On Choosing a Narration Mode

As I’ve only written short stories and flash fictions in the past, choosing a mode of narration hasn’t been a problem for me.  Generally I use limited third person, only delving into the mind of a single character.  This works well for short stories, and I find it the easiest, least confusing way for me to write.

Limited third person is also how I started writing my novel about Paige.  I really enjoyed the opening piece I wrote for it (you can read the rough draft of it here), and I thought it was a great way to incorporate themes and elements I wanted to explore in the novel.

However, the further I get in writing the story, the more I question the narration mode.  There are scenes that I’m thinking of including, where Paige is not present. I’m starting to realize that I want to include more of Alex.  As far as the story goes, I think it could be stronger if I focused on writing more about the pair of them instead of only Paige.

So my thoughts are that I should start exploring writing in an omniscient narrative, which I don’t have much practice with.  I think it’d be a great challenge to have to balance the viewpoints of the characters.  As daunting a task as that is, perhaps I should explore that in shorter works first before completely ruining it in a novel length work!

BUT- Then again, I could always take an “easier” route, and write from an objective point of view.  I say easier, because I won’t have to work on balancing  out the characters, but it would be tough not being able to delve into the characters minds.  I do falter on this idea though, because there is a lot I would have to change and compromise about my writing, which I’m not sure I want to do.  However, I must say the consistency of this form does appeal to me.

Ultimately I think, for the time being, I’m going to stick with writing in limited third person, and then perhaps write a few scenes on the side in the omniscient and see how they turn out.  And if you have any tips, exercises or great articles on this topic, I am all ears, and I’m sure some other readers are as well!

Oi! There are so many more elements to writing a novel than I had thought out.  This isn’t what I bargained for, Muse!

So how do you guys decide on which narration best fits your work?  Have you ever written a piece, then decided to re-write it another form?  Also, any recommendations for books with fantastic limited third person, omniscient, or objective points of view that I should read?

(A tad off topic, but I’m thinking of turning this into a Sunday Vs. Topic in the future, although not this Sunday.  So any response is greatly appreciated!)

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About Aly Hughes
Unprofessional, unedited, unpublished. Aly is out to make a name for herself by blogging, twittering, facebooking, and general internet-ing. Be warned: She may not know what she's talking about.

24 Responses to On Choosing a Narration Mode

  1. Andy Szpuk says:

    Submission by Amy Walden is very good at switching character POV, without losing the personal intensity, or becoming clunky interms of. the transitions. I’m also reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Horbach which isisimilar. Both very good.
    When I wrote Sliding on the Snow Stone, I elected to use 1st person, a powerful approach, but it became difficult at times.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I haven’t heard of Submission, I’ll have to check it out. I have heard a lot about The Art of Fielding, both bad and good, but now I think I will add it to my “To Read” list. Thank you for the suggestions!

      I’ve always been hesitant with 1st person narratives. Generally I’m not a fan because I feel less connected to the story as I read them, however when written well it can indeed be a powerful form of writing. I think I just haven’t been exposed to enough 1st person stories, though.

      Thank you for your input!

  2. Interesting, because I’m sort of dealing with this also. I have been writng a series of mystery stories stories (in first person — the detective has a “Watson”). In general I think this worked fine, but one story never quite satisfied me.

    I thought the problem was that the mystery wasn’t that good, but I think another factor was that the story was centered on a relationship between two characters, and there was really no way to show the progression of that relationship from the POV of a character was a stranger to the two people.

    So, now I’m moving those characters into their own book, in third person, which I’m writing now.

    In my first novel, A Sane Woman, it was in thirdperson for the first two-thirds, then it shifted to the same first person (the Watson character) when the detective arrived to solve the mystery. I expect there’s a rule against that, but I think it worked. 🙂

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Your novel sounds very interesting with the switched narratives. And hey, isn’t it our job as writers to stretch the rules and push the boundaries? 😉

      It’s funny how sometimes you won’t discover the best way to tell a story until after you’ve already written it down. Perhaps that’s a mark of a good writer though, being able to tell when you need to switch things and why it would make the story better. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for when I do finish my first draft of this novel!

