limited narrator is led through the story by one character, seeing only what that character sees; aware of what that character (the “viewpoint character”) thinks and wants and remembers, but unable to do more than guess at any other character’s inner life. You can switch viewpoint characters from time to time, but trading viewpoints requires a clear division – a Chapter break or a line space. The limited third-person narrator can never change viewpoints in mid-scene.
What Omniscient Narrators Do Best
Only the omniscient narrator can write passages like this:
It took Pete two months to work up the courage to ask Nora out. She was so delicate-looking, so frail-boned, her skin translucent, her straw-brown hair wisping off into golden sparks around her face. How could a beer-and-football guy like Peter ever impress Nora Danzer? So he studied the kinds of things that fragile beauties are impressed with – the current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, the art of cinema; he drew the line at opera. When he was ready at last, he wrote his invitation on a whimsical Sandra Boynton card and left it on her desk with a single daffodil.
He didn’t leave his office, didn’t dare to pass her desk until eleven o’clock. The single flower was in a slender vase. She looked up at him and smiled that gentle smile and said, “I’ve never been asked so sweetly. Of course I’ll go.”
Taking her out was like taking a final exam. Pete knew he was failing, but he couldn’t figure out why. He kept bumbling along, trying to impress Nora with his sentivitity, never guessing that Nora was much more comfortable with beer-and-football types. She had grown up with brothers who thought that “fun” was any outdoor game that left scabs. She had often told her friends that all but six of her delicate, fragile bones had been broken during childhood – at least she could hardly remember a time when she didn’t have a cast on some part of her body. She liked rowdiness, laughter, crude humour and general silliness; she had thought Pete was like that, from the way he bantered and joked with the others at the office.
So all Pete’s talk about the relative merits of the comic visions of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx only confused and intimidated her. She was sure that if she tried to change the subject to things she cared about – the ‘Sinks’ chances of getting a third Super Bowl victory in the 80s, for instance – he would gaze at her with surprise and contempt, and take her home. She didn’t want to go home. She wanted to be at an easy, comfortable bar somewhere, getting slightly drunk and laughing with Pete’s buddies.
So did Pete. After all, Pete was the guy who had run the length of the bar at Hokey’s, naked, because Walter Payton didn’t score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX. Why did he think he belonged with someone as refined as Nora? He was sure she saw through his disguise and knew he was just another former high school jock – that’s why her eyes were glazing over while he talked.
They sipped their tasteless Perrier, ate as if three asparagus spears and a dime-sized medallion of flounder made a meal, and pretended they were deeply interested in Polanski’s post-American movies. If only each had known that the other slept through most of Tess.
In this story fragment, I tried to show the omniscient point of view at its best. Because the narrator can see into both Pete’s and Nora’s minds, switching back and forth at will, we know things that neither character knows; the pleasure of this scene is that neither character’s point of view is accurate, but ours is.
No other point of view but omniscient would allow a narrator to say that last sentence: “If only each had known that the other slept through most of Tess.”
If either Pete or Nora were a first-person narrator, we would have seen that scene from only one point of view. We would have shared in that character’s misunderstanding of the other. Later, of course, there could be a scene in which they confess the truth to each other; at that point we would think back to their horrible first date and realize that it was all a ridiculous mistake. But we would not have the pleasure or the tension of knowing it was a mistake while the scene was actually happening. (Unless, of course, the first-person narrator violated the time-flow of the story and closed the scene by saying, “Later I found out that Nora had slept through most of Tess. It was one more thing we had in common.” But such a reminder that all these events happened long ago would usually be a gross mistake in a first-person account because it would distance the reader from the immediacy of the story.) A limited third-person narrator would also be forced to show us the scene from only one character’s point of view at a time. But limited third-person offers a few more options than first person. We could still have that later confession scene – in fact, a scene of unmasking is mandatory in a story that hinges on characters misunderstanding each other’s true nature.
