Distant Omniscient or Close Limited?
Let’s start with the factor that is the most complex but also the most important: narrative distance. This determines whether your story is told from inside the mind of a character or from the viewpoint of an outside observer. Narrative distance is a gradient with many shades on the scale, but the middle shades are only useful for transitions and edge cases, so I’ll focus on the two options at either end.
Close Limited Offers Greater Intimacy and Immediacy
“Ingrey creaked to his feet. He felt as if his muscles squeaked louder protest than his damp leathers. Lady Ijada gave him a grateful curtsey, and turned to follow the house-master. She looked back over her shoulder at him as she turned onto the staircase […].
His duty was to deliver her to Easthome. Nothing more. Into the hands of… no one friendly to her cause. His fingers clenched and unclenched on his hilt.
– The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold.
A close-limited perspective means that the narration comes from inside the mind of the character. It’s close because the readers not only witness the character’s thoughts but also receive information that is colored by the character’s biases. If the viewpoint character loves elves, elves will be described in flattering terms.
It’s limited because the narrator cannot impart any information that the viewpoint character doesn’t know. If the character is partially colorblind and can’t see yellow, nothing in the story can be described as yellow. By the same token, readers should know everything important that the viewpoint character knows. If the character knows who the mysterious figure in the red cloak is, readers must know as well.
Using a close-limited perspective is the best way to build a strong bond between readers and a viewpoint character. Writing from the character’s perspective will help readers get to know and love them. When written well, close limited removes the barriers between the character’s experience and the experience of the reader, making the story feel more real and immediate. That’s great for increasing tension and strengthening reader involvement. However, close limited comes with many restrictions on what information should be included in the narration, and those restrictions can chafe.
Close limited is an especially strong choice for stories that follow the personal journey of one main character. Two popular examples are the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series. Both stories focus on the experiences and growth of a single character, and the stories are told almost entirely from that character’s viewpoint. In these cases, close limited helps readers bond with the character that carries the story.
Ideally, stories like these have their character in the driver’s seat, taking the plot where they will. In the Harry Potter series, the titular Harry Potter is at the center of every important event. This makes the restrictions on information sharing helpful rather than harmful. Because the story is about Harry Potter, events simply aren’t worth mentioning until Harry Potter becomes entangled in them, keeping the narration tight.
But if the primary viewpoint character isn’t driving the plot like they should be, restricting information to their viewpoint can make it worse. Because Katniss Everdeen is not a rebel leader in the second book of the Hunger Games (Catching Fire), readers must be kept in the dark about the rebels’ plans. This makes foreshadowing and setup for the rebels’ dramatic appearance significantly more difficult.
Distant Omniscient Offers Greater Freedom and Flexibility
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
— Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
A distant-omniscient perspective means the story is told by an outside observer with authority over the story. It’s distant because this narrator is not one of the characters; readers look at all characters from the outside. They can see the back of a character’s head just as well as they can see what that character is staring at. It’s omniscient because the narrator has perfect knowledge. The narrator can tell readers that an object is yellow, but it looks light gray to a character because that character is colorblind.
Distant omniscient unchains the narrator, allowing them to tell readers whatever is most entertaining or appropriate for them to know. The narrator can fill them in on world details that are relevant to the story at hand without finding a reason for a viewpoint character to think about it. That’s because in distant omniscient, there aren’t viewpoint characters. Instead, the narration is colored by the personality of the omniscient narrator. This narrator can have whatever personality will create the right atmosphere. When desired, the narrator can even break the fourth wall and address the reader directly.
The freedom and flexibility of distant omniscient can be a great boon to epic stories in large and complicated worlds. For instance, Tolkien used omniscient in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In one instance when the hobbits lose some of their ponies, the narrator jumps in and informs readers not to worry about the ponies because they make it back home safely. Once when the hobbits are unhappy, the narrator describes the bad dreams they are all having without switching scenes, as would be necessary in a close-limited perspective. Distant omniscient is also used to great effect in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These books have colorful narration full of interesting world factoids.
