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Can we talk about adverbs?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by piperofyork, Sep 8, 2021.

  1. piperofyork

    piperofyork Scribe

    Hmm...I think I see what you mean, but wouldn't consistent avoidance of value judgements understood in this sense imply that one could only write in 1st person? I mean, "the sky was blue" seems to be a judgment from an opinionated narrator (e.g., a non-colorblind one)...
  2. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    Sometimes I think we as writers are guilty of grammatical snobbery. I was always taught that adverbs should be used appropriately, not that they should be avoided. There are situations where using an adverb adds to the quality of the text, and so should be used. That quality might be clarity, it might be flow, it might be emotional impact or it might be something else. Consider, for example, the opening line of Hart Crane's poem Cape Hatteras:

    "Breathe deep, mine eyes, the frosty saga of eternal suns"

    Yes, that could have been written differently. But it would have lost much of it's quality and impact.
    piperofyork likes this.
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Your question reminds me of the Show, Don't Tell conundrum. All fiction is storytelling, right? The writer maybe, or at least the narrator, is telling a story, so it's all telling, right?

    Yes. And no. Depends on how we split it.

    I think the issue with adverb use is a question of how and whether narration intrudes on the narrative. Adverbs introduce the questions of
    1. Who is standing there, making these evaluations?
    2. Do I believe that person's accuracy?
    3. Do I want to see things for myself, evaluate things for myself, or am I quite happy to have another do it for me?
    4. ...Then again, what things?
    In a narration that is otherwise in a very intimate 3rd limited POV, do I want the narrator to tell me that a new character, Sam, "turned and left resignedly?"
    1. If it's a close 3rd limited approach, how is the POV character in the head of Sam, to know that Sam is resigned to something? This might be an example of the narration intruding on the narrative, or head-hopping.
    2. Perhaps said POV character is very observant, able to "read" people. Maybe I overlook this use of the adverb, just falling into familiar faith in this POV character's ability to understand other people on this level. Perhaps not.
    3. Am I fine with trusting this POV character's evaluation of Sam's behavior, or would I prefer to have a deeper view of Sam, an evaluation I can make on my own as a reader from viewing Sam's behavior?? Am I more interested in the POV character's...character, personality, etc., i.e., voice, and fine with this value judgment for that reason?
    4. ....As a reader, am I fine to gloss over this evaluation now, or not this time even though I've done so in other similar cases while reading this novel?
    #3 and #4 are difficult questions because this really does depend on how the story is unfolding and whether glossing over something will irritate readers, heh. Maybe you can, maybe you can't...in any given situation. Plus, here resignedly is a jarring adverb, at least for me personally.

    If the narrator is an obvious 3rd omniscient narrator, #1 is less of a question; but I think the other questions are still issues. Personally, my experience of reading really bad adverb uses tend to involve cases of limited POV narratives when the adverb introduces knowledge beyond those POV's.

    On some level, readers will always know there's a narrator telling a story. I mean, who is saying "said" all the time? But a lot of it can be taken for granted. The sky was blue doesn't introduce so many questions under normal circumstances and is less likely to intrude on the narrative. Yes, we already know a narrator is "speaking" to us. What if the narrator said, The sky was blue like the color a man makes with a garrote around his throat. Here, a voice is intruding—but that might or might not be desirable, heh, depending on the tale, the POV approach, the general style of the narration.
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2021
  4. S J Lee

    S J Lee Inkling

    I have to politely disagree about "she breathed deeply" - "of what?" being a very relevant question.

    I would assume the person was breathing air, and she was filling her lungs closer to their maximum limit than usual. it was simply air, if there was no reason to think otherwise. If "Mike arrived at the inn at midnight. He was angry and wet" I would not assume he had become extremely sweaty or had fallen into a barrel of beer. I would assume he was wet from rain, though I have expected a hint earlier as to the weather. Similarly, if "she breathed deeply" is in the middle of an argument,, I assume she is trying not to lose her temper. If she is after running a mile in armour, I assume she needs to replenish her oxygen supply. If the writer has provided no context and THEN says "she breathed deeply" then perhaps a clue a tad earlier might be due in a rewrite.