  3. talessandrelli says:

    I run into the same issue and often I wonder if my novel would be much more energetic and thrilling if it were written as a first person view. I even considered re-writing every chapter- crazy, I know! I believe that an effective novel isn’t based too much the narration mode. Sure, maybe a small percentage of it is. But reading books such as Twilight or The Hunger Games make me wonder if the book was written in third person, would have not been the hit it is today? Probably would’ve been. Many different elements and story aspects come into play and narration mode, if done consistently and smoothly, will adapt to the plot itself. It will even disappear entirely if it is done correctly. The reader should become so lost in the plot that the narration mode shouldn’t matter after all.

    With that said, I totally understand your point. Narration in first person seems to be more intimate, doesn’t it. It’s like we are reading the character’s diary and it’s much more personal. I am currently writing a novel, Aiken’s Wings, with a strong help from “The Self Editing For Fiction Writers” by Renni Brown and David King (http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Yourself-Print/dp/0062720465) One chapter in the book outlines the narration mode and each aspect. One tip I received from it that led me astray from changing modes is the following: It is much harder to expand each of your characters by writing in first person. First person shows that particular character’s moods, train of thought, reasoning and point of view. The entire story is based from how they perceive thing and people. It then becomes much more complex to get into the other characters’ mind as the first character can’t do that. Makes sense? As a third person narrator you are able to convey feeling and point of view of every character by the way you “tell” the story. Being a new writer, I found these tips very helpful.

    I believe first person writing is a worthy skill to be mastered and that with some practice will be as effective as third person mode. Expository exercises can be a very good way to experiment with these.

    Great Blog!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Thank you for the book suggestion! I’m already gearing up to buy it.

      First person has always been difficult for me, and I think a lot of times I’m turned off from it because I’ve read more poorly written first person novels, than I have well written ones. I also grew up reading fantasy, which has probably a quarter the amount of 1st person narratives compared to 3rd person, so that type feels really foreign to me. With The Hunger Games, I could definitely appreciate the 1st person narrative, I think Collins did a good job writing it in that respect, I just wasn’t a huge fan of the character Katniss. So that made it a rather odd read because I did enjoy the action written from her point of view, but being so intimate with a character I didn’t feel connected to made me lose something from the story. Of course, that’s my personal opinion, and I still loved the story and other characters so I’ll definitely re-read the books.

      I had considered writing in first person for this novel, because originally it was going to be all about one character, Paige, and her life. However when I finally decided that I did want to add more of another character, Alex, then first person sort of went out of the question. Because the premise of it is that they were in a relationship and had just moved in together, then they break up and have to deal with living with each as exes. I didn’t want it to be from her point of view because I felt like that would skew the readers view of Alex, and that wasn’t something I wished to do.

      I do agree with you about the point of view only being so important compared to the actual plot and characters. I think as long as the narrative mode is consistent, you’ll be able to draw in readers regardless of which actual point of view you write in. For me, I’m still figuring out where the story is headed and how I want to tell it, as well as my own writing style. I’m still learning in all manners of writing, and I’m trying to learn from experience as well so perhaps that’s why I put such a heavy importance on the narrative view for my story.

      Thanks for the great input, I really enjoyed your comment!

  4. rtd14 says:

    Aly, this is an excellent thought to explore, because the subject of narration is important to so many. Sons of the Edisto has been a process of almost six years. I started writing it in first person. I worked with an editor for a short time who advised me to switch it to third person and write in the present tense. (Tense is a story for a different day). I only had four chapters at the time so the switch was not a big deal, but I did not realize how much there was to third person. Whether writing in third person or first person, you are limited to an extent as to what you can do with other characters and their thoughts. I think a writer has more options with third person, especially if you switch scenes. I think Joanna Trollope does a great job with it.

    I also keep “Writing Popular Fiction” by Rona Randall with me. Randall spends an entire chapter on the point of narration in a way that does not bore me to tears. I’ve been told, in my instruction, that omniscient is not popular these days because the narrator is a character and it is not cool to play God or assume every character’s thoughts. (That is my basic understanding.) It is because it is more confusing to a reader especially if you skip back and forth to different characters’ points of views in the same scene. I did not understand this when my professor in England, Scarlett Thomas, explained this. When an editor pointed it out on my first scene on a transparency, I fixed it fast.

    The Book Thief is another good one. It is a long book. Hemingway, if you feel like reading him, sometimes switches from first person to third. There are so many books. I could go on and on.
    I’m sorry for the long response. We could almost form an online writers group.

    Great post!