Distant omniscient not only allows writers to include whatever they want, but also allows them to leave out anything they don’t want readers to know. At a pivotal moment during the climax, they can reveal the main character has already executed their brilliant plan to save the day – assuming it was foreshadowed well. If a character is being chased by a monster, the narrator doesn’t have to ruin the mystery by revealing what that monster looks like, even if the character can see it. However, readers need to trust the narrator. The narrator shouldn’t lie, but they can joke around.
While powerful, this perspective has significant downsides. Without being in a character’s head, works written in distant omniscient lose an opportunity to illustrate the way that character thinks. Because the reader is hovering above unfolding events rather than participating, stories told in this perspective lose immersion. Perhaps most importantly, omniscient requires great skill from the writer. Unlike close limited, omniscient lacks any guidelines to help storytellers decides what information to convey, and the writer must imbue the narration with personality without a character to prompt them. That’s why when in doubt, you should pick close limited over distant omniscient.
To learn more about narrative distance and get tips on writing close limited or distant omniscient, see Breaking the Curse of Distant Perspective.
First, Second, or Third Person?
The next factor is what pronoun you should use for your protagonist or viewpoint character. The most common options are first person (your protagonist goes by “I”) and third person (your protagonist goes by “he/she/they” and their name). Second person (your protagonist goes by “you”) is much rarer, but it can still be useful in some situations.
“The phone rang again almost the instant I put it down, making me jump. I peered at it. I don’t trust electronics. Anything manufactured after the forties is suspect—and doesn’t seem to have much liking for me.”
– Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Use of first person is a great complement to a close-limited perspective. It helps both readers and writers identify with a character. For writers, that can mean that their first-person narration naturally has more personality than when they write in third person, even if the pronouns are technically interchangeable. For readers, first person can mean greater immersion. But this also means they are less likely to put up with an unlikable main character.
While the greater personality and intimacy of first person can make a big difference to a story, it comes at the cost of flexibility. Switching between a first-person viewpoint and any other viewpoint is more likely to jar readers, and first-person narration can imply things about the story that the writer may not want. For instance, readers may assume that the viewpoint character lives to tell the tale.
In addition, first person must be used with a close perspective, or it will be off-putting to readers. To use first-person omniscient, you’d need to write under the premise that a once-normal character has since become a god of infinite knowledge and communicate that clearly to your audience. While that’s possible, I’ve never seen it done.* I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who hadn’t already mastered both first person and omniscient third.
Unlike third person, first person gives the writer an additional pronoun that doesn’t appear in the rest of the narration. This can be especially helpful if the story has many characters of the same gender. However, whereas in third person a writer can switch between a pronoun and a name to refer to the protagonist, in first person, “I” is used almost exclusively. If the writer isn’t careful, the “I” pronoun can become repetitive.
“She stood shivering in the rain, watching the words on the letter dissolve under the downpour. Her hair was dripping, her lips tasted salty, and everything ached.”
– The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Third person is a very versatile perspective because it works for both close and distant narration. Because omniscient perspective is distant by necessity, it’s almost always paired with third person.
Third person can have almost all the closeness that first person offers while allowing the writer to zoom out when they need to. If done carefully, a novelist using third person can start their work in omniscient perspective to convey world information, introduce the characters, and then slowly zoom into a character’s head until the narration is close limited. In unusual cases where an objective rather than personal tone of narration is called for, third person is the best way to create that tone.
The downside is that it’s easy for writers using third person to make their narration more distant and bland than it should be. Distancing verbs like “saw,” “wanted,” and “wondered” are more likely to slip in. Writers may also forget that they are writing from inside a character’s head and unthinkingly include information that their viewpoint character doesn’t know.
“The angel of the LORD cometh upon you in the shower at the worst possible moment: one hand placed upon thy right buttock and the other bearing soap, radio blaring, humming a heathen song of sin.”
– The Parable of the Shower by Leah Bobet
Second person is the most unusual of the three. Because of its rarity, readers aren’t used to it, and they are likely to find it off-putting. For this reason, I don’t recommend it for novels. However, it can be a great perspective to experiment with in short stories, and it is ideal for any kind of interactive fiction.