    I am aware the same sentence may mean very different things to different readers, that is fair enough - it is why we look for feedback!. Many a time I have been told "trust the reader" and then find out no, you cannot trust the reader at all!
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    "She breathed deeply" didn't immediately bring to my mind the question, "of what?"

    But after a momentary thought, I realized that breathe deeply of is a commonly recurring construction. So oft used, the natural reaction might be to expect an of.

    Perhaps my reaction was unnatural, heh.
  6. S J Lee

    S J Lee Inkling

    piperofyork said:
    Hmm...I think I see what you mean, but wouldn't consistent avoidance of value judgements understood in this sense imply that one could only write in 1st person? I mean, "the sky was blue" seems to be a judgment from an opinionated narrator (e.g., a non-colorblind one)...

    I get you, but, again, Pinker was making the point about using the classic style and not "post modern style" - if I buy a book about how to cook, I do not want paragraphs about "Is it possible to define what eggs are? Is cooking something about which knowledge is possible?" It's just not what readers of a cookbook want. Feeling your narrator is making judgements about "blueness" and "can we actually define blueness?" will make for good philosophy and bad fiction, I'd say.

    Yes, we have a "narrator" and if the narrator is not 1st person, then you are left with someone telling the story who is NOT any of the characters. It is an accepted convention of storytelling, and it is usually best not to draw attantion to the narrator's existence (yes, there are expections, usually for prologues or comedy), just as we don't want to see the cameraman's reflection when we go to the movies. We know the cameraman is there, and we expect him to remain invisible...or so I assume?
    piperofyork and FifthView like this.
  7. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

    No need to qualify the reason for our comment/question.

    I would still say the thought is incomplete. Your setup to the scene lists many stimuli or reasons to breathe deeply. Specifically, scent.

    "He found a comfortable space, sat, closed his eyes and breathed deeply the scent of sage and the comfortable memories it evoked."

    "He found a comfortable space, sat, closed his eyes and breathed deeply the serenity that had evaded him for so long."

    To just end on the adverb denies the reader so much.
  8. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

    I'd say "breathed in" or "took in" evokes the same images and sensations and also flows better
  9. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    So, another Rowling example from the first HP novel. I'll highlight a few things.

    On Saturday, things began to get out of hand. Twenty-four letters to Harry found their way into the house, rolled up and hidden inside each of the two dozen eggs that their very confused milkman had handed Aunt Petunia through the living room window. While Uncle Vernon made furious telephone calls to the post office and the dairy trying to find someone to complain to, Aunt Petunia shredded the letters in her food processor.

    “Who on earth wants to talk to you this badly?” Dudley asked Harry in amazement.

    On Sunday morning, Uncle Vernon sat down at the breakfast table looking tired and rather ill, but happy.

    “No post on Sundays,” he reminded them cheerfully as he spread marmalade on his newspapers, “no damn letters today —” ​

    Not all of these are adverbs or adverbial phrases, but each might raise the question, Who is making these evaluations?

    On some level, all of us in real life tend to "read" others. We ascribe emotions and mental states to people based on their appearance and behaviors. Rightly or wrongly.

    Here, the milkman's confusion, Vernon's fury, Dudley's amazement, Vernon's tired, ill, but happy demeanor and subsequent cheerful statement are all things that Harry evaluates. Presumably. Out of context, in this deeper dive, I'd say the narrator who is not Harry is using this trick to insert these evaluations and to give these impressions to the reader. But third limited can sometimes get away with this trick of making these intrusions on the narrative seem like they naturally come from the POV character. Done well, we might think we are in the mind of that character, experiencing the world the way he experiences it.

    Badly is the exception here. That's Dudley's evaluation.

