Writing in third-person intimate point of view (POV) allows the author to write deeply from a character’s perspective as in first-person POV, but it also allows the story to be told from several points of view—the changes just have to be carefully done to avoid head hopping. The reason to choose third-person intimate over omniscient POV is that the reader gets right into the mind of the character and so gets to know the characters more deeply than they would with omniscient POV. Because the story is told in the character’s voice, it’s more interesting and engaging than omniscient, which is a very remote way of telling a story. See my last post for an explanation of the difference between the two points of view.
Unless they’ve done a lot of previous study of the writing craft, beginning authors who use third-person POV often think they’re writing in omniscient even if they’re not, and they usually start by writing in expositional rather than descriptive prose (telling rather than showing). Whereas the most engaging fiction—at least for a modern audience—is descriptive (showing) rather than expositional (telling) and intimate rather than omniscient POV.
Authors often think that if they’re writing in omniscient POV they can say what’s in everyone’s heads whenever they like, but it isn’t that simple, as you can see from my last post. Omniscient POV writing can easily stray into third-person intimate. And even if truly in omniscient, you can still give readers POV whiplash by simply by giving too many internal thoughts of too many characters in too short a space of time. So even in true omniscient it’s best to follow the guidelines for a smooth POV change.
Why POV is so important
Readers like to know who is telling the story, and they want to relate to that person. When there are more than one POVs, readers want to know who is telling the story at any particular time, so it’s vital that the author knows at every step of the way from whose POV they are writing—at least after the first draft. If the POV is always jumping around, readers get confused or irritated because they keep finding that someone else is suddenly telling the story.
The important thing to remember when writing in third-person intimate POV
In third-person intimate POV, your POV character is telling the story through their eyes, using their language, and giving their perspective, but they can ONLY say what they know, see, hear, taste, feel or assume. They cannot write about their own physical appearance as it would look from the outside—unless they’re looking in a mirror—nor can they write what someone else is thinking or feeling—unless they’re telepathic! They can however describe another character’s expression, gestures and tone of voice in a way that gives one an idea of what they might be thinking or feeling.
- They can, for instance, feel their face flush or heat, but they can’t see that their face has turned red.
- They cannot write the name of someone they haven’t met before they’ve been given the name of that person by someone.
- They can’t talk about something that is around the corner if they have never been in that place before or know what’s on a menu before they read it.
- They can’t say that another character ‘felt’ angry or that their ‘stomach churned with anger’, but they can describe how that character ‘stomped across the floor with a thunderous expression.’
- They can say that someone looked thoughtful and can wonder if they’re thinking about something in particular, but they can’t say exactly what they’re thinking. They can only say what they are thinking and feeling. If you want to go inside the head of another character, it’s time to change POV with either a section break or a smooth batten change.
- They don’t know what is going to happen in the future and they only know what they have experienced in the past and what others have told them.
- They don’t know what they missed. So you can’t say that they didn’t see someone look their way. If they didn’t see it, they don’t know about it.
How to write in third-person intimate
Put yourself in the story. Pretend you are the character and you’re telling the story from their perspective. Place yourself in the scene, and describe what you (as the character) see, hear, smell, taste and so on. Be that person in your imagination. Live the scene from inside your character’s mind and tell the story as if you are them.
If you find that referring to yourself as ‘she’ or ‘he’ makes doing that too difficult, then start by writing in first person. Have your character tells the story using ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, and then change it to third person afterwards.
For example, I might write:
I stared out the window at the darkening sky. My heart seemed to skip a beat with every flash of lightning and crash of thunder. Tension tightened my brow, threatening a headache. Will George make it home before the roads became impassable? I couldn’t bear the thought of him being caught between rapidly rising streams.
In third person it becomes:
She stared out the window at the darkening sky. Her heart seemed to skip a beat with every flash of lightning and crash of thunder. Tension tightened her brow, threatening a headache. Would George make it home before the roads became impassable? She couldn’t bear the thought of him being caught between rapidly rising streams.
Transitions to other POVs
Meanwhile George is fighting the rising waters, but you can’t just jump from the above POV to George where he’s standing on the edge of the stream wondering whether to risk crossing or not. You have to make a smooth transition to his POV. The easiest and clearest way is to make a section break and start the next section with his name and saying what he’s feeling, but don’t have lots of little sections in different POVs. Try to stay with one character’s POV for as long as possible and change at the start of a chapter or change of scene.
And even if George walks into the scene, you can’t just go from ‘She couldn’t bear the thought of him being caught between rapidly rising streams,’ to ‘George’s heart leapt with joy and relief when he finally burst through the door and saw the smile of Abbey’s face.’ Best is that you keep describing the scene from Abbey’s POV and have her say something like ‘The door burst open and George entered with a joyful smile, clearly relieved to be home.’
Practice makes perfect
Once you’ve got the hang of it, writing in omniscient point of view will seem terribly dull in comparison. Only in very skilled hands does omniscient POV compete well with the liveliness of the intimate POV. And if you’re not sure if you’re in omniscient or intimate POV, then try to write in intimate and follow the guidelines for clear POV transitions, that way you won’t be head-hopping.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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Ken Decroo says
Tahlia’s advised me to move from omniscient to intimate POV when editing Becoming Human. It significantly improved my novel by making it more engaging. Many of the reviews state that Becoming Human is better than my first. I am a better writer because of Tahlia’s guidance as an editor and mentor. Thanks, Tahlia.
Tahlia Newland says
Aw gee, thanks, Ken. It’s a pleasure to work with you.