Changing Viewpoint Characters
The limited narrator can also change viewpoint characters. Not in mid-scene or even mid-paragraph, as the omniscient narrator does, but from one scene to another, as long as there is a clear transitional break. The most obvious transitional break, and therefore the one that works best, is the Chapter break. If Chapter one is from Pete’s point of view – with his worries about asking Nora out for a date, his preparation for the “final exam,” and so on – then Chapter two can be from Nora’s point of view. We’ll remember how anxious Pete was to keep “delicate” Nora from guessing that he was really a beer-drinking jock, so as we see the date from Nora’s point of view, with her memories of her brothers playing roughly in the yard, her longing to talk football and drink beer in a bar, we’ll get most of the delicious irony of knowing the truth about two characters who are deceiving each other too well.
But what if you want to write a short story, not a book? Can’t you switch viewpoint characters without having to resort to a Chapter structure?
Yes. The next-clearest transitional device in fiction is the “line space” – a double-double space if you work on a typewriter, two hard carriage returns if you work on a word processor. It looks like this:
In your manuscript, however, you must mark a line space so the typesetting and layout will know that it’s a deliberate space that should appear in the finished book. Usually a line space is marked in a transcript with three asterisks, like this:
* * *
The asterisks will usually appear in the finished book or magazine only if the line space falls at a page break. The rest of the time they’ll be deleted, leaving only a blank line.
The first part of our story, using Pete as the viewpoint character, ends with the line space. Readers are trained to recognize a line space as a signal that a major change is taking place in a story – a change of location, a long passage of time, or a change in viewpoint character. However, you must be careful that you establish what the change is immediately after the line space. The first sentence should use Nora’s name and make it clear that the narrator is now following her point of view. The first paragraph should also let us know, directly by implication, where she is and how long it has been since the events just before the line space.
A change of viewpoint character is the most difficult transition for readers to make. (All right, a jump 900 years and a change of planet might be harder, but usually time and space changes are a matter of a few days and a few miles.) It’s a lot easier for readers to adapt to the viewpoint change if they have already met the new viewpoint character, and it’s even easier if the new viewpoint character is already very important in the story. In this case, because the section from Pete’s viewpoint is focused on his feelings and plans for Nora, we won’t have any confusion at all when the section immediately after the line space begins:
Nora had never seen nouvelle cuisine before. O her the half-empty plate looked like someone in the kitchen had decided to put her on a diet. Had Pete called ahead to tell them she was too fat or something?
Since the section before focused on Pete’s upcoming date with Nora, readers will remember easily who Nora is, and will have little trouble guessing from this opening that Nora is now out on a date with Pete.
Just as important is the fact that this paragraph immediately establishes Nora’s point of view. In the last section, we would have become used to seeing everything from Pete’s perspective, getting his thoughts and attitudes and memories. The first sentence after the line break gives us information about Nora that Pete would not know – her unfamiliarity with nouvelle cuisine. His point of view has been clearly violated; hers is being clearly established. The second sentence gives her attitude – her humorously paranoid guess about the chef’s motive for putting such a small amount of food on a plate. And to complete the viewpoint shift, the third sentence starts showing us Pete, our previous viewpoint character, only this time from her point of view – her uncertainty about how he is judging her. Since Pete’s viewpoint section would have shown us how he practically worshipped Nora and thought she was the most fragile, beautiful woman he’d ever known, having Nora speculate that Pete might think she was too fat lets us know that Nora’s self-image is wildly different from Pete’s image of her. The viewpoint shift is complete in three sentences, and readers will settle in comfortably with Nora’s point of view.
Because we’ve had experience with Pete’s point of view, the limited third-person version of the dinner scene would have most of the irony we had in the omniscient version. Presumably the previous section, from Pete’s point of view, would have told us about his buck-naked run along the bar at Hokey’s after losing a football bet, so when Nora starts wishing she could talk about football during dinner, we’ll remember Pete’s football fanaticism and realize that if Pete would just stop pretending to be what he thinks Nora is, the real Nora would certainly enjoy the real Pete. The irony is working. We don’t have to wait for a later confession scene, as we would in the first person. By changing viewpoint characters, a limited third-person narrator can get most of the same kind of narrative effects as an omniscient narrator.
