Prior knowledge = omniscience?
February 3, 2014 10:43 AM   Subscribe

What are the narrative limitations of a third-person limited style? Solve this debate between me and a friend.

To start off, I know the basic definitions of third-person limited (or multiple), third-person objective, and third-person omniscient. For me, the line between limited vs. omniscient start to blur when I get into narration; i.e. the "tell, not show."

Accounts on the internet differ, but omniscient is supposed to be more "distant" and thus can pop in narratives seamlessly into the prose, often about other people or other things the third -person limited can't know. Third-person limited closely follows one person (or a series of people, if it's third-person multiple/alternating) and what that person learns, and the knowledge of the narrative is limited to what that person knows. Omniscient is far more "tell, not show" than limited.

What about narrations that the protagonist does (or could) know about? I'll give you an example. Let's say Sam is a cell-phone repair technician.

Despite the manufacturer's efforts, people still found incredibly novel ways to break their cell phones. The stress-tests include being ran over with cars, for pity's sake. And yet wonders never ceased.
Sam stared down at the mess of silicon and glass on his table. Who would try to take a soldering iron to their phone?
(Two weeks later, the manufacturer announced that they were upgrading their stress-tests to include being ran over with tanks.)

If the part in brackets was included, it would definitely be third-person omniscient because there is no way for Sam to know that information.

However, if the bracketed part was excluded, I would argue that the example is third-person limited. It seems logical that Sam, being a technician, would know about the ways the manufacturer currently stress-tested their phones. So although the example above is "telling" the audience about Sam knowing this information, instead of "showing" us, this is still within the purview of third-person limited because the information about things that Sam learned previously, even if the narration didn't indicate exactly how or when he learned this information.

My friend argues that because the narrative didn't indicate how Sam learned this information, this should be considered third-person omniscient, and that third-person limited has to show or indicate how the protagonist learned anything. She thinks that to be considered third-person limited, the narrative should include Sam reading in a magazine (or whatever) about the manufacturer's practices, perhaps in a different scene. I thought this was incredibly limiting re: telling about past events not directly included in the narrative.

What do you say, hive mind?
posted by Zelos to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You seem to think that this has clear and precise rules, but in fact it is more often than not highly ambiguous. It's a literary-theoretical subject which readers of fiction have spent a lot of time ruminating and arguing over, not a settled one. Most importantly, the terminological distinctions you're drawing are tendencies to be identified as you read, not categories that you can securely throw an entire narrative into without exceptions at the sentence level. Most third-person narration moves around as it goes, occupying different points on the spectrum between omniscience (or detachment) and investment in an individual character's psychology and perception; and it can often be quite non-obvious, and a subject of serious interpretive debate, to place where a given sentence falls on that spectrum. This is not a matter of a one-time decision to classify an entire text, it's a question you have to re-ask and re-answer continuously as you read a story.

So in the example you've given, the way a practiced literary critic would probably think about it would be something less like "Is the narrator of this whole story limited or omniscient?" and more like: "The last two sentences in brackets surprised me, because they made me think the narrator suddenly had access to more information than Sam — but it's still not entirely clear. Did Sam already know about the manufacturer's testing process?"

Getting comfortable with ambiguity — experiencing it honestly, thinking about it without quickly wishing it away, learning to talk and argue about it — is really important in reading literature.
posted by RogerB at 11:00 AM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Limiting, fer sure. Any conventions re: how art is done are limiting. They're 100% overlay - a conclusion made by someone who's analyzed how other creative people did things, from which is condensed a rule or a convention. The creative people who set those precedents didn't give a rat's ass about conventions. They just expressed, period.

You can do things as "wrong" as you want; you're compltely free. Because the conventions are all after-the-fact bullshit. They're crutches used by non-creative people to ensure some sort of workable output. Bach did not observe the conventions of four part chorale composition when he wrote his chorales. The conventions were devised later, as folks reverse-engineered his vision. But his vision was VISION, period. If you're creative, work from vision, not from convention.

If you do things your own way and the result isn't expressive, well, then there's a problem! But that's a function of your diligence and discipline, not of your disobedience.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:01 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Those aren't really terms that I find useful/see used, and, as above, I agree that narratives can't be so easily pinned down.