You can think of a second-person protagonist as a video game’s main character. Video games strive for very strong identification between players and the protagonist. This can work better if the character is blank – many video games enable players to pick their name and gender, and sometimes the main character doesn’t speak so that players can imagine their own dialogue. However, many video games do assign a personality to their protagonist, and they are also successful.
Because the reader will be in the mindset of actively discovering their identity during the story, second person is much more forgiving of certain techniques. You can slip in exposition about who they are and what their goals are that would feel unnatural in first- or third-person narratives. Because of the strong identification readers have, you can give second-person protagonists lots of candy without damaging their likability.
Past, Present, or Future Tense?
The choice of verb tense is pretty simple.
“Once more the desire to slip on the Ring came over Frodo; but this time it was stronger than before. So strong that, almost before he realized what he was going, his hand was groping in his pocket.”
– The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is the most conventional, and because of that, it’s tolerated the best by readers. It does have one minor disadvantage. When you want to describe the past in a narrative that is already past tense, you have to deal with awkward past participle phrasing such as “had been.” However, that’s easy to work around, so unless you have a reason to use present tense, just stick with past. It’ll be invisible to almost everyone.
“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”
– The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Some readers aren’t used to present tense and may have trouble adjusting to your story if you use it. However, it feels more immediate. That makes it ideal for stories where urgency and suspense are important – in particular, thrillers. It’s also a good match for first-person or second-person narratives, which are already very immersive perspectives. It’s more unusual to combine present tense with third person, but it can be done.
“The only pawnshop in the town of Night Vale is run by the very young Jackie Fierro. It has no name, but if you need it, you will know where it is. This knowledge will come suddenly, often while you are in the shower. You will collapse, surrounded by a bright glowing blackness, and you will find yourself on your hands and knees, the warm water running over you, and you will know where the pawnshop is.”
– Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Whatever you do, don’t try to write a whole novel in future tense. It will be very distracting for readers, and adding “will” to so many verbs becomes tedious quickly. In the Welcome to Night Vale novel (above), it’s used only for a short introduction, where it provides some novelty that complements the book’s campy cosmic horror. The pairing with second person is also no coincidence; this combo helps the story project right onto the reader. The reader knows what has already happened in their own life, but they can imagine getting a sudden premonition about a pawn shop at a future date.
If you want to craft a short story just so you have an excuse to play with future tense, then okay, knock yourself out. Otherwise use a different perspective.
Should You Use a Framing Premise?
Most stories are written with the notion that the reader is experiencing the story as it happens. This is even true for many first-person stories, as readers become increasingly used to first-person narration. Stories with this default framing premise are more movie-like in experience, and that’s good for immersion. However, there are other options you can use to frame your narration, and they have their own strengths and weaknesses.
“Six days into what should be the greatest month in my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.”
– The Martian by Andy Weir
Epistolary narration is composed of a series of documents, usually letters or journals written by the characters. They are used with first person, though they can also include second person by addressing a character assumed to be the reader.
Epistolary makes transitioning a lot easier. Time can be skipped simply by spacing the letter or journal entries farther apart. This premise also lends itself to summarizing, as few people do more than summarize events when they write them down. That makes epistolary a good choice for stories that take place over large periods of time.
The downside is that using an epistolary framing premise makes real-time scenes feel unnatural. Readers have to accept that the character is writing a blow-by-blow description of their latest fistfight in their journal. If writers aren’t careful, epistolary will feel too remote to convey much urgency.
Epistolary can also be used to circumvent the notion that a first-person narrator must live in order to tell the story. Andy Weir’s The Martian is a tale of one man’s struggle to survive on Mars. Using journal entries for the narration allows Weir to write in the strong voice of his character while keeping the outcome in doubt. Ending a journal entry with the narrator’s certain death can be tricky, but a final-sounding goodbye generally does the trick.
