A while back, I did a post on some of the Pitfalls of Writing in the First person. This got me thinking about some of the problems I’ve seen in third-person narratives, both in my own fiction and in other stories I’ve read for Theme of Absence or in the recent Winter Writing Contest hosted at The Write Practice.
So what is third person? We’ll let’s take a standard definition from Wikipedia:
In the third-person narrative mode, each and every character is referred to by the narrator as “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”, but never as “I” or “we” (first-person), or “you” (second-person).
There are a few different types of third-person, but for the sake of this post, I want to limit it to what is presently the most common, third-person subjective (also called “third-person limited”). This is the type of narrative that can only see into one character’s head in a given scene. Sometimes it may be limited to only one characters for the entire novel, other times, it may switch from character to character between scenes.
Anyhow, with that stuff out of the way, here are the three biggest mistakes I’ve seen from myself and others while writing in the third-person.
“He did this. He did that.”
This is how my first drafts read. Maybe not all of the time, but a lot of the time, it can be pretty bad. I especially see this when a scene includes no other characters and is simply describing actions. Check out this excerpt from an early draft of my short story “Tunnel of Darkness,” (published in Clerics, Charlatans, and Cultists by Gothic City Press in 2013.)
He clicked on the small keychain flashlight he had brought in with him and aimed it at his wrist. It was 7:06 PM. Good Lord. I’ve only been down here for six minutes, he thought and shoved the flashlight back into his pocket. It was going to be a long night.
He shrugged and opened up one of the candy bars. It was gone after four bites. He followed up with a couple quick drinks of water. Considering he was surrounded by hundred-year-old brick walls and a dirt floor covering God knows how many dead bugs, the scent of the chocolate was nearly euphoric.
He leaned back against the wall again, hoping to be lucky enough to sleep through the next eleven hours and fifty-four minutes. He wasn’t afraid of the dark, but creeping feeling of claustrophobia was starting to worry him.
He closed his eyes and recalled his first meeting with Kelly Andry.
Do you see the problem? Four consecutive paragraphs begin with the word “He” and two more sentences inside those paragraphs do as well. If this isn’t a massive violation of show, don’t tell, I don’t know what is.
So what can you about it? For starters, find every paragraph that begins with a pronoun. If the sentence directly before it begins with the same pronoun, change it.
Also, look at your descriptions. What is going on in the scene and how is your POV character reacting to it? You’ve got to be very careful to capture the emotions of the situation, instead of simply listing what the character is doing.
Strangely, this isn’t a problem I’ve experienced myself. I guess my characters are comfortable in their own identities 🙂
I do see this way too often in other pieces of unpublished fiction, especially from new writers asking me to look something over, or submitting to Theme of Absence as one of their first submissions.
Oh and just for the record, let me give a quick description of head-hopping. It’s pretty much when the POV changes at an inappropriate time. For example, say your entire story is from the POV of one character, but then there is an occasional sentence telling us what another character is thinking or feeling.
To fix. This is one of those cases where there is no trick to fix it. Simply don’t do it. When you’re working through your revisions, just be sure that the POV is consistent. I hate that I don’t have any better advice, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Knowing things the POV character shouldn’t know.
This one can be trickier to spot sometimes, but it’s basically when you slip out of your POV character’s mind and tell the reader something that character should have no business knowing. This could be anything from world-building, to backstory, to other people’s thoughts, or things that the character simply shouldn’t know.
But what can you do to fix this? Much like head-hopping above, this is something you can’t really fix, you can only avoid. It’s important to pay attention to this type of thing when you’re revising, or have your beta readers watch out for.
So those are only three of I’m sure a couple dozen problems that can arise when writing with a third-person limited narrative. Avoid them and help make yourself a better writer 🙂
Did I leave anything out? Leave a comment and let us know!