    Rowling handles this sort of thing fine, in my opinion. I'm fine reading omniscient POVs, so I'm also fine reading things like this when the story is engaging to me personally. I can't say I'm 100% inside Harry's mind here, however. I'm 100% in the scene, like a ghost observing things up close as they happen. I can see the confusion on the milkman's face and the amazement in Dudley's. An omniscient narrator can do that just as well as any other. I.e., I'm buying those assessments, taking them in without question, as I'm reading the tale, so does it matter much if I'm buying into Harry's assessments or a separate narrator's assessments?

    The problem comes when a writer—almost always a newish writer—doesn't handle things so well.

    Here and throughout the HP novels, Harry is made out to be a fairly observant character. I can believe all the evaluations in the excerpt above, and added to hundreds of other examples through the novels, the continual process, I come to trust Harry/narrator and feel that he is indeed an observant fellow.

    But what about the POV character who is not so observant, who is always clueless—the writer writes that character that way—and who may not have such insight into her surroundings? Alternatively, what about describing total strangers in ways that the POV character can't possibly know? The UPS driver dejectedly dropped the package at our door. Well, that's a first-person example, but it shows the problem. Is it possible to read dejection in a total stranger's single behavior? Or is that more likely to seem like an author's intrusion onto the narrative? When newish writers use adverbs to insert info that the POV character can't possibly know or isn't likely to know, I'll stumble reading it every time.

    ...Unless it's omniscient narration. But in this case, a narrator can still intrude too much.
  10. piperofyork

    piperofyork Scribe

    Thank you everyone for your thoughts.

    Not to squeeze out a dry towel, but I'm curious what you think about the following...

    A great deal of writing advice is based on what ought to be done to achieve the holy grail of reader immersion. Could this be used to support an argument in favor of some adverb use? In cases where there is no good one-verb substitute for a verb+adverb pair, some folks argue that adverbs should still be avoided because the substitute for an adverb - usually a descriptive phrase - provides more information, more detail, and hence greater reader immersion. But might there be cases where adding a wordier substitute for an adverb might undermine reader immersion?

    Consider a fast-paced, high drama scene: a character trying to get out of a haunted house:

    "Vincent stumbled up the stairs, close to hyperventilating. Doors slammed shut below like pursuing footfalls: Slam. Slam. Slam. The lights flickered. The candelabra creaked as its chain links loosened one by one. Vincent made for the balcony door. The crimson drapes billowed in the windless silence. He became his one thought: Get out. Get out. Get out.
    "The red drops fell on him from every angle. He froze, looking about wildly, his mind shrieking. Gravity seemed to have lost its meaning."

    I have no doubt that others could craft a better scene that shows what I'm trying to say. But the argument is that, in cases like these, "He froze, looking about wildly, his mind shrieking" seems preferable to a longer, adverb-free sentence because a longer sentence might undermine reader immersion. Immersion in the staccato nature of this scene seems best supported by a shorter sentence with an adverb. The reader gets the point instantly :)rolleyes:) and races on at the breakneck speed required for full immersion in the scene.

    I'm guessing that some folks might take issue with my example (on the order of: "Nice try, Piper, but in this case, we could do better than 'He froze, looking about wildly' and still retain full immersion.") If this applies to you, then maybe this post could be viewed as more of a challenge: can you think of any scene in which reader immersion is best facilitated by the use of an adverb - where reader immersion is undermined by substituting a longer descriptive phrase to convey the action?
  11. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    First, this idea of "reader immersion" is a dangerous, slippery slope. It assumes a single experience all readers will have when reading any given example. Readers are different in too many ways to outline here, so your mileage may vary. Heck even for a single reader, immersion levels may fluctuate depending on many factors, including factors outside the text and factors involving the text.

    Your example doesn't — and, does — break immersion for me. In my first couple of passes, "He froze, looking about wildly, his mind shrieking" did not break whatever little immersion I had in the short example. Personally, I become more immersed the longer the text if it's good text; a short example is already struggling up a hill. I guess this is like stepping into a pool for the first time. The water may be just fine, nothing startling in the temperature, but I'm still going to ease my way in until I become...immersed. Even then, I may need a moment or two. So at first, your example seemed perfectly fine, and I suspect I'd be fine reading it in a longer narrative as long as this sort of thing didn't happen with great frequency within this narrative.

