In my six-week creative writing classes (such as Short Story Summer Camp, which starts two weeks from today), I always talk about point of view. You learned about point of view in your literature classes in school. You know about the difference between first-person point of view, third-person limited point of view, and third-person omniscient point of view. But here’s a quick review…

A first-person story is narrated by a character within the story. This first-person narrator will almost certainly use first-person pronouns. Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which has one of my favorite first-person narrators, begins,

Truth be told, I’m not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, though it’s been my experience that most people don’t want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. And, of course, my idea of entertaining may not be yours.

See those first-person pronouns, and my? But, of course, the pronouns are the least interesting component of this snippet. Much more intriguing is the voice that is already beginning to emerge.

The narrator of a third-person story, on the other hand, is a disembodied voice, not a character in the narrative. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None begins,

In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Margrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times. He laid the paper down and glanced out the window. They were running now through Somerset. He glanced at his watch—another two hours to go.

Note the absence of first-person pronouns. We are being told about Justice Margrave, not hearing him tell his own story. This is third-person narration. Is it third-person limited or third-person omniscient? This early in the story, there’s no good way to know. So far, we’re seeing things from Justice Margrave’s perspective. We only see what he can see, and we even get a glimpse of what is going on inside his head (we know he is “interested” in the political news, and we see his mental calculation that he has two hours to go). So Margrave is our perspective character in this scene, even though he isn’t the narrator.

This third-person narrator is “limited” if the narrator continues to show things from Margrave’s perspective for the remainder of the story. The third-person limited narrator doesn’t see and cannot show everything in the world of a story, only what one character sees and knows. (There are other kinds of limited narrator, but this idea of sticking to the perspective of one or two characters accounts for the vast majority of limited narration.)

A third-person omniscient narrator, on the other hand, knows all there is to know about the world of a story. The omniscient narrator can see things from any character’s perspective and can spy on the inner life of any character. Furthermore the omniscient narrator knows things that none of the characters can know.

In case you were wondering, the narrator of And Then There Were None turns out to be omniscient. By the end of Chapter 1, the narrator has dipped into the perspectives of six different characters.

So those are some of the technicalities of point of view. But none of that really explains why any of us should care about these distinctions—and especially the distinction between limited and omniscient third-person. That was where my literary education broke down: when I was a boy in short pants I could tell the difference between omniscient and limited narration. I just didn’t know what difference it made.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a situation that made very clear the practical difference between third-person limited and third-person omniscient narration. I was working with a writer on a novel manuscript. (Which reminds me…if you’ve got a fiction or non-fiction manuscript on which you’d like me to advise and coach you this summer, send me an email and we can talk about it.) Anyway, this novel was mostly told in third-person limited point of view, from the perspective of the main character, but the writer also gave himself the freedom to write the occasional chapter or scene from the point of view of other characters.

The main character in this novel is a recovering alcoholic who is isolated in a mountain cabin and starts drinking and spiraling out of control over the course of the story. As you can imagine, to see that kind of unraveling from the inside is pretty compelling stuff. It’s a great scenario for limited narration.

Things eventually get bad enough for our main character that his friends and family plan an intervention. So there’s a chapter in which the AA sponsor, a couple of friends, and the alcoholic’s estranged daughter plan the intervention. They go through the standard ground rules, they discuss their goals and hopes, they plan the logistics: most of the interveners will be there in person, but the estranged daughter is going to be there via Zoom. All this is laid out and explained in a chapter that is told from the AA sponsor’s perspective.

Our author has already established that this narrator is omniscient and is free to move from one character’s perspective to another. So this chapter doesn’t break any point-of-view “rules” per se. But the freedom of omniscient narration often comes at a cost. In this case, the emotional intensity of watching a lonely alcoholic implode is interrupted by a chapter in which people in which people talk about the ground rules and logistics and best practices of an intervention. Best practices and ground rules by definition are unoriginal. They are incredibly important, but they can only be of limited interest to the outside observer.

The whole point of the ground rules is to shape a certain kind of experience for the intervenee. And the intervenee, hopefully, isn’t thinking about the rules. He’s just having the experience. There’s some unoriginal, didactic, relatively unemotional business that happens in the run-up to an intervention. (Again, the interveners need to come at this as unemotionally as possible.) For the intervenee, however all the unoriginal, didactic, detached and unemotional business happens off-stage, out of view. For the intervenee, the intervention is emotionally intense from start to finish. He opens the door, and there are his AA sponsor and a couple of friends. This thing is on. He’s surprised, confused. He feels exposed. Maybe he gets angry and defensive. Everybody sits down. Somebody pulls out a laptop. The intervenee is wondering what’s going on. Then his estranged daughter, this young woman he hasn’t seen in eighteen month, shows up on the screen. You can imagine the emotional impact. Consider how that impact is dulled when, in the previous chapter, we have already been walked through this whole process, heard the ground rules, been prepared for the fact that the estranged daughter is going to make an appearance.

That’s the kind of thing that is at stake when we’re talking about omniscient and limited point of view. These aren’t just “literary terms” for a pop quiz in English class.

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