Monday, August 15, 2016

Close vs. Distant POV

A popular post from March 2010. 

by Annette Lyon

It's come to my attention that in all our posts about point of view, that we've never covered the concept of close third person versus distant third person.

Time to remedy the oversight!

Most contemporary fiction written in third person (he said this; she did that) is written in a pretty close point of view. It's probably what you're used to reading. For that matter, if you look at the Writing on the Wall archives, close third and first person are the two points of view that generally apply.

But what is close third?

To start defining the term, let's first describe distant third person.

Distant Third Person
Point of view, of course, is the lens through which the writer (or the narrator voice) tells the story. For a moment, think of that lens as a movie camera standing back from the action but hanging in the air over a character's head.

The camera captures what the POV character sees, and perhaps what the POV character hears. However, for the most part, the narrative is separate and apart from the character and what he or she is feeling or experiencing. It's objective, not making interpretations.

The camera can certainly show an amazing fight sequence. We won't be privy to the POV character's thoughts, feelings, and so forth about it, but we'll see a great movie in our heads.

It's almost like a journalist reporting the events in vivid detail, sitting perched on that camera.

The camera can get more distant, pulling back to the point that we can't even tell much about the POV character at all, or it can get a bit closer, perhaps letting us in on gestures and other behaviors.

But there's always a barrier; the reader stays outside the POV character's head.


Close Third Person
Just as with distant third, close third has degrees of closeness. A very close (or tight) third person POV will be so entrenched in the POV character's head that the reader knows their every thought, feeling, smell, taste, sound, touch, reaction, facial expression, motivation, and more.

A slightly less tight POV will show emotions and senses, but might not get so tightly ingrained in the character's psyche. Again, it's a matter of degrees. Just how close are you to the character, emotionally, psychologically, and otherwise?


In a sense, all variations of third person are about degrees of closeness, and the same book could have varying degrees.

For example, an opening paragraph of a chapter could be very distant as the reader is introduced to a location, say a snowy mountain scape. Then the "camera" pans closer to the POV character huddled a cave trying to stay warm. The closer we get, the more we know about what that character is thinking, feeling, doing, planning.

Some people argue that if you're going for an extremely tight third person, then you might as well be writing in first person, since that POV is just as tight, if not tighter. (If the character is telling the story, you're totally in their head, right?)

The problem with that argument is that a story in first person has limitations of its own, among them this biggie: your first person POV character must be present in every single scene, and you can never, ever, show anything from anyone else's POV.

That said, first person is a popular POV, and many fantastic books have been written in it. Just be certain it's the right one for your story before you commit to it. (Rewriting a book with a new POV is as big a task as writing an entirely new book. Trust me on this one; been there, done that.)

Ask yourself whether your book would be stronger if you could show a scene from another POV, such as the antagonist's, a parent's, or a friend's.

If so, opt for a tight third instead of first. That way, you get most of the benefits of first person (you're right in their head) without the restrictions.

Another caveat:
Don't cheat with first person. Readers will be seriously annoyed if something the POV character knows isn't revealed to them as well. After all, they're in the POV character's head, so they should know everything that character does.

Some rules of thumb with point of view:
  • Don't have too many POV characters per book. A common number is between two and five. Some genres lean toward fewer POVs (such as romance), while others can handle more (such as epic fantasy). Know your genre and its expectations. Avoid too many if you can, simply because keeping track of them and readjusting to a new POV can be taxing on the reader.
  • Maintain ONE point of view per scene. Don't be tightly in Jane's head and then flip to a John's head (tight or otherwise) mid-scene. That's disorienting and unnerving to the reader, who is trying to keep track of who is thinking and feeling what, and exactly which lens to interpret the story through.
  • Separate point of view shifts with scene shifts (and visual markers like asterisks) and/or chapter breaks.

7 comments:

Illy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
atsiko said...

A very succinct elaboration on the priviliges of third pov.

Kim said...

Thank you!

Kimberly said...

I confess, I was a head hopper only a year or so ago. So much learned, so much yet to learn. Thank you for this incredibly informative post!

Anonymous said...

So here's a question on POV. In sharing your character's emotions, thoughts, etc., how do you keep yourself from crossing the "telling" line.

Annette Lyon said...

Anon, I hope understand your question.

If a character has a direct thought, say a student thinking,

**Please don't call on me***

that's showing.

The more distant you are from your POV character, the more likely you are to lapse into telling, such as:

"He didn't want the teacher to call on him."

Typically, if you're giving direct thoughts (almost like a mental quote), then you're automatically a very close POV and you're showing.

If you're using thoughts in the sense of an opinion, such as, "He thought the movie was lame," that's telly, and you can definitely find a better way to show that, regardless of how tight the POV is.

Heather Munn said...

Another interesting thing about a very close third person is description that's done through their eyes. Two different people will notice very different things about a landscape, a piece of equipment, a crowded room; depending on what they know and care about. One person sees a blur of green, the other names the trees.

My favorite sci-fi author does this very well: when the main character is in combat on a space station, all you hear about is strategy, b/c that's what he's thinking about. When his clone tries to impersonate him in a similar situation, from the clone's POV you suddenly "see" the command headset and all the confusing little blinkylights in it, because the clone has absolutely no idea how to use this piece of equipment that's second nature to the original character.