    There's a slight stumble, but it is slight and I could keep reading through it just fine.

    A third person limited narration is tricky. Gollum might say, tricksy. A narrator who is not the character is readily apparent if we step back and look at the text from a distance. "Close to hyperventilating." Is this something a character in that situation would be thinking about himself? I'm close to hyperventilating! No, probably not in most circumstances. He might be in that state, but saying he is in that state is something a third person narrator would say, not the character, unless the character has been shown in the text previously to be super conscious of his breathing. For instance, if he has horrible asthma, or if the air is already too thick with dust or is maybe too thin due to high altitude, or....whatever.

    But third person limited must do this sort of thing. Most readers will be fine with getting that "slightly overhead" description of a character. Third limited is tricksy in this way. Your example aids the trickery by giving us the immediatly-following, character-centered description of "Doors slammed shut below like pursuing footfalls: Slam. Slam. Slam." We might debate whether a character would be in such a right mind, able to make the metaphor in the first half of that statement, but the concluding Slams are giving us what he actually hears. So we are drawn into his head, into the scene. Immersed...perhaps.

    "The candelabra creaked as its chain links loosened one by one." Hmmmm. Is our character, who is in a mad flight, seeing each one of those chain links? Well enough to know they are loosening one by one? Heh. Maybe some corner of his mind could make that connection when he hears the creaking. Maybe the links aren't actually loosening, but his brain thinks so. Hmmmm. This tricksy narrator is doing well enough at this point to leave me in that half-and-half state of buying this.

    "He became his one thought: Get out. Get out. Get out." This is like the doors slamming example.

    I'll stop right here for a moment to raise an interesting issue in third person limited narratives. How can one possibly write such a POV when the character is going mad? Even something less that full insanity may be tricky. A mad flight, as I called it earlier, or a state of confusion and panic, could be a sort of temporary insanity or at least involve less coherence for the duration. This is where third limited may be easier than first person. (Or not?) The narrator can step in and describe the character from that "slightly overhead" position. Done well enough, most readers will probably be fine with this and won't be yanked out of the narrative by the narrator.

    Once the line about "one thought" hits, however....well. If he has the one voice or impression shouting in his head, Get out, then where will the immediately following statements be located?

    "The red drops fell on him from every angle."
    "He froze, looking about wildly, his mind shrieking."
    "Gravity seemed to have lost its meaning."

    These are heavily voiced by an obvious narrator. They are more obviously from "above" the scene and character. Some level of this is fine; it's not at all uncommon in third limited.

    But I'd say the first and third of those three statements are describing things from the character's perspective, or at least a narrator doing this from that character's perspective, or trying to do this. If you as reader are immersed, if you can feel yourself to maybe be the character, in the character's mind, you may be looking around, seeing red drops fall from every angle, and you may experience a sense of gravity going crazy.

    The middle of these three is unlike those other two. It's entirely from a POV above the character, looking down at the character. Separately, "He froze" and "his mind shrieking" might be something the character experiences and something the reader might experience vicariously if immersed in the scene. But "looking about wildly" is something the character would not be conscious of doing. He'd just do it. One can feel oneself being frozen in place, and one can perhaps hear the mental shrieking in a mind so perturbed by the environment. One does not feel this looking about wildly. For me personally, that phrase is a stumble. Had the statement been, "He froze, his mind shrieking," I probably wouldn't stumble. But that middle phrase grabs attention from between those commas, heh, and upsets the whole line.

    Still, as I said, mileage may vary. In a quick read, if I'm otherwise immersing, I'd probably not be too rocked by that phrase. If that sort of thing happened lots, however, it'd become a problem for me.