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Don’t even get me started on tense! Yet… Slowly but steadily I’m tackling one thing at a time! 🙂 I definitely agree that either way you still have limits on how far you can with other characters. To be honest, I’m tempted to go subjective, which would make me work a lot harder at showing vs. telling, but then I’d have to completely cut out all of my pretty descriptions of Paige’s life as a movie reel, which I plan on continuing throughout the novel. Because I’m not very far into it, I’m thinking of writing some of the scenes multiple times, and play with the narration for each.

      That’s interesting about omniscient not being too popular now. I imagine it’s like a difficult juggling act, and the key is timing and balance. It really would pose a challenge, especially because I haven’t attempted it before.

      It’s been a while since I’ve read Hemmingway, but I wouldn’t mind revisiting. I haven’t read The Book Thief yet, but you wouldn’t be the first person to recommend it to me. That is definitely on my “To Read” list now! I’ll keep a look out for Rona Randall’s novel as well. I actually haven’t read any books on writing, so I’m finally starting a list of ones to check out. Thanks for the suggestions!

      Also, I just had a sort of epiphany while looking at my bookshelf. As much as I claim that 1st person narratives are my least favorite, and that I avoid them whenever possible; I just realized my two absolute favorite novels are both written in 1st person! How eye-opening!

      And no worries here about long comments, I really enjoyed it! If I ever start an online writers group, you’ll be the first to know! 😉

      • rtd14 says:

        Writing a novel is a juggling act. There is a delicate are to it like a craftsman who makes something out of procelin. I write with a lot of description, but I try to do it in a way that keeps the story going. My book is a combination of character/ plot driven. It is more character driven. You’ll find what works for you, and the style that makes you unique as a writer!

  5. Up until about two years ago I wrote everything in third person but I started writing a short story series which is entirely in first person and I’ve found it helped with my character developement, but when I had to go back to third person it took a lot of thinking to get back in that mindset.
    I’ve have a story that I started off with it being a first person narrative but I needed to have other points of view in it so when I re-write it later this year I’ll try and make it third person.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I’m curious, when you switched from third person to first, did it help character development primarily for your main character, or did it also help with secondary characters?

      I never considered that after switching to another mode it would be difficult to go back again. I’ll have to keep that in mind! Right now, I’m mostly focusing on getting the story out and onto the page, and I know I’ll have a lot of edits and re-writes in my future. I’ll most likely end up deciding on another narrative once I’m done writing it, then have to go back and re-write it like what you’re doing. Good thing I’m not in a rush! 🙂

      Thanks for the input!

  6. Now that you’ve mentioned it I think it mainly helped build the main character up, but it depended on the story. A few secondary characters do have growth but those stories have mainly been focussed on the central character. To be honest when I wrote these stories I was not really thinking about character develepoment.

    At the moment I have two projects that I want to re-write, one is huge though and i dont think I’m a good enough writer to deal with it, yet 🙂

    I’m loving your blog by the way 🙂

    • Aly Hughes says:

      Because I don’t usually write in first person, I was just thinking about if writing through the eyes of a main character would, in some way, help the development of other characters. It’s one thing to describe them in the third person as they are, but I think examining and writing how /other/ characters view them can also speak volumes. Honestly, I have never really put much thought into character development until now. I can pretty much guarantee that you’re still ahead of me in that department! haha, Give it a good month or two until I finally blog about that topic! 😉

      I’m glad you enjoy my blog! I haven’t had time to listen to some of the podcasts that you linked in your latest post, but I’m definitely looking forward to them!

      • I’m rather dumb in the sense that I dont put too much thought into things like character development, well until recently at least. I can see how looking at characters from a 1st person point of view can develope those other characters, but that does raise a question from the reader about the relationship between characters. When we see another character through someone elses eyes we only see them that way. What if our main character dosent like that character? It raises a lot of questions for the reader i think.

        Something that I’m thinking about trying is putting different characters in the same situation and seeing how each one reacts to it.

        I think you’ll enjoy the podcasts, theres a lot of good stuff there 🙂

        • Aly Hughes says:

          I honestly don’t think I had a reason- or the motivation- to go in depth with character developing until I started this pesky little project called novel writing!

