Variations on a Theme

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

What Is Theme?

There are about as many ways to describe what a theme is as there are themes. The moral of the story. The premise the story is trying to prove. The one sentence snapshot of the story. The greater truth that the author is trying to convey through the story. Most of these descriptions boil down to “What is the story really about?” Plot is what happens in the story. Theme is what the reader takes away from the story.

Generally a theme is presented as a statement. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the classic story of those two star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy because their families cannot stop feuding. While there are probably as many different descriptions of the theme as there are English teachers, the theme is generally presented as a sentence. Some commonly presented themes for Romeo and Juliet are:

  • “Hate destroys love.”
  • “A great love defies even death.”
  • “Love conquers hatred.”
Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Views on Themes

When it comes to the theme of a story, writers tend to fall into two camps.

There is the “my theme will naturally happen without my needing to worry about it while I am writing” camp.

I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.

—Michael Ondaatje

Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it.

—Richard Russo

A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.

—Diane Johnson

And then there is the “without a clear theme at the start, the story will be aimless” camp.

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

—Herman Melville

You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.

—Robert Wise

So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.

The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialog—even action—and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.

—Lajos Egri

Which camp do you fall into? Do you think about the theme of your stories at all? Do you start with a theme, or discover it when you are finished?

But… but… The THEME!

Many writers worry that if they have a clear theme, their story will feel artificially moralistic. We’ve all read those stories where the theme batters us over the head until we put down the book, saying “Enough already!” and we don’t want to be those writers.

If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.

—Elizabeth Bowen

So are the choices here between wandering aimlessly through a forest hoping we make a clear path, or clear-cutting a path so wide that destroys the forest?

That’s a very simplistic view, the either/or view. The fun and interesting stuff comes about when you look at all the grey areas in between two simplistic views. Theme actually has another component to it—the reader has a say in what the story is about.

I get thousands of letters, and they give me a feeling of how each book is perceived. Often I think I have written about a certain theme, but by reading the letters or reviews, I realise that everybody sees the book differently.

—Isabel Allende

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

—Pablo Picasso

Look at the variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Most people agree love has a lot to do with the story. But what love accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) can depend very much on the reader. A young teenager can read it and think that the theme is “Love is worth sacrificing everything.” A jaded adult can read it and think “The impetuousness of young love leads to destruction.” A pacifist can read it and think “Hatred destroys everything, including love.” A fatalist can read it and think “Love cannot overcome fate.”

What’s It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?*

We’re currently in a messy spot with themes. Should you have a theme before you write, or not? Can you have a strong theme that isn’t an “in your face” thing? Does your theme even matter if the reader is going to find their own theme anyway?

The answer to those questions is… ask another question.

Earlier, I said that most themes are written as statements. They are presented as “the moral of the story.” I’d like to twist the idea of theme and pose it as a question.

Let’s start with one of the themes we presented for Romeo and Juliet. “Great love defies even death.” How can we make that theme into a question? Well, there is the obvious one: “Can a great love defy even death?”

I contend, however, that “Can a great love defy even death?” is not that interesting a question. Because there are only two answers to it: Yes, or No. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation, you generally don’t get a lot of response from a yes or no question. “Did you have a good time at the party?” “Yes.” “Did you like school?” “No.” If you want dialog, you need to ask open-ended questions. “What was the party like?” “What did you do in school today?”

What happens to the idea of theme if we phrase it as an open-ended question? What if, instead of our original question, we ask, “How far would lovers go to be with each other?”

If we think of Romeo and Juliet as an exploration into the answer to this question, the story becomes a lot more interesting. What is Romeo willing to do to be with Juliet? What is Juliet willing to do to be with Romeo? Both are ready to defy their families. So let’s escalate that. Are they ready to defy the feud between their families? Defy the law? And defy even death to be together? Those two characters are willing to go all the way. If they were not, it would be a different story. Same question, but a different answer.

Asking an open-ended question about your story is a good way to circumvent all the theme angst, but still give yourself that theme dimension that makes a good story a great one. By asking an open-ended question, your writing becomes an exploration. You don’t need to know the answer ahead of time—you can find out the answer for your particular set of characters in their particular circumstances as you go along. But your story has the theme built into it. And with a good open-ended question, it can still have Melville’s mighty theme.

The question exploration approach to theme also allows your readers the room to draw their own conclusions. You don’t end up accidentally trying to prove your point with a sledgehammer when your goal is not to prove a point, but to push the boundaries of a messy question to its limits and see where it takes your characters.

So start your story by asking yourself a messy question.