What the limited third-person narrator can’t do is match the omniscient narrator’s brevity. The omniscient passage was six paragraphs long. The limited third-person version would have to be far longer. Pete’s viewpoint section, to feel complete, would have to be far longer than the two-and-a-half paragraphs he gets in the omniscient passage. To develop his point of view effectively, we’d have to go into much more detail about his preparations for asking Nora out. Perhaps we’d establish his network of relationships at work, show him trying to find out more about her, show him trying to change his image to fit what he thinks she’ll want. By the time we are ready to change viewpoint characters, we have to know Pete well enough that his view of the world – and especially of himself and Nora – will stay in our memory throughout the section from Nora’s point of view.
The omniscient narrator can tell more story and reveal more character in less time than it takes the limited third-person narrator. That’s the greatest advantage of the omniscient narrator.
The Limited Narrator’s Advantage
If the limited narrator takes so much longer to do the same job as the omniscient narrator, why do we need the limited third-person narrator at all? Why, for heaven’s sake, is limited third-person the overwhelming dominant narrative voice in American fiction today?
It’s a matter of distance. As the omniscient narrator slips in and out of different characters’ minds, he keeps the reader from fully engaging with any of the characters. The omniscient passage quoted above is far more presentational than representational – we’re constantly being reminded that the narrator is telling us a story about Pete and Nora. We never get deeply enough involved with either of them to fully identify with them, to begin to feel what they’re felling. Instead of sharing Nora’s frustration or Pete’s bafflement, we are forced to take a distant, ironic, amused stance, watching what they do but not experiencing it.
The limited third-person strategy is to trade time for distance. Sure, we spend more time getting through the same amount of story, but in return we get a much deeper, more intense involvement with the lives of the viewpoint characters. The omniscient narrator is always there, tugging at our hands, pulling us from place to place. We see everything and everybody as the narrator sees them, not as the characters see them. We are always outside looking in.
For instance, whose point of view are we getting in this sentence? “He kept bumbling along, trying to impress Nora with his sensitivity, never guessing that Nora was much more comfortable with beer-and-football types.” Perhaps Pete sees himself as “bumbling along,” and certainly we are seeing inside his head as we see him “trying to impress Nora with his sensitivity” – but would he actually use those words to describe himself? Is he really so cynical that he thinks of himself as faking sensitivity? Or does he think that he’s actually trying to become, not “sensitive,” but worthy of her? We’re getting an attitude here, but it isn’t really Pete’s attitude – it’s the narrator’s. The narrator sees Pete as bumbling and trying to fake sensitivity.
Likewise, when we are told that Nora “had often told her friends that all but six of her delicate, fragile bones had been broken during childhood,” who is actually using the words “delicate” and “fragile”? Not Pete – he doesn’t know what Nora has told her friends. And not Nora – she doesn’t see herself as delicate and fragile, it’s Pete who does. The phrase “delicate, fragile bones” is a direct echo of Pete’s assessment of Nora as “delicate-looking, frail-boned” in the first paragraph, yet it is inserted ironically into Nora’s memory of her own childhood. Again, the narrator is openly intruding into the story, nudging the reader into seeing the humour of the situation.
“She liked rowdiness, laughter, crude humour, and general silliness,” says the narrator. But that isn’t the way Nora would think of it. If that sentence were written from her point of view, it would be more like this:
She liked guys who knew how to have a good time, get a little rowdy, have some laughs. She thought of telling him the joke about Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse getting a divorce, but she knew a guy like Pete would never appreciate a punchline with the f-word in it.
To let us know, from Nora’s point of view, that she likes crude humour, we have to see a sample of the humour she likes – if she is not the over-literature type Pete thinks she is, she is also unlikely to think of her own taste in humour as “crude.”