          I guess in that way it does engage the reader more. It kind of reminds me of when a friend gripes about their sibling to you, and how terrible he/she is, and then you finally meet the sibling and they turn out to be really cool. I was just about to type ‘it’s all about prospective’ but then I realized that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time! First person is just a very opinionated perspective to write in.

          I love the idea of putting different characters in the same situation, I’ll have to keep that one in mind!

  7. Inspired by your superb blog and excellent questions about modes of narration, I have created a blog to sharpen and practice narration skills. It’s light, fun and meant to experiment a bit. So, here is the challenge. Please feel free to stop by and share with others: http://tamararokicki.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/narration-mode-writing-exercise/

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I already commented on your post, but I’d like to say, again, how I love that you added 2nd person in there too. I think next week I’ll do a blog post just on the much-overlooked 2nd person narrative, and I’ll definitely share a link to your post in there. Thanks again for sharing this!

      • Thank you for your comments and for following the blog!

        Second person is indeed neglected. I suppose that it would be extremely difficult to write an entire novel in second person. But second person is still alive and well used in other ways. Poetry and music are creative arts that still incorporates second person. Most of it, in fact, is written in such form. It’s such a powerful narration mode, but it just isn’t convenient for the everyday novel. With that said, you’re absolutely right. It probably is the MOST intimate form of writing. It would be interesting to see more expansion on this mode. I look forward to reading your future blog.

  8. st00ge says:

    Most of James Ellroy’s books are told from multiple perspectives, it works well. Each character gets their own alternating chapter so you’re not just jumping around from person to person, which is tricky and ends up sloppy.

    I mostly write in first person because i like the reader to know all of the internal stuff going on but sometimes i’ll write in 3rd person if it’s not such an internal story. It depends on how many characters there are and what style of story it is.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      You know, I’ve never been able to finish a James Ellroy novel. I think it’s a combination of his style and the fact that I’m not that into crime stories. But I do think the setup of alternating chapters with perspectives is a good one. You’re right, it is too easy to get sloppy when jumping around with people.

      I think it definitely appeals to readers to be able to see into a characters mind, whether it’s written in first or third person. However I find that when I write in first person, a little much of me gets through into the character. Third person allows me to take that step back and really watch how I write a character. So, that’s something I know I need to work on. Perhaps I should start writing in first person more often!

    • This is kind of what I’m doing in my current project. There will be (as far as I know now) four or five parts, each in third person limited on a different character. So, each character will get a good long stretch on stage, not jumping around quickly. Of course, this may change. So far I really just know the first two parts. I mostly only do first person with someone who’s more of an observer.

  9. Personally, I like to write in 3rd Omniscient. This has always been a natural writing style for me, as I love to be able to delve into other character minds and study their reactions to certain events. I haven’t cruised around your blog yet – but have you done character studies or profiles before? (Here is a link to some brief character profiles – http://leighkhunt.weebly.com/talent-characters.html) It’s all very well writing in 3rd Limited, but that style is also very much like writing in 1st person.
    I find that as a reader, books written in 1st person can be a very effective way of telling the story as it engages the reader outright into the characters mind. (Sometimes the opposite can happen though, as the reader may not ‘like’ the character!)
    However, I find that writing in it is a very ‘self-centred’ way of writing, and I have a hard time exploring my character needs and development.

    • Aly Hughes says:

      I do write out character profiles, though they’re not as organized as yours! I also like to write shorts with the characters in them, generally just like a run through of a typical day in the life of the character. It helps me “find” them better when I’m not only describing them, but having them interact with others/daily situations outside, usually before, the story.

      I agree that first person can be very effective, but, and I suppose this will change as I gain more experience, I have problems with transferring too much of myself into the character if I write in first person. Not necessarily their personalities and the way they think, but in the way they speak and what vocabulary they use. I mentioned this in reply to st00ge’s comment above, but writing in third person allows me to take that step back and really examine how I’m writing the character.

      It’s funny you should mention that, about not liking the character when written in first person! The Hunger Games is a great example for me, where I loved the plot and other characters, but I disliked the main character which really dampened my enjoyment of the books. I find that happens more often than not with first person narratives, but maybe I’m just not very empathetic and not a very relatable person! That’s a depressing though, haha!

  10. schillingklaus says:

    Classic omniscient (of the Fielding/Thackeray/Bulwer-Lytton type) is my one true way to go; no editor, no professor, and no workshopaholic will be able to dissuade me from writing in that manner.

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