Let There Be Night! How to Approach the 3rd Person Point of View

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I often forget that the 3rd person point of view can be a tricky thing for new writers. Writing gives us this god-like ability to fabricate new worlds from nothingness, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to create the day without the night. But oh, how your readers long for the night!

keep writers in the dark with 3rd person point of viewI remember a creative writing class I took my freshman year in college. All through high school, I considered myself a master of the short story, but I got a huge slap in the face when I submitted my first story to my college instructor. It came with “pov” tattooed up and down the margins. What’s “pov”? I thought. Maybe I wasn’t such a smarty pants after all.

I’m sure there are still writers who do a very effective job with omniscient narration. But ever since Ford Madox Ford wrote The Good Soldier, readers’ expectations have changed. They don’t want us to transfer our godliness to them. They want our guidance and support. They want to explore the darkness in the moonlight.

What am I talking about here? It’s a leap of faith really. Yes, we’ve heard it before—show, don’t tell. But what does that mean really? I say that it means we need to trust our readers to connect some of the dots on their own, to fill in backstory or character psychology without us shining a light on everything we create. Let your readers be free!

I usually don’t write my own stories in 1st person. It feels too messy. But I think it can help some us who are grappling with the limited 3rd-person point of view to start with a 1st-person mentality.

There’s nothing more jarring to a reader when a writer jumps from one character’s mind to another in mid-action and without a proper transition. It’s disorienting, and it feels a bit like a violation. And if that’s intentional on your part as a writer, then that’s fine. We’ll call it artistic license. But if it’s not intentional, things get a bit icky, especially when an editor (or college professor) gets ahold of it.

Imagine that you’re wearing special glasses when you’re writing. Glasses that diminish your superpowers and let you see the world through just one character’s eyes. Can they actually see the murder in the room at the end of the hall? Do they suddenly know while sitting at the breakfast table that their evil nemesis is creeping up behind them? Isn’t it more interesting if all of us, characters and readers alike, are kept in the dark a bit?

And sure, perhaps the glasses let you gain a bit of clairvoyance, allowing you to eavesdrop on a few snippets of thought. But what is key here is that you don’t abuse your god powers. Even Superman would go nuts if he kept his X-ray vision on all the time.

It’s fine to have a shifting point of view. But…and this is a big but…wait for a break in the action, like a new chapter, to make the shift.

When it comes to storytelling and the 3rd person point of view, it’s okay to create the mountains and the sea, and to populate your world with creatures big and small. But please, please, let there be night.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Irving.

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