These two sentences from Nora’s viewpoint take longer than the omniscient narrator’s nine-word clause – but they also get us more deeply involved in Nora’s character, give us a much clearer and more powerful view of the world as she sees it. The omniscient narrator sees the world through the wrong end of the binoculars – readers can see everything, but it all looks very small and far away. The limited third-person narrator can’t let readers see as many different things in as short a period of time, but what the readers do see, they see “up close and personal.”
Think of the limited third-person narrator as a combination of the most important representational features of the omniscient and first-person narrators. The limited narrator gets much closer to the viewpoint characters than the omniscient narrator can, giving readers the experience of living in the character’s world – much the way the first-person narrator gives readers an intimate look at the world through the narrator’s eyes. At the same time, with limited third-person narration the viewpoint character isn’t actually telling the story, constantly reminding us that he is showing us himself, that he’s looking back on these events from some point in the story’s future.
Look at the way first-person and limited third-person narrators would deal with the event contained in this sentence from the omniscient narration: “When he was ready at last, he wrote his invitation on a whimsical Sandra Boynton card and left it on her desk with a single daffodil.” Here’s a possible limited third-person version:
Pete got to work at seven-fifteen so he could leave the flower and the card for Nora without anybody watching. He filled the bud vase with water from the drinking fountain, put the daffodil in it, set the vase on Nora’s desk, and leaned the envelope against it. It looked too formal, like a proposal of marriage or an apology or something. So he took the card out of the envelope. That was better. But the vase still bothered him – it would put too much pressure on her. If she turned him down, she could just throw away a flower, but she might feel like she had to returned the vase. So he took the daffodil out of the vase and laid it on her desk. It got water all over her blotter. He grabbed a handful of her tissues and dabbed up the water and dried the stem of the flower. He laid down the card so it mostly covered the water spots and put the daffodil at an angle across the card. Then he wrapped the vase in the wet tissues, carried it to his office, and put it in the wastebasket.
We’re getting an experience here that the omniscient version didn’t provide – we’re living through Pete’s indecision and nervousness step by step, moment by moment. Even though it’s in past tense, it feels like the present. We’re identifying with Pete as we live through all the agonizing, trivial, yet vital strategic decisions in his campaign to give Nora exactly the right impression.
Would this work as well in first person? Try it and see:
I got to work at seven-fifteen so I could leave the flower and the card for Nora without anybody watching. I filled the bud vase with water from the drinking fountain, put the daffodil in it, set the vase on Nora’s desk, and leaned the envelope against it. It looked too formal, like a proposal of marriage or an apology or something. So I took the card out of the envelope. That was better. But the vase still bothered me – it would put too much pressure on her. If she turned me down, she could just throw away a flower, but she might feel like she had to return the vase. So I took the daffodil out of the vase and laid it on her desk. It got water all over her blotter. I grabbed a handful of her tissues and dabbed up the water and dried the stem of the flower. I laid down the card so it mostly covered the water spots and put the daffodil at an angle across the card. Then I wrapped the vase in the wet tissues, carried it to my office, and put it in the wastebasket.
At first glance, it might seem to be exactly the same. But the effect is different in at least one way. The limited third-person version is told straight. You are clearly meant to empathize with Pete’s indecision, to worry about whether Nora will accept the invitation, to care about what she thinks. You are living through the experience with Pete as he lives it.
But in the first-person version, there is an unconscious assumption about why Pete-the-narrator is telling this event in such detail. Even though the narrator makes no comments like “I was such a fool in those days,” the time-distance effect is still operating. Pete-the-narrator obviously does not still feel the same uncertainty and anxiety that Pete-in-the-story felt, yet some reason Pete-the-narrator has chosen to tell this incident. Since it shows Pete-in-the-story in such a vulnerable position, it would be unthinkable for Pete-the-narrator to recount it unless he thought it was amusing, unless he had clearly wised up somehow since then and could look back on his old self with comic distance. Without being conscious of it, readers will still adjust to this comic distance.
