Musing: Show and Tell — Third Person Limited

RE2 Cover

I’ll just be here. Watching.

The ultimate goal of a third person narrative is to convince the reader they’re sitting next to the main character living the story alongside them for good or bad.   Showing (rather than telling) directly effects the immersion of the reader.

Nothing takes me out of a story quicker than a long winded explanation.   While the reader is ‘sitting next to the MC’ they are effectively invisible.  As such they wouldn’t be told about anything, they get everything from eavesdropping.

You can also give the reader a direct feed to your character’s thoughts, which can help… as long as you understand people don’t typically make it habit to work through their life stories internally.  Having a story from someone’s POV means the story progresses from their viewpoint.  They proceed with their lives unaware they have a spectator.  (Read creepy stalker)

Something I feel makes or breaks third person limited is appropriate passage of time.   Every consideration your character makes should be done in a reasonable progression of time.   If someone asks a character a question and the narration goes into life story mode, you need to remember the other person is waiting for an answer.  Make sure you justify the pauses.

I’ll use a bank teller as an example.   Say you approach a teller booth with the intent to make a deposit.

Passage of time Example 1:

-You didn’t have everything ready.

-The Teller asked for your account info while you fill out the deposit slip.

-The teller waited may be left in a position where they are waiting on you.

-You handed over the completed slip, but because you left them waiting, all they need to do is enter a few more things (the amount of the deposit)

-There’s no time for considerations.


Passage of time Example 2:

-You had everything ready

-You handed them the completed deposit slip and cash.

-You waited for the teller to make the deposit.  This is a situation where considerations work well.

-The character’s considerations come to an end when the teller needs to address them.

In example 2 if the character fell into considerations the teller would likely demand their attention.  Writers that don’t seize the passage of time ‘forget’ the other people or the scene and things ‘freeze’ unnaturally.   The bank teller may wait patiently, but there would be an moment of awkwardness.   The character stood still doing nothing, when the reason they were at the bank has been resolved.

The Teller would likely ask:  IS there anything else?  If the answer is no.   They expect the character to leave.  If you establish the character is walking to their car and there are no other complications, you can have the character fall into appropriate considerations in the window of time it takes them to walk there.

The most glaring disruption of time passage is during a conversation.   If someone asks your character a question and they don’t react, they’re likely going to react to this.

“So who are you going to the movies with?”

I turned away, scowling.  I didn’t want to answer.

“Someone I don’t like, then?”

Simply put, justify the pauses and keep the considerations natural and relevant to the moment at hand.  If you disrupt the passage of time, you won’t get it back.

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