  • How far would someone go for revenge?
  • What price would someone pay for their heart’s desire?
  • How much would someone endure for their faith?

Then push your characters as far down their paths as they can go in your pursuit of an answer.

When you have your answer, you have your theme.


*”One minute I’m just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I’m thinking. That’s a major drawback if you’re looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like ‘What’s it all about, when you get right down to it?'” —Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

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An Open-Ended Question

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

Consider a favorite book you have read. What question do you think the writer was exploring? Is it an open-ended question?

Now consider a story you are working on. What are you exploring? How would you phrase that theme or premise as an open-ended question? How does phrasing it as a question affect the way you look at your story?

Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.



How Alien is that Alien Culture?

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

Pick an alien or alien culture from a book, show or movie that you are familiar with. In what ways are they truly alien? In what ways are they “too human”? Describe what you think are some of the implications of the alien physique, environment, and culture. Did the original creator of that alien miss any obvious implications?

Write What You Learn

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a dabbler. I have a lot of interests, and as time permits, I explore them. Singing, acting, science, random online classes, reading… A stopping point in the list is arbitrary. And I discovered something interesting. No matter how varied the list, I always end up finding things in everything I do that apply to my writing.

I don’t mean that the information ends up in my writing, though that also happens. I mean that  with many of  the techniques and skills I learn, I find some way to turn those techniques and skills into writing techniques and skills.

Write What You Learn

Background image: Katrina Br*?#*!@nd/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Acting, for example, has been particularly fruitful for character development. I’ve written several articles on how I’ve applied what I’ve learned in acting to writing (“Point of View: The Director’s Cut,” “See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters,” “Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques“). Even brief forays into graphic design have helped my writing skills–I am better able to write description using some of those principles (“Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details“), and keeping an eye on the big picture while paying attention to the smaller details (“Stepping Back“). I’ve used science for plotting, playing with the energy of the story the same way I would if I were approaching a physics problem (“Struggling With Plots“). And reading, well, that’s a pretty obvious one–I’m always looking at what other authors do that I should, or even shouldn’t, do as I write my own stories. Right now, I’m taking an online course in social psychology. About halfway through the course, I started brainstorming ways to use some of the stuff I was learning in my writing. Anything can be applied to your writing!

Think about all the things that you do that you can use to think about the way you write in a different way. One of the cornerstones of innovation is the accidental collision of seemingly unrelated ideas. In the process, something new forms. A new approach. A new vision. Crash ideas from a completely different area of your life into some of your writing.

Do you play an instrument?

Apply some musical thinking to your story. Does it have movements, like a symphony? How related are they? What are the recurring themes? Where does it crescendo? What key is it in?

Do you knit or crochet?

Apply pattern thinking. How do the different threads of your story intertwine? What color will they be? What’s the final pattern producing? How intricate are the knots and stitches you use?

Do you play soccer?

You’re aiming for the goal. Who’s in your way? What’s the offensive strategy? How do you get around the goalie? Is your kick blocked? Are your teammates helping? Is that the end of the game, or can you try for another goal? Who won?

Are you a photographer?

Frame the story. What do you focus on? What levels of lighting do you need to achieve the effect you want? Do you need a spotlight? Where are the shadows? The close-ups? The panoramic views?

Are you addicted to cooking or baking?

Gather your fresh ingredients. How will you mix them together? Do you need to break some eggs into it so the whole dish will stay together and not fall apart? Should you add sugar? Salt? Pepper? How long do you need to let the mixture cook before shoving a fork into it?

Are you a gardener?

Plant the seeds of your story at the start. Are your growing plants getting the water and sunlight they need? Or do they have to fight for it under the shade of larger plants? Is anything trying to force its way through a sidewalk? Have you weeded out the irrelevant ideas in your story so the ideas you are tending can grow?

I did say anything. I meant it.

Spend all your day making LOLCat images?

That pithy label shows you the way to the heart of your idea. What other odd juxtapositions can add humor to your story? Is your underlying picture a cute cat? An angry cat? What are you overlaying on that basic picture? How will it all work together? And is Comic Sans the right font to use, or should you use Impact Bold to get the shape of your idea across?

I iz gud writr!

Just about anything you do, anything you learn, will have lessons that you can apply to your writing. You just have to look for them. Use all your tools, no matter what toolbox they originally came from.

Write what you learn, and with what you learn. No matter what you learn.

Final Poll Results

Transferable Skills

A Pen In Each Hand

By Bellman

Pick something you do that isn’t writing, and think about the unique skills you use for that activity. Write those skills down, and brainstorm some ideas around them about how you might use the concepts behind these skills in a work in progress. We encourage you visit our forums to share your ideas and to talk about the experience.

