Today is my third (and final?) post in a short series on Point of View. First was an introduction to terms. Second, a comparison of the different choices of narration. Now, examples of each type. As always, feel free to ask any questions in the comments!
- First-Person Narrator
- Third-Person Omniscient Narrator
- Third-Person Limited Narrator, Light
- Third-Person Limited Narrator, Deep
- Third-Person Cinematic/Objective Narrator
Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. My screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven.
“The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something!” I dragged him to the window and pointed.
“No it’s not,” he said. “It’s snowing.”
—To Kill a Mockingbird
In first-person narration, the narrator is a character in the story and uses the pronoun “I.” We never see into anyone else’s head, unless there is more than one narrator. The narrator is aware of an audience and needs to have a reason to tell the story. As in omniscient narration, the voice of the first-person narrator must be distinct, interesting, and well-crafted.
In first-person movies, we usually hear the thoughts of the narrator but see the character. In fiction, however, the narrator should not be remembering scenes as an out-of-body experience. In other words, there shouldn’t be any filtering.
In this clip from A Christmas Story, we can see Ralphie most of the time, but we can also hear his thoughts and sometimes see from his visual point-of-view.
First person novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Frankenstein, Dracula
Third-Person Omniscient Narrator
There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C…(before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy…. Well, this one left them all behind.
—The Princess Bride
The omniscient narrator knows what is going on in any person’s head at any time, in any place. The narrator is its own voice and can make its own judgments about the characters. It’s the least intimate of the POVs, but the distance can be comic distance, used effectively for humor. This style of narration calls attention to itself (remember, it’s presentational), and it carries the story. Omniscient narration must be interesting and exceptionally well written. It can have a distinct voice that makes comments, like in the narration at the beginning of 500 Days of Summer, or throughout Amelie.
A fair warning, though. Many people consider omniscient narration to be sloppy or lazy, and “head hopping” is a common mistake made by writers. Unless you are writing comedy or are briefly creating an establishing shot, you might want to consider using Third Person Limited Omniscience.
Third person Omniscient novels: The Princess Bride, parts of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, books by Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut and Jane Austen
Third-Person Limited Narrator, Light
It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew—and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents—that there was all the difference in the world.
― Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Third person limited omniscience, light penetration consists of a neutral narration which sometimes dives into the head of a character (or two or more, but only one per scene—it is limited). This POV is usually replaced by deep penetration during emotionally tense scenes that need to be more fully experienced. In movies, soliloquies are the closest thing to hearing the characters’ thoughts, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is full of them.
Third-Person Limited Narrator, Deep
It was stupid, pointless, irritating beyond belief that he still had four days left of being unable to perform magic…
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Marvolo Gaunt’s ring lay on the desk before Dumbledore. It was cracked; the sword of Gryffindor lay beside it.
—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I’ve given the two examples above to illustrate different examples of deep penetration in a novel that is primarily light penetration. In the first, the narration is what Harry is feeling, though it doesn’t say, “he thought,” and it stays in third person rather than switching suddenly to first. In the second, we have come from seeing Harry seeing through the pensieve—using filtering words like “Harry saw,” “Harry noticed,” etc.—to seeing the objects for ourselves, without filtering.
Like first person, in third-person deep, we see into someone else’s head and everything is told from his or her point of view, but the narration uses third person pronouns instead of first. This can actually be more intimate than first person, because the reader sort of becomes the POV character. Think of it like having a dream. In a dream, you can be someone else. You know it isn’t you, hence the third-person pronouns, but you still see from someone else’s POV. No filtering is used—no “he thought” or “she thought,” and any separate narrator disappears so that the POV character becomes the narrator.
Imagine a movie like Cloverfield, in which we can also hear the filming character’s thoughts. This is what reading first person or third person deep penetration should look like.
Third-Person Cinematic/Objective Narrator
I can’t really give a short example of an objective point of view, because for all you know, the next line might have a description of someone’s thoughts, and objective narration is characterized by what it isn’t rather than what it is. If you’re reading a suspenseful tale that has a scene featuring the villain or suspect, chances are, that scene is told in objective narration. To see into the mind of the bad guy would give up his motive.
If you really want to see this in practice, compare Voldemort’s scenes in the first few Harry Potter books, in which we/Harry can see into his head, to the first chapter of Deathly Hallows, which is so cinematic, none of the characters are named until after they are physically described. The reader is forced to make guesses and assumptions about the characters, because the narrator is completely silent.
