* Sometimes we forget that a third-person narrator has a distinctive, unique voice even if they aren’t a ‘real’ character in the story. What mood or quality do they bring to the writing? Write a few paragraphs about a man taking his dog to the vet, using the third-person (i.e. “He coaxed Mandy into the car with a dog treat.”) Pretend the narrator is a well-educated man who is not particularly fond of animals. Now re-write the passage, pretending that the narrator is a teenage girl who’s an animal lover. Note that neither of these narrators is, in fact, a character in the story. But imagining them in these different guises will affect the language, diction and approach adopted by the narrator, and alter the tenor of the story accordingly. What type of voice might lend itself well to your current writing project?
* Psychic distance is also an important narrative consideration that we sometimes overlook. How intimately into your character’s experience is the narrator inserting himself, or is he watching the action from a distance? This is the difference between looking at the same moment in a story and writing “Damn, that hurts, thought Molly. Stupid thing.” or “The plump woman winced as she hooked together the tight elastic brassiere straps behind her back.” Obviously, the distance at which a narrator views the scene can have a great deal of effect. Think of the narrator as having a movie camera that can zoom in and out at will. Now write a passage about a community day parade, and experiment with varying the psychic distance as you write a third-person account from the POV of a member of the marching band.
* When writing in one character’s POV, the writer can only relate details or observations to which that that particular character would be privy. So if the whole scene to date has been written through Suzanne’s eyes, you generally wouldn’t want to slip into Jennifer’s POV and write “Jennifer often wondered why Suzanne hung onto Bob” as Suzanne can’t read Jennifer’s thoughts. You’d have to get across that information in a way that is observable by Suzanne (for example, having Jennifer roll her eyes when Bob’s name is mentioned) or choose to shift POV at a section break or chapter break and at that point write from Jennifer’s viewpoint.
However, sometimes authors choose to employ an omniscient third-person narrator who does have the ability to shift points of view at will, within the same scene. Practice this skill by writing a passage in which two people have parked their car and are walking, in the rain, towards the church for a funeral. Over the course of the walk, shift between the two character’s POV; let the readers into the heads of both. (Be sure the reader is clear as to which character is currently the POV character, which sometimes gets blurred during the transition.)
Now write the passage told solely from one character’s POV, or the other’s, making sure not to stray into the non-POV character’s thoughts. How does this make the story read differently? What was the effect on the story? Which approach did you find most comfortable, or gave you the best tools to tell your story?
Whether you choose to stick with one character’s POV or let it shift between characters, be sure you are shifting consciously, and not by accident!
* When writing memoir or a journal entry, it is easy to get caught up in relating our feelings about an issue or an event, and forget to describe the event itself. To counter this tendency try writing a diary entry in the third-person, i.e. “She scrambled out of bed this morning, late for the bus.” You’ll probably find yourself including more of the details and descriptions that would help a reader paint a mental picture of the day, which renders the entry much more engaging (even to the author, who will usually find reading about her own endless mad/sad/glad feelings boring!)
Do you have any first-person characters in your stories who could benefit from this exercise?