One of the early choices when you’re writing a story is what point of view (POV) you’re going to tell it from. There are many factors that go into this, but as a YA writer, I’ve heard people say, “Write in first person because third person is too distant for teenage readers.”
If that’s the case, teen readers ought to avoid books like The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, or The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater—but those books are all bestsellers with a large teen fanbase.
Literary styles do change over time, and what worked well for Jane Austen or Charles Dickens may not be as gripping to modern audiences accustomed to tight camera angles and special effects. But third person POV does not have to feel old and outdated, nor slow and distant.
Here are some keys to writing convincing 3rd person for modern audiences.
Know who’s telling the story
When you start telling a story in 3rd person, first you have to decide what kind of 3rd you’re using—limited, omniscient, etc.–but that’s a whole other series of posts. For the sake of this one, just figure out if you have a narrator telling your reader about your characters, or if the narrator is invisible.
One way to look at it is, if your book were a movie, would it have a character doing voice-over like the classic cartoon THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS, or would it be all tight camera angles on the main character and the story shown through the action and dialogue?
There’s not a particular right or wrong choice, but you need to know who is the voice of your story, even if the narrator is not a named character.
Keep descriptions in character
Close third perspective is actually very similar to first person—it views the story through the eyes of a character. This means that when the character enters a room, the details given are details that character would have noticed; the descriptions used are the way that character would have described things.
Example: I have a character in my book who is a painter in an 1800’s-style setting. At one point he sees someone who is very pale, and the narration lets us know that by saying she is “lead-white.” Lead white was a color of paint that this character would have been familiar with. Even though the story is in third person, the descriptor is one the main character would have used.
This is especially important because descriptions that don’t make sense to the character or scene will throw a reader out of the story—for example, in the same story as above, if I was focused in close 3rd on a teenage girl in the 1800’s who was used to sitting in a parlor doing embroidery, describing a door latch clicking like the hammer on a gun would be as inappropriate as saying she was as shaken as though she’d been using a jackhammer—while there were guns in her time period, she likely would not have any experience with them to know what they sounded like, and would never have used that description. (And if she does know, well, then, you probably ought to let us know how or why, because that sounds interesting!)
Note: Make sure, as you plan your descriptions, that you remember which character is viewing the scene. Head-hopping is a no-no (though you can follow different characters on different chapters or in different scenes—just make it clear).
Use free indirect speech for thoughts
Another part of keeping things close is that you can use what is termed “free indirect speech” for the character’s thoughts. This is where you have the thoughts as part of the narration instead of set apart by italics or words like “she thought.”
More distant 3rd POV: “I can’t believe I have to eat pancakes again, Jane thought, doesn’t he know I don’t like pancakes? Jane scraped her fork in a circle.”
Using free indirect speech: “Pancakes again. Didn’t he know she didn’t like those? Jane scraped her fork in a circle.”
This also gives you a lot of room to show your character’s emotions—and sometimes those hidden emotions they don’t even recognize—through their thoughts and where their focus is.
Hunt down the filter words
This was actually what started me on the path of learning about close 3rd POV. A few years ago I put my first chapter of a book up on a forum for anonymous critique, and three different people mentioned that I “used a lot of filter words.”
I had no idea what they meant.
After some research and a lot of practice, I realized it meant I had an invisible narrator who was not staying invisible. There were a lot of phrases like, “she watched,” “he listened,” “she thought,” “he felt,” and that meant someone else was telling my readers about my main characters instead of me showing what was actually happening.
Now, as a caveat, this sort of language can work when done well—this is the language of old-timey fairy tales, and is often seen in Middle Grade novels. It can also work for things like satire and humor, as used by people like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Usually you’ll see it used more effectively, though, when there is purposefully a “voicey” narrator—one with a distinctive way of speaking or with a certain storytelling style or flair.
But more and more in this digital age where we’re moving toward things like virtual reality, people don’t want to be told stories, they want to be in the story, and an effective way of doing that is to cut the filter words.
With filter: “He watched as the dock workers loaded huge crates onto the ship.”
Without filter: “Dock workers loaded huge crates onto the ship.”
With filter: “She felt her stomach knot as badly as the back of her embroidery.”
Without filter: “Her stomach knotted as badly as the back of her embroidery.”
Whether you’re writing for children, teens or adults, using these tools can deepen your 3rd person POV to make it more compelling and immediate.
“So go forth and revise,” she said. Hopefully what she had written would bring them as many breakthroughs as it had her.
Shannon Cooley is a dancing queen who looks seventeen (a.k.a. a babyfaced ballroom dance instructor). Her favorite type of dance is anything with lifts and drops, which might explain the adrenaline-seeking tendencies of her three children. She and her husband are both writers, resulting in children who refer to stuffed animals as “characters.” Shannon writes Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction, and is represented by Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Agency