Based on that passage, I would say that this is free indirect discourse, because the voice of the narrator modulates in tone and style into Sam's voice.
posted by munyeca at 11:03 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My friend argues that because the narrative didn't indicate how Sam learned this information, this should be considered third-person omniscient

I'm no expert on literary theory, but I would argue against your friend's point simply because it does not coincide with personal experience. I know all kinds of things that I couldn't tell you how I know. I know that the capital of Egypt is Cairo. I couldn't tell you when or where or how I learned that the capital of Egypt is Cairo.

If a third-person limited narrator only knows as much as one character knows, then it's very possible that the narrator would know that the stress test involves being run over by cars without knowing how Sam knows that—because Sam himself might not remember where or when or how he learned that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:18 AM on February 3, 2014

because the narrative didn't indicate how Sam learned this information, this should be considered third-person omniscient, and that third-person limited has to show or indicate how the protagonist learned anything

The counter-argument to this would go something like "if you show Sam ironing a shirt, you don't have to show or indicate how Sam learned how to use an iron, do you?" Sam's a grown up person, it's reasonable that he knows how to use an iron. He's a cellphone repairman, so it's reasonable that he knows a little bit about how cellphones are manufactured and tested.

The only reason these "rules" exist is to prevent the reader being jarred out of the narrative asking themselves "wait how would that character know that?" which in this example shouldn't be a concern: even if it's information that not every cellphone repairman would necessarily have, there's nothing at all jarring about Sam dropping that factoid into his description.

incidentally I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be "being run over", not "being ran over"
posted by ook at 11:20 AM on February 3, 2014

I'd say this is still limited POV without the part in parentheses. Your characters will always have information about the world, you don't need to show the complete provenance of everything they know. I mean you don't need to show them in kindergarten to establish that they've learned addition, either.
posted by Andrhia at 11:21 AM on February 3, 2014

Re: ook and other people's counter arguments... I think her argument was less about the specifics of ironing or cellphone repair and more the way it was done. If I said "Sam ironed a shirt" and didn't bother to specify when or how he learned that skill, okay, but if I pulled back from the "camera over the shoulder" view to pan into a "Fifteen years ago, Sam's father thought ironing was a critical skill and insisted that his son had to learn it", the voice of the narrative becomes more distant and that was what she thought made it skew omniscient vs. limited. it's the tell, not show, portions of the narrative that we're unsure about. For my part, I think the "pulling back" of the camera is kind of inevitable when it comes to retelling past events and that shouldn't throw it out of being a limited POV as long as the narration didn't become too all-knowing. (In other words, instead of interpreting the narrative as "omniscient" because we "read Sam's father's mind", maybe Sam's father was very vocal about his love for ironing but it just wasn't spelled out exactly in the narrative.)

And good catch on "being ran over"--I'd made up the example on the spot, so I'll guiltily accept all corrections on my grammar. :)
posted by Zelos at 11:46 AM on February 3, 2014

I don't see any "camera pulling back" at all in your example, the paragraph reads as a straightforward 'This is Sam's internal monologue as he looks at the broken phone'.

The "Two weeks later" bit has to be omniscient narrative not because it's "telling" instead of "showing" (which is completely irrelevant), but because there's no way for Sam to know at that point what's going to happen two weeks later.

Omniscient is far more "tell, not show" than limited.

yeah, I think maybe this is where you're going wrong here? 'Tell vs show' doesn't have anything at all to do with omniscient vs limited point of view. You could "show" Sam thinking a thing or "tell" about Sam thinking a thing; as long as it's a thing Sam could plausibly be thinking it still fits within a narrative written from his POV, and if it's not a thing Sam could plausibly be thinking it has to be omniscient whether it's shown or told.

and sorry about the grammar nitpick; I do try not to do that sort of thing but failed in this case
posted by ook at 1:16 PM on February 3, 2014

I agree with Munyeca that free indirect discourse is a key term here. The inclusion of Sam's internal monologue in the body of the text (especially the "...for pity's sake" bit, which is clearly his editorializing) is classic free indirect discourse. The author can drop that style and "pull the camera back" from Sam's consciousness, adding lines like, "Sam's dad once told him..." while remaining solidly within third-person limited. Even that bit in the parentheses, I think, would probably be fine, as long as we could assume that the information would eventually make its way into Sam's world. (It's the sudden leap into future tense that makes it sound jarring to me.)

I think it's easiest to understand the true line between limited-third and omniscient-third by looking at two mistakes that beginning writers often make.