Furthermore, in a first-person narrative we would know that Nora must have some long-term importance to Pete, because he’s telling about it; we know the first date must have worked out well or else her turndown was so spectacular it scarred Pete for life. In the limited third-person version, it’s possible that the incident with Nora may end up being completely trivial to Pete – but vitally important to Nora. The third-person limited narration allows more story line options.
Of course, the differences between first-person and limited third-person narrators may seem very subtle in this example, because the two versions are identical except for changing “he” and “him” to “I” and “me.” If I had actually been writing this incident in first person from the start, the differences would have been much greater, because the writing would have been shaped by Pete’s own voice.
MAKING UP YOUR MIND
Which type of narrator should you use? By now it should be clear that none is intrinsically, absolutely “better” than the others. All have been used by excellent writers to tell wonderful tales. But it still matters very much which one you choose. Here are some things to keep in mind.
- First-person and omniscient narrations are by nature more presentational than limited third-person – readers will notice the narrator more. If your goal is to get your readers emotionally involved with your main characters, with minimal distraction from their belief in the story, then the limited third-person narrator is your best choice.
- If you’re writing humour, however, first-person or omniscient narration can help you create comic distance. These intrusive narrators can make wry comments or write with the kind of wit that calls attention to itself, without jarring or surprising a reader who is deeply involved with the characters.
- If you want brevity, covering great spans of time and space or many characters without writing hundreds or thousands of pages to do it, the omniscient narrator may be your best choice.
- If you want the sense of truth that comes from an eyewitness account, first person usually feels less fictional, more factual.
- If you’re uncertain of your ability as a writer, while you’re quite confident of the strength of the story, the limited third-person narration invites a clean, unobtrusive writing style – a plain tale plainly told. You can still write beautifully using the limited third person, but your writing is more likely to be ignored – thus covering a multitude of sins. However, if you know you can write dazzling prose but the story itself is often your weakness, the omniscient and the first person invite you to play with language even if it distracts a bit from the tale itself. In limited third person you can’t have those lovely digressions that make Vonnegut, for instance, such a delight to read.
It‘s no accident that the overwhelming majority of fiction published today uses the limited third-person narrator. Most readers read for the sake of the story. They want to immerse themselves in the lives of the characters, and for that purpose, the limited third person is the best. It combines the flexibility of omniscience with the intensity of the first person. It’s also an easier choice for a beginning writer, partly because it doesn’t require the same level of mastery of the language, and partly because it will simply be more familiar and therefore feel more “natural” to writers who have grown up in a literary community where limited third-person predominates. (This is also the best reason for avoiding present tense; except for the academics/literary genre, present tense is very uncommon and so feels surprising, distracting, and “unnatural”; the more common past tense feels natural and invisible. Ironically, this makes past tense feel more immediate while present tense feels more distant; most readers are more likely to feel that a past-tense story is happening “now” than a present-tense story.)
Even though limited third person is currently the more common and “natural” narrative choice, if the story you’re telling needs omniscience or the first person, don’t hesitate a moment to use the narrative strategy that’s right for the story. Both omniscience and first person are still common enough that your audience won’t be startled or put off by the choice (though first person is far more common than omniscience). If you use them, readers won’t think you’re showing off as they would if you were to write in some bizarre narrative voice, like second-person imperative mood or third-person plural future tense.
Just be aware of the limitations of each narrative strategy, so you can compensate for them. I’ve already mentioned Thomas Gavin’s The Last Film of Emile Vico, which uses first person to brilliant effect. Likewise, Michael Bishop’s Unicorn Mountain uses the omniscient viewpoint to excellent effect. Both writers pay a price for their choice, but it would be hard to imagine Emile Vico without the unique vision that comes from having a cinematographer as a narrator, and the marvellous feeling of tribal unity that comes at the end of Unicorn Mountain would be impossible if we had not seen almost every moment of the story from the viewpoint of practically every major character who was present.
