I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, and few of them move me to tears; but this one did. I attributed much of its appeal to the beautiful simplicity in the writer’s approach to conveying a fundamental, but often overlooked, universal theme through astute observation of details. Here was a compelling piece of fiction that maintained the scope of the story in a disciplined manner. It would not wear readers out with more plot complexities and characters than necessary—yet readers would feel compelled to turn page after page to find out how it all would turn out. The writer had achieved this by holding up a magnifying glass to poignant and subtle moments, not allowing readers to miss the meaning and synchronicity within many of those moments that would generally escape us as we rush past them to get to the next thing.
This book had so much going for it, yet I knew that particular version of the manuscript would fall short of the goals the writer had for it. And I knew why. There were places where the point of view was—well, it was slipping.
Although the story was basically written from an omniscient (all-knowing narrator) point of view, the story was begging to be transformed into limited third person point of view; in certain spots the story was already slipping into the perspective of one particular character as observed by a third person or narrator. And those were the most riveting parts of the manuscript.
I wanted the narrator to climb into the mind and emotions of a one character at a time to describe for me what was happening using only that character’s senses throughout a whole chapter. I wanted to see how the character would respond to what was occurring based on only what that particular character could and would know at that time. I wanted to be able to sense what was going on inside his head and his heart as the events filtered through them, and as he interpreted what was happening. I wanted to see and feel exactly what must be happening with that character and only that character throughout “his” chapter.
Then in other chapters, I wanted the narrator to crawl inside the head and heart of a different character and describe precisely what that character was seeing, feeling, and interpreting through his “filter.” Among all of the characters in the story, there were three who each cried out for the story to be written from their perspective alone in various chapters. One chapter needed to be written from a certain character’s perspective. The next chapter needed to be written from a second main character’s perspective. And another chapter needed to be written from a third character’s perspective. And subsequent chapters would continue to be alternately written from one of those three perspectives as appropriate so that readers could check back in with each of those three primary characters from time to time as the story would unfold. Of course these three main characters would encounter and respond to each other as well as other more minor characters throughout the course of the story.
Happily, the author took on the task. From an editor’s point of view, it really helped the editorial integrity. From a reader’s point of view I was delighted with how well the new version drew me in and held my attention.
Rewriting from limited third person point of view allowed the reader to share the experiences from only one character’s perspective at a time. The result was an exponentially more powerful and compelling story that showed rather than told the reader what was happening for each of the three main characters. And good writing is, after all, showing rather than telling a story.
Writing in limited third person is not the right approach for every work of fiction. And if you decide to use that technique, you will find that it takes a lot of discipline and practice to ensure that you are conveying only what one character could possibly be aware of and respond to throughout the whole book, or at least within an entire chapter before switching to another character’s perspective in another chapter. Keep in mind that readers are not likely to respond well to limited third person if you try to apply it to more than two or three characters. And entire stories are often written from the perspective of just one character. Asking a reader to engage that deeply with more than two or three characters is asking too much of a reader.
Writing in limited third person is an acquired skill, and many writers will probably not want to try it without the assistance of a professional editor. If you’re uncertain as to whether to unleash the power of a limited third person perspective within your manuscript, an editor can help you decide.