1.) In third-person-limited narration focalized through Sam, Sam should not suddenly begin observing & describing himself in a way only an outside observer would do.

Here's the classic fan fiction example:

"Fascinated by the dilemma, Sam turned his lovely, aquamarine blue eyes on the wreckage of the phone."

Unless he is a narcissist, Sam is not thinking that his own eyes are lovely right now - that's an opinion that's coming from outside. In fact, even the color of his eyes, which is a fact clearly in his possession, is out of place here, because it's not something he would be thinking about in this moment. In contrast, it would be entirely likely for him to flash back into a reverie about his dad teaching him how to iron.

2.) If the third-person-limited narration is otherwise focalized through Sam, we should not suddenly dip into other characters' consciousnesses and describe their thoughts and feelings.

As an author working in third-person-limited, you have a lot of leeway to build a rich world around Sam. You can include facts about the world in which Sam moves without addressing whether or not those observation "belong" to Sam; lots of third-person-limited narration is much more lavishly descriptive and 'writerly' than the character would be strictly capable of. So you might, say, call a tree a "mountain ash" without worrying overmuch about whether Sam himself would probably just call it a tree.

What you cannot do is detach from Sam's conscious to give us the perspective of another character without any warning.


"Sam remembered his father's strong hands covering his own, guiding the motions of the iron.. His father had been a strong man, quiet, but with a patience that made him an excellent teacher."

That sentence is easily within the bounds of third-person-limited.

"Sam remembered his father's strong hands covering his own, guiding the motions of the iron. His father had been a strong man, quiet, but with a patience that made him an excellent teacher, although on that day, he had been distracted by a slight touch of gastrointestinal trouble and also the fact that he couldn't stop fantasizing about his son's hot third grade teacher, Miss Jensen."

Now, we've slid from Sam's perspective to his dad's, and also from limited-third to omniscient-third. Even if we could make up some elaborate backstory about why might possess knowledge about his dad's stomach troubles and crush, the framing of the sentence ("his son's hot third grade teacher") makes it clear that this information is not coming to us via Sam.

(When I say that's "wrong," of course I only mean that it would be inconsistent if the entire rest of the book was focalized through Sam. Most readers would find it distracting.)
posted by pretentious illiterate at 3:29 PM on February 3, 2014

I think I got the association of "tell not show" = "omniscience" from the teachings that omniscient POV tends to be more distant/withdrawn and never really gets into the head of the characters. So rather than having thoughts straight-up quoted and shown to the audience (like first-person or third-person-limited do), the narrative "tells" the audience what is going on/how they should be feeling in response. Looks like I overemphasized that part in my understanding, though.

It sounds like this isn't so much a strict boundary but a more fluid concept, and a (couple of) sentence(s) of "pulling the camera back" is fine. I guess my friend and I ended up debating more about pulling away from a character in the narrative and lost sight of the POVs themselves. If Sam is reminiscing about his father's ironing habits, and then he wanders off into a long mental tangent about his mother ("his mother made the mistake of letting his father do all the ironing because afterwards she could never find shirts in the house...even the dog couldn't hide the shirts fast enough to escape the ironing sweep...etc. etc.") then the focus seems to be sliding off of Sam and onto other people, even if the narrative is still within the scope of "Sam's thoughts and framing." But that sounds like it should still be within third-person-limited, if perhaps lazy writing or a question of stylistics.

Also, this is the first time I've ever heard of free indirect discourse, which is pretty awesome. I've marked a few best answers, but this thread overall has been quite educational. Thanks all!

And ook: no need to apologize, it's all cool.
posted by Zelos at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2014

then the focus seems to be sliding off of Sam and onto other people, even if the narrative is still within the scope of "Sam's thoughts and framing." But that sounds like it should still be within third-person-limited, if perhaps lazy writing or a question of stylistics.

Yes. Third-person omniscient isn't defined by the story's focus, necessarily - the story is told from Sam's POV even when it isn't a story about Sam. Sam is still the lens through which we view these things. Third-person omniscient is when the narrative is in third person and talks about events the POV character could not know about.

If the narrative goes off into a long mental tangent about his mother, we are still in third-person limited. If the narrative suddenly starts talking about how his mother had a dark secret Sam would never learn about, we are now in third-person omniscient.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:13 AM on February 6, 2014

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