A Character Recounting Their Past
“‘In the beginning, as far as I know, the world was spun out of the nameless void by Aleph, who gave everything a name. Or, depending on the version of the tale, found the names all things already possessed.’
Chronicler let slip a small laugh, though he did not look up from his page or pause in his writing.
Kvothe continued, smiling himself. ‘I see you laugh. Very well, for simplicity’s sake, let us assume I am the center of creation. In doing this, let us pass over innumerable boring stories: the rise and fall of empires, sagas of heroism, ballads of tragic love. Let us hurry forward to the only tale of any real importance.’ His smile broadened. ‘Mine.'”
– Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
You can also use the premise that a character is telling the story to readers, perhaps as they sit around a campfire. The storyteller character should have experienced the events directly, making this first person.
A character recounting their past isn’t quite the same character as the protagonist. The current narrator will have a different perspective than their past self. This adds a layer of complication to the narration – you are now expressing the thoughts of not one character but two – but it also adds some flexibility. The narrator can have additional self-awareness and knowledge they didn’t have before. Similar to an omniscient narrator, they can fill in additional information that’s relevant to the story at hand, though that information is limited to what the character would reasonably know. The additional flexibility of this premise can imbue the narration with even more personality than first-person or third-person omniscient.
If you’re looking for an interesting middle ground, you can have the story catch up to the narrator partway through. Then the narration can proceed in real time. However, because your narrator and your protagonist will be almost the same person, you could lose many of the benefits of this premise.
“Interruption, and hey, how about giving old Morgenstern credit for a major league fake-out there. I mean, didn’t you think for a while at least that they really were married? I did.”
– The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Instead of having only one narrator, two entirely different characters could narrate the same scenes in the story. They could either do this with dialogue going back and forth arguing about what happened or with one narrator picking up a document by the first and amending it. One of the best known uses of this is the novel The Princess Bride. In the book, William Goldman pretends he is doing an abridged retelling of “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale.” He summarizes all the pages about fashion he supposedly cut out of the original and leaves footnotes about the political context at the time of the story.
This kind of dual narration is incredibly distracting. It becomes a large spectacle that pulls readers out of the story at hand and demands they examine the style of narration instead. In order for this technique to pay off, at least one of these two things should be true:
- The story is campy and self-aware. It’s not trying for emotional depth or immersion, so poking fun at the story makes sense. This is the case in The Princess Bride.
- The combative narrative is in itself an essential component of the story. For instance, the story is about the struggle between two factions, and the narrators represent those two factions. The arguments between the narrators resolve important plot threads, completing the story.
I still wouldn’t recommend this to new writers. But in the hands of someone skilled, this could create very interesting results.
Non-Fiction Retellings by Outside Characters
[Footnote] “Time, distance, and weight have been translated in all cases throughout this book to old Earth time, distance, and weight systems for the sake of uniformity and to prevent confusion in the various systems employed by the Psychlos. –Translator”
– Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
Whether it’s a non-fiction book about events that’ve supposedly happened, or a character having a vision of events in the past, I do not recommend using any premise of this type. A framing premise should give you some benefit you didn’t have before, not just take away tools you need.
Having an outside character look back on events they didn’t participate in offers no advantage that a regular omniscient narrator doesn’t provide. But now, the writer is forced to justify how this outside narrator knows essential information. How can a historical researcher guess what the actual thoughts of the characters were? If a character having a vision is experiencing what it’s like to be one of the participants of past events, why not just write from the perspective of the participant?
This premise can be useful for short clips within a work. Your single-viewpoint character might have a brief vision to convey essential information you couldn’t give to your readers in a limited perspective. But it’s too burdensome to work well for an entire story.
If you’re still not sure which perspective to use, go with the most conventional and familiar. That’s third person, close limited, past tense, and told in the moment. This is a strong match for most stories, and while the narration still takes skill, your readers will be more familiar with it and, therefore, more forgiving of imperfections.
Whatever you choose, just remember: your story isn’t the pronouns you use; it’s the characters struggling with a tough situation. Let your readers see past your language so they can enjoy the meaning.
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