Excuses, Excuses

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Another New Year, another set of writing resolutions. How’d you make out with them last year? If you are like many people, those shiny resolutions wore off pretty quickly, and by now, you are probably back to making all the same excuses you made to put off writing that you’ve been making every year.

So this year, instead of writing an article about setting goals and resolutions, or giving you more writing tips, we thought we’d do something a little different. Let’s recognize and celebrate our excuses for what they are. To that end, we’ve created the Writer’s Excuse Bingo card, an interactive excuse finder.

Excuses, ExcusesClick here to play Writer’s Excuse Bingo. When you hear one of the excuses on the card coming out of your mouth, or whispering in your brain, click the box. See how long it takes you to call out BINGO! Or go to the Pen In Each Hand exercise for guidelines on turning your excuses into writing opportunities.

Free Space isn’t exactly free: You need to write something, even if it’s only a word or two, to be able to play it.

You can download the Writer’s Excuse Bingo to play offline by saving the file (File menu, Save Page As…) to your computer and opening the saved file in your browser. No internet connection needed to play or get a new card, but you do of course need a connection to follow any of the handy Toasted Cheese links we also provide on the page.

And if you don’t like our excuses, you can go into the saved html file and edit the code to provide your own. Use a simple text editor or code editor like Notepad++. (Word and similarly complicated editors tend to add a lot of junk to html files.) Just change the text in the quotes inside the excuse arrays in the script provided. If you mess something up beyond fixing, you can always download a new card file.

Enjoy, and may it keep you writing!

Final Poll Results

Point of View: The Director’s Cut

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Most writers are familiar with the various points of view. First person, the “I” view, is the most intimate. The story is narrated by the point of view character. The first person character is often, but not always, the main character of the story. Second person, which is the least used, is the “you” view. This casts a character known to the narrator, or sometimes even the reader, as an intimate recipient of the story. The third person point of view is the “he/she” point of view—it is an external point of view. (For more on the basics of point of view, see “Point of View: Who’s Telling Your Story?“)

Many people wrestle with what point of view is best for the story they want to tell. Usually they can get it down to “first, second, or third” by feel or experimentation. As they work with the story, they get a sense of which point of view is better for that story than the others.

I’d like to offer a different way of approaching the various points of view. What if you thought of your story like a play that was being staged, or a movie you were filming? What would the points of view be? Could using this analogy help identify which one is most appropriate for the job, especially when it comes to picking which of the various third person points of view are available?

Because first and second person point of views are not easily adaptable for stage and screen, I’ll just touch on them briefly. Movies that are filmed through a character’s eyes or camera, such as The Blair Witch Project, are a reasonable equivalent to first person. The only action the audience sees is what the camera character sees. Everything else has to be found out through other characters. Plays in which the audience members are directly addressed by the characters have some aspects of second person point of view.

The stage/screen analogy works best when considering the various third person points of view. The difference between the three is similar to the difference between the actor’s view, the audience’s view, and the director’s view.

Background Image: Pierre Corbucci/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Tight Third Person: The Actor’s View

Tight third is an exterior view that is heavily rooted in a specific character. It’s almost like first person, in that the actions, the interpretations, and the exposed thoughts all belong to the main viewpoint character—the writer just uses third person to describe it. Here is an example of tight third from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn.

Miles woke in a blink to broad daylight, a canvas roof, and a curious feline face staring into his from a cat’s breath away. Glad to discover that the weight on his chest was not some alarming new medical condition, he lifted the three-legged beast off and gingerly sat up. Post-drug headache, check. Fatigue, check. No screaming angels, double-check and an exclamation point or two. His vision seemed clear of all unrealities, and his surroundings, though odd, were not out of any nightmare he owned.

You can think of writing tight third as writing the story as if you had an actor’s view of a play. A good actor will get so into the character’s head that the actor will view all the action in the same way the character would. The actor is not the character, but is filtering everything he or she does through the character. If you are writing tight third, you need to do the same work as the actor. You have to get into the main viewpoint character, and see the world through that character’s eyes. You aren’t writing as the character (that would be first person), but as the person playing the character.

In general, you would expect an actor to be the same character throughout an entire scene of action. The same holds true for tight third point of view. An actor usually views a scene through one specific character. The actor (and thus the character) doesn’t truly know what other actors (and characters) are thinking, only what they are saying and doing. They can guess at others’ thoughts, but they cannot know. The same restrictions apply to a tight third POV character.