LEVELS OF PENETRATION
Once you’ve decided to write a limited third-person narration, you still have a choice to make: how deeply to penetrate the viewpoint character’s mind.
Look at figure 1 [angular overhead], which represents the omniscient point of view. The camera is looking down on the scene – it can see everything. The dotted lines represent the narrator’s ability to also show us everything going on inside every character’s head – but we always see the scene as a whole from the narrator’s point of view, and the narrator is not in the scene. We are never inside the scene; we are always watching from a distance.
Figure 2 [thought bubble and own view inside] represents the first-person narration. Now we see inside only one character’s head, the narrator-in-the-story, and we see only what the narrator saw, experiencing the world as he experienced it – but we still watch from a distance, because it is all told from the perspective of the present narrator recounting events in his past. Even though the present narrator and the narrator-in-the-story are the “same” person, there is still a gulf between them.
The limited third-person narration is like first person in that we see only the scenes that the viewpoint character is in, and see only the viewpoint character’s mind; it’s like omniscience in that we see the action of the story unfolding now instead of remembering it later. We are not far separated from the action in either space or time.
But how deeply have we penetrated the viewpoint character’s mind? Figure 3 is light penetration; we can see inside the viewpoint character’s mind, we observe only scenes where the viewpoint character is present – but we don’t actually experience the scenes as if we were seeing them through the viewpoint character’s eyes. The narrator tells what happens
in the scene in a neutral voice, only giving us the viewpoint character’s attitudes when the narrator turns away from the scene and dips into the viewpoint character’s mind:
Pete waited fifteen minutes before Nora showed up wearing a vivid blue dress that Pete had never seen before. “Do you like it?” asked Nora.
It looks outrageous, thought Pete, like neon woven into cloth. “Terrific,” he said, smiling.
Nora studied Pete’s face for a moment, then glared. “You always want me to be frowsy and boring,” she said.
Figure 4 shows deep penetration, in which we do experience the scenes as if we were seeing them through the viewpoint character’s eyes. We don’t see things as they really happen, we see them only as Pete thinks they happen. We are so closely involved with the viewpoint character’s thoughts that we don’t have to dip into his mind; we never really leave:
Pete wasn’t surprised that Nora was fifteen minutes late, and of course she showed up wearing a new dress. A blue dress. No, not just blue. Vivid blue, like neon woven into cloth.
“Do you like it?” asked Nora.
Pete forced himself to smile. “Terrific.”
As usual, she could read his mind despite his best efforts to be a cheerful, easy-to-get-along-with hypocrite. She glared at him. “You always want me to be frowsy and boring.”
In the deep-penetration version, we never need a tag like “Pete thought,” because we’re getting his thoughts all along. The phrase “of course” in the first sentence is not the narrator’s comment, it’s Pete’s. The passage “A blue dress. No, not just blue. Vivid blue…” is not the narrator commenting on the dress – it’s Pete who’s judging what Nora wears.
When Pete says “terrific” and smile, the light-penetration version sees his smile from the outside; the deep-penetration version is more like first person, telling us something about the motivation behind the smile: Pete has to force himself to smile.
Where the light-penetration version tells us that Nora studied Pete’s face before she realized he was lying, the deep-penetration passage says that Nora could read Pete’s mind. We know, of course, that Nora can’t really read Pete’s mind; that’s just the way it feels to Pete. With deep penetration, the viewpoint character’s attitude colours everything that happens. Unlike first person, however, we’re getting the viewpoint character’s attitude at the time of the events, not his memory of that attitude or his attitude as he looks back on the event.
