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Wednesday, May 8

How a Limited vs. a Tight Point of View Can Confuse Writers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Limited point of view ranges between a close and a far narrative distance, but is often considered the tight point of view.

I had conversations with two separate (and confused) writers this week about point of view (POV) and narrative distance, particularly with what was acceptable in a limited point of view. But what they were really asking had more to do with narrative distance than point of view.

The Difference Between a Limited and a Tight Point of View


Although often used interchangeably in conversation, limited point of view and tight point of view are not the same thing. Limited point of view is telling the story through one character’s point of view per scene. This applies to novels with one point of view character as well as multiple point of view characters. The difference between limited and omniscient, is that omniscient is in everyone’s head all the time, while limited is one character per scene.

A tight point of view is determined by what narrative distance is used—how close readers feel to the point of view character. A close (or tight) point of view tells the story through the eyes of a specific character per scene, and only knows that character’s thought and feelings. First person is a tight point of view, and a tight third person point of view reads like first person with third person pronouns.

Here’s a quick summary:

Omniscient: An outside narrator who knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters all the time and shares this information.

Limited Third: A narrator who knows the thoughts and feelings of one specific character per scene, and only shares the information of that character. This could be a near or far narrative distance, and read like omniscient or first person in “closeness” to the character.

Tight Third: The point of view character is the narrator, who shares thoughts and feelings as if readers were in his or her head. This uses a close narrative distance.

For example:

Limited, Far Narrative Distance: Bob headed out to the shed in search of the rumored supplies Jane had heard about in Amarillo. He checked the surroundings and softened his steps on instinct, making no noise as he approached the faded wood still stained with a previous owner’s blood, but he anticipated no real trouble. Had a zombie been lurking inside, he’d have heard it moaning by now. That didn’t mean there weren’t others within earshot, though. Quiet and careful kept him alive.

Limited, Tight Narrative Distance: Bob headed out to the shed for the rumored supplies. Hopefully Jane’s info was good, but those wackos in Amarillo hadn’t seemed entirely trustworthy. He scanned the yard—no prints or drag marks, and the weeds all stood tall and unbent. No sign of zombies, but he stayed quiet anyway. Lotta blood on the door, so it was possible a zombie had hunkered down inside the shed, though he’d have heard it moaning by now. Didn’t mean there weren’t others within earshot. Quiet and careful kept you alive.

The most obvious difference between these two paragraphs is the voice. The far narrative distance reads more like someone watching Bob and relaying information Bob knows, as well as additional information Bob doesn’t, such as the blood stains belonging to a previous owner. The tight narrative distance gives us more of what Bob is thinking and showing it through his eyes with his judgment and personality.

Both are perfectly acceptable uses of limited third person point of view. There’s also a variety of ways you could blend these and add more voice or internalization to the far narrative distance to give it a more personal tone. For example:

Limited, Far Narrative Distance: Bob headed out to the shed in search of the rumored supplies Jane had heard about in Amarillo. Hope those wackos were telling the truth, he thought as he checked the surroundings. He softened his steps on instinct, making no noise as he approached the faded wood still stained with a previous owner’s blood, but he anticipated no real trouble. Had a zombie been lurking inside, he’d have heard it moaning by now. That didn’t mean there weren’t others within earshot, though. Quiet and careful keeps you alive.

There’s a little of Bob’s voice and attitude in this one, but it still keeps its distance and feels more outside Bob’s head than inside it.

(Here’s more on Keeping Your Distance: Narrative Distance)

If you feel the story leans too far in either direction, here are some way to adjust the narrative distance to get the tone you want.

Pulling the Narrative Distance Away from the Point if View Character


If you want to pull back and show the scene from a distance, you might:
  • Describe what the character is doing as if you were watching them, often a more observational tone
  • Tag internal thoughts, such as Dang, he thought
  • Use filter words
  • Use the same narrative voice as the rest of the novel, often a more formal narrative style
  • More actual facts of what’s in the story than assumptions or guesses by the character, as the distant narrator might know more than the point of view character

(Here’s more on Choosing Narrative Distance in Multiple Third Person)

Pushing the Narrative Distance Closer to the Point of View Character


If you want to show the scene from inside the character’s head, you might:
  • Describe what the character is experiencing in their voice with their opinions on what they experience
  • Use narrative to express internal thoughts, such as Quiet and careful kept you alive vs Quiet and careful keeps you alive
  • A more conversational and casual style, often with more frequent internal thoughts
  • Avoid filter words
  • More judgment, assumptions, and guesses about what the point of view character and experiences

(Here’s more on Crafting Natural-Sounding Internal Thoughts)

Which Narrative Distance Should You Use?


Whichever you think will work best for the story. It’s a lot like choosing between first and third person person point of view, so there is no wrong answer. One will likely fit the story better, or you might have a personal preference and write all your books that way.

A limited point of view is often a tight point of view, but there are just as many novels written with a distant limited narrator as a close one. Don’t feel just because someone suggests a limited point of view that you need to delve deep into your character’s head. It just means don’t spend time in everyone’s head all at once.

Have you ever been confused by limited vs tight point of view? Which do you prefer to write? To read?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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5 comments:

  1. This was so enlightening, Janice. Does this work with the Omniscient point of view too?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not exactly, since omniscient is a far distance by nature--the narrator is outside the story who knows all. But if your narrator is someone like Death from The Book Thief, who is very involved in the tale, then you could have a much tighter narrative distance.

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  2. John White12:07 PM EDT

    Ah, ALMOST no longer confused! Just want to clarify what I'm reading: we CAN mix the tight and far 3rd person limited, correct?: " There’s also a variety of ways you could blend these and add more voice or internalization to the far narrative distance to give it a more personal tone. "

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can. Just be wary that it's clear one POV is tighter and one is more distant by design. You don't want to risk the prose reading as if you randomly change it and some pieces feel close and others far.

      In your case, being tighter with your protagonist and farther with the alien POV would probably be fine. A little distance to show the alien POV could give it a more human perspective and still maintain an alien vibe.

      Delete
  3. John White2:59 PM EDT

    Great, I like that approach. Thanks again, appreciate the feedback!

    ReplyDelete