If an actor stops acting like their own character, and starts acting like a different character in the scene, this would really confuse the audience. The same thing happens to your audience when you switch tight third POV characters in the middle of a scene. Let your inner actor/writer play out the same part until the scene is finished. But just as an actor can play dual roles, and be another character in another scene, you can focus on a different character—just be that other character, and only that other character, in a new scene.

Objective Third: The Audience’s View

Objective third is much as it sounds: an objective view of what is going on. You present actions and dialogue, but you don’t get into the character’s heads at all. The reader has to infer what the thoughts are from what is presented. The example of objective third below is from The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. ‘I tried to take the Ring from Frodo,’ he said. ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. ‘They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.’ He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment, he spoke again.

‘Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.’

‘No!’ said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. ‘You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory! Be at peace! Minas Tirath shall not fail!’

Boromir smiled.

‘Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?’ said Aragorn

But Boromir did not speak again.

Notice how everything is external. You aren’t privy to anything that an outsider watching the scene couldn’t observe. You can think of objective third stories as stories that are told from the point of view of an audience member who is watching a play or movie. The audience can see what happens to all the characters as they play out their scenes. They are not limited to one viewpoint or one set of mental interpretations. Objective third offers a broader view of what is going on in the story.

But it’s also a less intimate view. The audience can’t see the all the work the actor put in, the motivations, the thoughts. They can only see the results: the words, the way they are spoken, the body language, the actions, the interactions. Everything else has to be inferred. If you are choosing between tight and objective third, consider whether you want to sacrifice the intimate view for wider access to the broader picture.

Omniscient Third: The Director’s View

Omniscient third is a point of view where the reader can know anything—they are not limited to the actions of the characters, or limited the head of only one character. With omniscient third, you can describe events that none of the characters witnessed, or show emotions or inner thoughts of multiple characters in a scene. Here is an example of omniscient third, taken from Leave it to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse. Note that there is no scene break between the paragraphs below, and the two characters end up interacting with each other before the end of the scene.

With an aching sense of what might have been he thought now of his lost Lizzie. Regretfully he admitted to himself that she had always been the brains of the firm. A certain manual dexterity he had no doubt possessed, but it was ever Lizzie who had been responsible for the finer work. If they still had been partners, he really believed that she could have discovered some way of getting round the obstacles which had reared themselves now between himself and the necklace of Lady Constance Keeble. It was in a humble and contrite spirit that Edward Cootes proceeded on his way to Market Blandings.

Miss Peavey, meanwhile, who, it will be remembered, was moving slowly along the road from the Market Blandings end, was finding her walk both restful and enjoyable. There were moments, it has to be recorded, when the society of her hostess and her hostess’s relations was something of a strain to Miss Peavy; and she was glad to be alone.

Omniscient third is the director’s view of the story. The director is aware of everything on some level—what motivates all the characters, everything that is going on both on and off stage, the inner workings of the scene. Think of the director’s commentary that accompanies the movie on a DVD: “I wanted him to be really mad in this scene.” “At this point, she realizes that he’s not coming back. It was a devastating performance.” “We cut a scene where the town got razed. He’s just hearing about that now, but she already knows about it.” The director’s view enhances the audience view, providing more insight into what is going on, and what has gone on that the audience didn’t see.

Omniscient third is much more remote than tight third. You are told about the characters’ thoughts, but you don’t really experience those thoughts from the inside. The director is aware of the actor’s motivation for a scene, but not as deeply involved in the scene as the actor is. It is this distance that enables the writer to dip in and out of the heads of multiple characters in a scene. Omniscient third, when done properly, is less jarring than switching tight third points of view midstream. Readers are following along inside the head of the narrator, rather than the head of a character. So they are looking at the scene from a more complete perspective than they would be in a tight third story. With a tight third, on the other hand, the narrator takes a back seat to the character perspective, so shifts are much more unsettling. However, many readers still find the shifts confusing, and omniscient third is used much less frequently than it used to be.

Which View is for You?

Each point of view provides a different atmosphere, and serves a different narrative feel. They also present different expectations for the reader. With tight third, the reader is very involved with the point of view character, and can feel the story along with him or her rather than just watching it. With objective third, there is much more the reader has to infer about what’s inside the characters, but the reader has access to more of the overall vision. With omniscient third, you are taking the reader behind the scenes as they watch the show.

When you are choosing a third person point of view, think of how you want to tell the story. Are you following a character, getting into his or her head? Then stick with tight third, and be the actor for that character. Are you telling the story as whole, and staying out of people’s heads? Think like an audience member, and use objective third. Or do you need to be in complete control of all the action, all the thoughts? Then be a director, and use omniscient third.

Final Poll Results