    Incidentally, remember when I said this is too small an excerpt for me to fully immerse? Well I've supposed this excerpt could fall within a narrative that is written in omniscient third person. Om can sometimes swoop in close, as with those Slams, then back out, and focus on only one character in a scene. If the whole narrative has this swooping—i.e. I've become accustomed to getting that more distant POV—then this scene might fall into place within that narrative and I might be less likely to stumble over the phrase, looking about wildly. Without reading the whole story, this is hard to know.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2021
  12. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    What exactly is immersion? In any piece of media, there is various levels of suspension of disbelief that happens. When you play a video game, you don't think "oh there's a pause menu, this story isn't REAL! This is fake and stupid!" Nor do you say "Oh there's a time skip in this movie, this isn't REAL!" The fact that a narrator exists, dialogue tags exist, things that only exist within a story and not real life proves that there is some amount of "get out of jail free" cards you get. The question is: how many do you get, and how many does the reader have?

    What's important is internal consistency in style and tone. A game like Danganronpa or Ace Attorney is both extremely grim and serious and very lighthearted and humorous, but that's because the writing (namely, the dialogue) and concepts/themes of the work are carefully crafted to work together and be used correctly at the right times. So when the character looks at you (the player character) and says "okay now press the R button to open the court record, find the piece of evidence that points out the contradiction, and then press the Y button to present it" that works, because you know it's a video game, but the conversation between the characters feels natural, despite its very un-naturalness. You are a rookie attorney, you have no idea what you're doing, your nervous, and your mentor is gently nudging you in the right direction. It's diegetic. It's not a OKAY HERES A PICTURE OF THE CONTROLLER NOW MEMORIZE ALL THE BUTTONS like you see in some action games.

    An adverb is just a word. It's a tool to tell something, and all tools have their time and place to create a specific effect. A slow, meandering story that intentionally has a grand tone or is trying to sound very old fashioned or academic is going to use lots of words, big words, double-triple score words in the Scrabble dictionary. A quick-paced easy for anyone to read story is going to use words that reflect the words people use in their normal life. Look at a light novel vs a "regular" novel vs a "classic" they make you read in high school. Your tone can shift in the piece depending on what's going on and to give the reader a break. Not many people are going to want to play a dark, depressing 40 hour game, but a lot of people are going to want to play a 40 hour game that has some dark, depressing moments but also lots of fun moments, too. That's why Danganronpa is a huge IP and almost no one has heard of Pathologic. But both games have specifically chosen the tone they're going for and have chosen the kinds of words to accomplish that. They did what they set out to do, but they have very different target audiences because of that.

    Faster isn't always better. Sometimes you want the reader to sit and think about what you just said (look at poems), sometimes you want it to hit them later, sometimes you only want them to know what you're saying when they read the book a second time. Why do you want the reader to be immersed in any given scene? You can't say "well some guide said it was the best thing to do." You have to come up with your own answer. Mine is usually "I want the reader to feel what the character is feeling" or "I want the reader to be hyper-focusing on these specific details."
  13. piperofyork

    piperofyork Scribe

    Thank you, FifthView and Chase, that's helpful and gives me a lot to think about.

    I have a follow-up question: how common is it for writers to mix 3rd person limited and omniscient? I have read in a couple places that any combo platter ought to be categorized as omniscient, but setting terminological disputes aside, it seems that plenty of authors do this.

    A few examples:

    The Hobbit

    Bilbo's heart jumped into his mouth. He gave a terrific squirm. Buttons burst off in all directions. He was through, with a torn coat and waistcoat, leaping down the stairs like a goat (3rd limited), while bewildered goblins were still picking up his nice brass buttons on the doorstep. Of course they soon came down after him, hooting and hollooing, and hunting among the trees. But they didn't like the sun: it makes their legs wobble and their heads giddy. They could not find Bilbo with the ring on...so soon they went back grumbling and cursing to guard the door. Bilbo had escaped. (3rd omniscient)

    Actually...they were not far off the edge of the forest...if Bilbo had had the sense to see it (3rd omniscient)...[Bilbo] got to the bottom again at last scratched, hot, and miserable, and he could not see anything in the gloom below when he got there. (3rd limited)


    It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather (3rd omniscient)...By the half-light of a suspensor lamp, dimmed and hanging near the door, the awakened boy could see a bulky female shape at his door... (3rd limited)

    The Name of the Wind

    It was one of those perfect autumn days so common in stories and so rare in the ideal world (3rd omniscient)...Chronicler climbed down from his horse. He had been robbed before and knew when there was nothing to be gained by discussion (3rd limited)...