Figure 5 shows another alternative: the cinematic point of view. In this version of limited third person, we only see what the viewpoint character is present to see – but we never see inside his or anyone else’s head. It is as if the narrator were a movie camera looking over the viewpoint character’s shoulder, going where he goes, turning when he turns, noticing what he notices – but never showing anything but what the eye can see, never hearing anything but what the ear can hear:
[Figure 4 Limited third-person: deep penetration, and Figure 4 Limited third-person: the cinematic view]
When Pete arrived, Nora wasn’t there. He sighed and immediately sat down to wait. Fifteen minutes later Nora showedup. She was wearing a vivid blue dress, and she turned around once, showing it off. “Do you like it?”
Pete looked at the dress for a moment without expression. Then he gave a weak little smile. “Terrific.”
Nora studied Pete’s face for a moment, then glared. “You always want me to be frowsy and boring.”
The cinematic narration gives no attitude, except as it is revealed by facial expressions, gestures, pauses, words. We learn that Pete is used to Nora’s lateness only because he immediately sits down to wait instead of looking for her or calling to see where she is. We learn that Nora’s dress is new only by implication, when she turns around once and asks if he likes it. The cinematic narrator can’t tell us that Pete thinks the dress looks like blue neon, nor are we told that Pete feels like Nora can read his mind.
The dividing lines between cinematic, light-penetration, and deep-penetration narratives are not firm. You can drift along with light penetration, then slip into deep penetration or a cinematic view without any kind of transition, and readers usually won’t notice the process. They’ll notice the result, however.
Deep penetration is intense “hot” narration; no other narrative strategy keeps the reader so closely involved with the character and the story. But the viewpoint character’s attitude is so pervasive that it can become annoying or exhausting if carried too far, and the narrative isn’t terribly reliable, since the viewpoint character may be misunderstanding or misjudging everyone he meets and everything that happens.
Cinematic narration is cool and distant, but it shares some of the virtues of the camera – you can believe what you see, and if you misinterpret the gestures and expressions and words of the characters, that’s your problem – the narrator never lies. The complete lack of attitude, however, can become frustrating. The real camera shows real faces and scenes, and even the most explicit and detailed cinematic narration can’t come close to the completeness and detail and vigor of action unfolding on the screen.
I’ve found that the best results come when you find a comfortable middle ground and then let the needs of the story determine how deeply you penetrate the viewpoint character’s mind. In some scenes you’ll get “hot” and penetrate deeply, letting the audience feel that they’ve become the viewpoint character. In some scenes you’ll “cool off,” let the audience retreat from the character and watch things passively for a while. In between, you’ll use light penetration to keep us aware of the constant possibility of seeing into the viewpoint character’s thoughts, so we aren’t startled when things get hot again.
You’ve got to be aware, though, of the full range of possibilities. I’ve seen many student stories – and more than a few published stories as well – in which the writer unconsciously got into a rut and stayed cool when the story cried out for her to get hot, or stayed hot when the action wasn’t intense enough to need deep penetration. I’ve seen many other stories in which the writer kept using he-thought/she-thought tags when we were so deeply into the character that even such tiny intrusions by the narrator were distracting and unnecessary.
No one level of penetration is likely to be right for the whole story. The use of cinematic narration as a consistent strategy for entire stories has been in vogue in recent years, in the mistaken notion that fiction can be improved by imitating film. The resulting fiction is almost always lame, since there isn’t a writer alive whose prose is so good it can replace a camera at what a camera does best: taking in an entire moment at a glance. It takes a writer too many words to try to create that moment – after three paragraphs it isn’t a moment anymore. The ironic thing is that cinematographers and film directors have struggled for years to try to make up for their inability to do what fiction does so easily: tell us what’s going on inside a character’s mind. How they struggle with camera angels and shadows! How the actors struggle with words and pauses, with the gentlest changes in expression, the slightest of gestures – all to convey to the audience what the fiction writer can express easily in a sentence or a phrase of deep penetration into the viewpoint character’s mind.
I suspect, however, that one reason is that they don’t know their viewpoint character well enough to show his attitude towards anything. They start writing without first inventing their characters, and instead of inventing and exploring them as they go along, they avoid their characters entirely, showing us only the most superficial of gestures, telling us only the words the characters say. The result is writing like this:
She sat down beside him. “I’m so nervous,” she said.