In a cinematic view, we can’t see into anyone’s thoughts, so we rely on our own observations of the characters and their dialogue.
Most movies never go into the brain of a character, which is why this style of narration is called cinematic. So to illustrate, I’ll pick a scene that is painfully, obviously cinematic, from The Hunger Games.
In the books, we see everything from Katniss’s brain. It’s written in first person, present tense, and the effect is immediacy. We hear her thoughts as she has them. In this scene of the movie, the director relies on clunky sports commentary to explain what Katniss may or may not be thinking. It’s insulting to the viewer. The director assumes you aren’t smart enough to figure out what’s going on. If we really couldn’t figure it out, all Katniss had to do would be to mutter, “It’s mined.” Or even, “It’s a minefield.” Or, hey, even, “Well, I declare! I do believe they have taken the mines from under the launch pads and moved them there, to create a booby trap!” It’s not like humans never say anything to themselves aloud. I assume they wanted a sort of pinch point, to remind the audience of the Capitol, and they probably wanted to get Stanley Tucci some more screen time, but UGH.
Here’s how it plays out in the book, and notice how, even though she doesn’t have to, she whispers OUT LOUD:
I realize I’m grinding my teeth in frustration. Foxface has confirmed what I’d already guessed. But what sort of trap have they laid that requires such dexterity? Has so many trigger points? Why did she squeal so as her hands made contact with the earth? You’d have thought … and slowly it begins to dawn on me … you’d have thought the very ground was going to explode.
“It’s mined,” I whisper. That explains everything. The Careers’ willingness to leave their supplies, Foxface’s reaction, the involvement of the boy from District 3, where they have the factories, where they make televisions and automobiles and explosives. But where did he get them? In the supplies? That’s not the sort of weapon the Gamemakers usually provide, given that they like to see the tributes draw blood personally. I slip out of the bushes and cross to one of the round metal plates that lifted the tributes into the arena. The ground around it has been dug up and patted back down. The land mines were disabled after the sixty seconds we stood on the plates, but the boy from District 3 must have managed to reactivate them. I’ve never seen anyone in the Games do that. I bet it came as a shock even to the Gamemakers.
If they really had to have Caesar Flickerman in that scene, he could have explained that second paragraph after Katniss figured it out, giving the backstory, and not insulting both the protagonist and the audience.
But I digress and rant.
That’s about all I have to say on Point of View for the time being. Let me know if you need something more clearly explained, or if you want to know more about another writing topic. I’m open to suggestions!
12 thoughts on “POV Part 3—e.g. (examples)”
Love this series of posts! I’d like to link to this post directly via the first photo to a very short and basic post that I’m doing on this topic, if that’s okay. There will also be a photo credit directing my readers to your site. Please let me know if you’d rather I didn’t re-use your posted photo. Otherwise, it will run on the 25th of April.
Thanks! You can use the image if you credit and link back here. Go ahead and add your link in the comments so my readers can find your blog post once it’s online! 🙂
Thanks again for your generosity! Here’s the link to the post that will go live on the 25th: http://wp.me/p2Kl3I-U0
Classic omniscient of the Fielding type is my one true way to go. No propaganda disguised as warnings will ever be able to persuade me into using third limited whatsoever.
Thanks for posting these articles. I’ve been researching filtering and believe I have a solid understanding of their use–or lack thereof–in first person and third-person limited/multiple, but when it comes to third-person omniscient objective, I’ve seen conflicting advice. Some say to avoid filter words–Derik looked at the broken toy and felt awful–like the plague. Others recommend using them liberally.
I wanted your take on this specific POV narrative.
Everything is fine in moderation. I don’t recommend using filtering words and phrases liberally, but my definition of “liberally” is subjective. I’d say read some cinematic/objective narrators in the genre and age category you are writing, ideally debut authors who have published in the past 5 years. The last two I read recently that did third person very well in my opinion were Hello Universe (MG, also with a first person narrator) and Emergency Contact (YA, dual protagonist). They were limited third per point of view, though, and the voice of each character shone through in the tone and descriptions. You’re more likely to find an objective omniscient narrator in epics: historical fiction and high fantasy. Unfortunately it’s been a few months for me on those, and my memory isn’t great on those details! If you have access to a physical library, browse the new releases in adult fiction and flip through a few chapters to find some examples. Sorry that isn’t much help! Hopefully you can find some solid comparative titles. Goodreads might also have some user-created lists sorted by narrative distance.
tl;dr: Any time advice says “always” or “liberally,” be skeptical. Only the Sith deal in absolutes 😉