    Of course, I could be making some very basic error here, but it seems to me that this sort of mixing is not uncommon...

    P.S.: just about everyone says that JK Rowling is a perfect example of 3rd limited - and for the most part that's the POV, but even she sneaks in a few omniscient bits.

    P.P.S.: One website cites Dickens as a prime example of 3rd person limited. This one made my head spin. Sure, he has gobs of that, but also a lot of omniscient...
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2021
  14. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    I think you're being a little too black and white as to what's limited and omniscient.

    Think of the narrator as the "camera" like in a movie or show. A limited view would show us what's going on around the character. An omniscent view shows us all sorts of things for the sake of the audience. Dune is omniscient because it's constantly jumping into the heads of different characters within the same scene.

    Unlike a show/movie, the "camera" of the narrator can be within the heads of a character and get their thoughts/feelings/impressions, not what can just be read by body language. Dune is constantly jumping heads, and at first it was disorienting, because why are we doing this paragraph by paragraph, but it works for the story because it's always in service for the books thesis of "wow Paul is so cool he really is the messiah." Even if a single scene might be limited, the narrator, as a whole, is considered omniscent because the above happens all the gosh dang time.

    To use a movie as an example, in Jurassic Park, after Newman Seinfeld gets killed by the dinos, you (the audience) see the Barbasol can bounce down and land in a gully and then get covered up by mud. Oh no, the dino embryos, now no one is going to get them! But maybe someone will find them later? Maybe this is something important to remember for later! But WHO saw this happen? A dinosaur, maybe? A bug? Now imagine the scene as just text in a novel. The narrator's "view" shifts from the guy being killed to this inanimate object and what it's up to, even though there's no point of view character to see this happening. Let's also pretend that this is the only instance of this happening in the Jurassic Park novel (I haven't read it in over a decade so idk if that's true or not). There's only this one scene of omniscence, does that make the narrator automatically omniscent? I'd argue no, it was just a one-off thing for the sake of the scene. But if I was the editor, I'd cut all of that, because the can being there never comes up again. So what was the point of showing us that? That Newman Seinfeld's attempt to make a bunch of money only ended in a bunch of dead people in dinosaurs? We already know that from everything else in the book. But if the characters DID run into the can later and it was plot-relevent, then I'd let it slide.

    All the examples you posted are, honestly, really minor. Yes, technically, it is "information" from outside of the character, but is it really? Is mentioning what the weather is info the character wouldn't know, or is it describing the scene? You have some leeway when it comes to third person; if it was first person, then it would be really weird and be more of an issue.
    piperofyork likes this.
  15. piperofyork

    piperofyork Scribe

    Thanks, Chase. It's always reassuring to hear that things can be in the grey zone. And you're right that those are minor examples, but I imagine there are a few major examples out there, too. Do you think LOTR is among them? If not, what book do you (or anyone) think contains a robust mix of 3rd person omniscient and limited?
  16. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

    I think Dune has a good mix, because there are plenty of scenes where it's only the one character's head they're in. I couldn't get through Lord of the Rings I hate its style lol so I can't help you with that one.

    I think an important thing to think of is WHY one would switch which type of narrator they use. In a work where you're switching between limited and omniscient, what would the reason of that be? In The Office, there's the "interview" scenes to give you info on what people are thinking or feeling you wouldn't otherwise get, and those are to be funny, cause the point of the show is to be funny. You could have a story where the narrator is a character, too, so when they step back and use their "narrator powers," it should be to be funny, or to increase the tension, or whatever the tone of your story is.