“Nothing to be nervous about,” he answered soothingly. “You’ll do fine. You’ve been rehearsing your dance routines for months, and in just a few more minutes you’ll go on stage and do just what I know you can do. Didn’t I teach you everything I know?” he said jokingly.
“It’s easy for you to be confident, sitting down there,” she said, gulping nervously at her drink.
He laid his hand on her arm. “Steady, girl,” he said. “You don’t want the alcohol to get up and dance for you.”
She jerked her arm away. “I’ve been sober for months!” she snapped. “I can have a little drink to steady my nerves if I want! You don’t have to be my nursemaid anymore.”
Talk talk talk. The dialogue is being used for narrative purposes – to tell us that she’s a dancer who’s going on stage for an important performance after months of rehearsal, and that she has had a drinking problem in the past and he had some kind of caretaker role in her recovery from previous bouts of drunkenness. Attitude is being shown through the dialogue, too, by having the characters blurt out all their feelings – and in case we don’t get it, the author adds words like soothingly and jokingly and snapped. The result? Melodrama. We’re being forced to watch two complete strangers showing powerful emotions and talking about personal affairs that mean nothing to us. It would be embarrassing to watch in real life, and it’s embarrassing and off-putting to read.
But with penetration somewhere between light and deep, we get a much more restrained, believable scene, and we end up knowing the characters far better:
Pete could tell Nora was nervous even before she sat down beside him – she was jittery and her smile disappeared almost instantly. She stared off into space for a moment. Pete wondered if she was going over her routine again – she had done that a lot during the last few months, doing the steps and turns and kicks and leaps over and over in her mind, terrified that she’d forget something, make some mistake and get lost and stand there looking like an idiot the way she did two years ago in Phoenix. No matter how many times Pete reassured her that it was the alcohol that made her forget, she always answered by saying, “All the dead brain cells are still dead.” Hell, maybe she was right. Maybe her memory wasn’t what it used to be. But she still had the moves, she still had the body, and when she got on stage the musicians might as well pack up and go home, nobody would notice what they played, nobody would care, it was Nora in that pool of light on stage, doing things so daring and so dangerous and so sweet that you couldn’t breathe for watching her.
She reached out and put her hand around Pete’s drink. He laid his hand gently on her arm.
“I just wanted to see what you were drinking,” she said.
He didn’t move his hand. She shrugged in annoyance and pulled her arm away.
Go ahead and be pissed off at me, kid, but no way is alcohol going up on that stage with you to dance.
In this version there are only two lines of spoken dialogue and nobody gets embarrassingly angry in public. Furthermore, you know both Pete and Nora far better than before, because you’ve seen Pete’s memories of Nora’s struggle with alcohol filtered through his own strong love for her – or at least for her dancing. We also know more about Nora’s attitude towards herself; the “dead brain cells” line tells us that she thinks of herself as permanently damaged, so that she is terrified of dancing again.
The scene still isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better now because we were able to get inside Pete’s mind and see Nora through his eyes, with his attitude towards her, his knowledge of their shared past.
Yet the second scene wasn’t all deep penetration. While Pete’s memories were deep and hot, the incident with the drink is cinematic and cool. We aren’t told why Pete lays his hand gently on her arm – we already know about her drinking problem and we can guess. Nor do we need to be told that she’s lying when she says “I just wanted to see what you were drinking,” or what he’s feeling when he answers with a single word and refuses to move his hand. We already know enough about their relationship that we supply our own heat for the scene. And yet we can drop back into deep penetration with the last paragraph, without even needing “he thought” to tell us we’re back inside Pete’s head.
Mastery of different levels of penetration is a vital part of bringing your characters to life. This is where you have the most control over your readers’ experience, where you have the best chance to determine how well readers will know your characters and how much they’ll care.
©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973