    A story could switch between first and third person narrators, but, again, there needs to be a good reason for that. Maybe the framing of the story is one character telling their story and then they're writing someone else's. Maybe your story is made out of letters/documents, so each piece would have its own different style, which means you can switch the type of narrator. There's this one visual novel that I love, but it had a 3rd person past tense narrator. It would tell you what the MC was feeling or thinking, give descriptions to the scenes and actions, it made the story a lot more immersive and gripping than most VNs that are first person and there's little narration. BUT about 98% of the way through the game, at the final, biggest twist, it switches to first person. Because the "narrator" was actually a character who was observing everything happening and now they're telling their story, as it happens, hence first person present. The switching of the narrators is the keystone of the story and puts it all together and it's really amazing. But if any other story tired to do this it would be very "why" and not work.
  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    I use "third limited" and "omniscient" as shorthand descriptions, but ultimately the distinction is either more complex or utterly simple. I'm not sure which, heh.

    Both are third person, and an argument can be made that both are basically the same, that there is only a third person narration with some variations in approach and style.

    Both include a narrator that is not a character in the tale (or at least one that does not present as a present character, heh.) Thus, neither is a true first person narrative. So even in third limited, there's a narrator outside the main framework of the tale who is telling it, just like omniscient narration.

    We have no reason to believe that the narrator of a third limited narrative has zero knowledge beyond what is happening in any given scene. Such a narrator might know far more than he is telling us—what all the characters are thinking at any given moment, or what is happening 1000 kilometers away — and this is no different than an omniscient narrator. Except that sometimes the omniscient narrator is telling us those things.

    Here on Mythic Scribes, there was a discussion once in which the notions of distance and closeness came to be used when describing third person narration. The narrator zooms in close, practically in the heads of characters, then zooms out. The narrator might occasionally zoom quite far from the character.

    This way of looking at the issue can almost describe the whole distinction between what is normally called omniscient and what is called limited. But not quite.

    Some "third limited" narration is not as close or as intimate as other styles of third limited. Some approaches will zoom out just a little—what I called "slightly overhead" earlier in this thread—and do this frequently, while other approaches keep the POV much closer.

    Some approaches will zoom farther out occasionally. An example of this would be those overviews of an environment at the start of a scene or chapter—

    The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.—

    A less iconic example would be a short description of the weather, an overview of a battlefield the day after the battle, etc., that begins the scene. Perhaps this will be a single short paragraph, maybe only a single sentence, "setting the scene" before zooming back in to the POV character.

    In omniscient third, you can encounter the Dune style, which often zooms very close to a character's head, actually entering that character's head often enough via direct thoughts. For the longest time when I was younger, I would have sworn Dune was written in third limited, because that's how I remembered it. Then I went back to read it again after hearing someone call it omniscient, and, wow. Yep. It's omniscient. But it can feel like third limited for stretches at a time.

    But of course you encounter more distant styles of omniscient third, in which the narrator seems to always be looking down at the characters and events from some distance. Describing what is happening inside each character's mind might be a seeming, "false" way of getting close but really be quite distant from that character. ("Sally navigated the winding country road fearfully, biting her lip, while her husband in the passenger seat hummed contentedly and mused on his true love Donna.") Long stretches of text might be exposition vaguely related to what is happening in the novel—might even seem to come from the author, not the narrator. (I'm looking at you, Les Misérables!)

    Orson Scott Card added a new category he called "cinematic point of view." This is usually lumped in with third omniscient, a subset of omniscient. In cinematic point of view, all things are revealed to the reader objectively. In other words, it's like watching a movie. We only see what happens on screen, we get no inside view of a character's thoughts and feelings, so we react to what we are seeing and judge what is happening only on the basis of physical queues. This would be quite distant if we are defining distance as a separation from the character's thoughts, impressions, feelings. (Even close-up images, actual zooms, in a movie still maintain the distance between me, the viewer, and the image on the screen. Even if I put my nose against the screen which is displaying a close-up image of a character, and I can see the pores in that character's face, heh, I'm no closer to his mind than I would be sitting eight feet away on a sofa watching the movie.)

    This closeness vs distance question has become an important aspect of my appreciation of third limited and omniscient approaches.

    I'd add another wrench to the works. There's also the possibility of closeness or distance between reader and narrator, not just between narrator and character(s) or narrator and scene. Some narrators are quite distant from the reader, almost unseen or at least often forgotten during the reading. Other narrators leap out and poke you in the eye or funny bone. Again, this closeness or distance might exist on a spectrum; it's not either/or.

    I suspect a well-drawn Venn diagram might find the overlaps:

    • narrator-close-to-character
    • narrator-distant-from-character
    • narrator-distant-from-reader (hardly noticed; else, easily forgotten)
    • narrator-close-to-reader (poke me in the eye; or, in the funny bone; or make me go hmmm)
    Dune might be a good example of close-to-character and distant-from-reader. There isn't much personality in the narrator, not much there there.

    Wouldn't Hitchhiker's Guide be close-to-character, close-to-reader? Hmmm. Been awhile since I read it. There are certainly times I felt closer to the narrator than to any character, especially when the narrator is going off on a humorous expositional tangent. My vague memory leaves me thinking that I could easily and enjoyably navigate any occurrence of distance from the characters because I was being drawn closer to the narrator in those moments and I liked the narrator. (The narrator can become a sort of character, eh?) There are other stretches when the narrator is much closer to the character.

    I believe that third limited requires a narrator to be distant from the reader most of the time. Hidden. Overlooked. Lacking in personality. A disembodied teller of the tale, quite secondary to the tale if noticed at all.

    Edit: As an afterthought, and because I wrote this late while exhausted and now question the clarity of my thoughts, I wonder if "narrator close/distant to character" might be better thought of as how close or distant we readers are in relation to the characters—put in our place, as it were, by the narrator.

    I.e., am I being put in the head of the character? over that character's shoulder? several feet in the air above the character? looking out over the entire scene, at or into many characters' heads? By the narrator.

    I think, however, this would be an issue of semantics.

    But this is important. If the narrator (or sneaky author) is trying to put me in the head of the character, then said narrator ought not thump herself in the chest and say, "Hey! Look at me! Come closer to me!"

    So maybe it's about how the reader is being positioned and where the intended focus should be.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2021
  18. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Maester

    I think the examples given from the Hobbit, Dune and Name of the Wind are not examples of 3rd limited or of mixing the two. 3rd limited isn't decided based on a single sentence, and just being inside someones head doens't make something 3rd limited.

    3rd limited: for a given scene you are in the head of 1 character, and 1 character only. You only see what this one character sees.

    3rd omniscient: for a given scene you can be in everyones head at the same time, and you have a birds-eye view of the story.

    There are some nuances. For instance, if the first paragraph of a scene sets it up from an outside perspective but the rest is inside a single character's head, then that would still be 3rd limited (and frowned upon by 3rd limited purists). But overall, that's the idea.

    For 3rd omniscient, there are 2 main flavors:
    - present narator: someone is telling you a story. This narator may or may not be a character in the story. The hobbit is a good example of this. Bilbo is telling you the story of his adventure. He will jump inside people's heads if he feels like it adds to the story, and he will tell you things no character in the scene would know, like how the goblins felt.
    - no narator, everyone's head all the time: Dune does this. You get all thoughts (relevant to the plot) as they occur, and nothing is hidden from the reader.

    If you want a good example for 3rd limited, read Game of Thrones. Each chapter has a title which tells you the viewpoint character. And in each chapter you only get thoughts from that character and see only what that character sees.

    For the examples given then, they are all omniscient. Within a single scene, you get both thoughts from a character and something happening outside of what they can know. In a sense, you can't mix the two, other then for a very limited amount of time. The moment you start mixing them, the writing stops becoming 3rd limited and it becomes omniscient pretty much by definition. The only exception I can think of (where it wasn't an error) and it isn't done in a prologue or epilogue, is in the openings of the Wheel of Time books. There, the first few paragraphs are always written in omniscient and after that you zoom in on 1 character per chapter and it stays that way for the rest of the book.
  19. piperofyork

    piperofyork Scribe

    Thank you all for your very thoughtful, helpful replies. Time for me to ponder it all... :)
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Ponder wisely.

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