My best tip for writing in third person is to decide whether you want to use limited or omniscient third person point of view before you start writing. There are advantages and disadvantages of each, and this choice will determine how you show setting, characterization, and reveal your plot. In short, your storytelling will be framed by this crucial decision.
A Deep Dive into Omniscient POV
With omniscient, the narrator plays a much greater role in storytelling. Here, the narrator relays information about the backstory, setting, feelings, and world of the novel. Omniscient point of view is useful when there is a lot of world building to be done. The narrator can observe a setting, move through history, provide needed background details and information that a limited POV cannot.
Here is an example of omniscient POV from the 2017 novel, Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. It’s about a relationship that forms between Saeed and Nadia, a young couple who must flee their unnamed Middle Eastern home in an attempt to find safe haven in the West.
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.
Note that the voice of these opening sentences is the narrator’s—not the young man’s and not the young woman’s. The narrator establishes the time, place, and history of the setting. We find out these two young people live in a city that will ultimately be overrun by war, though it’s not there yet.
Relaying this type of setting information isn’t possible if the author had chosen limited third person POV. In that case, either the young man or the young woman would be the eyes through which this scene was described. That person wouldn’t yet realize that his/her city was about to be engulfed by war. Omniscient POV gave the author the latitude to quickly contextualize how these two people came to be acquainted.
Here is the rest of that opening paragraph:
His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, so these choices meant something.
The narrator is able to give us information about both Nadia and Saeed simultaneously. We don’t have to wait for a scene cut to see what Saeed thinks of Nadia or what Nadia thinks of Saeed. We don’t have to interpret these characters’ interpretations of each other. The narrator cut to the chase for us. We know, within a few lines, that Nadia dresses conservatively by choice, and that Saeed takes a middle ground. By using omniscient POV, the author establishes that these two are projecting something about themselves by their wardrobe choices.
The advantages of omniscient are being able to quickly and succinctly give a sense of place, time, character, and history of the story. Think about using this when world building is crucial to your plot. Like Exit West proves, it’s not only science fiction and fantasy wherein world building is important. The disadvantage is not getting deeply into the head or heart of any of your characters.
A Look at Third Person Limited
Third person limited is much like writing in first person. With limited, the observations relayed to the reader come from one character’s point of view at a time. The narrator’s voice is muted as compared to the way its used in omniscient, though the author is able to get deeper into the head of each character. Take this example from Lynda Cohen Loigman’s 2016 novel, The Two-Family House.
Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. [….] He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.
Here, the narrator explains what is happening through only one character’s lens. We can tell Mort is a grumpy character, so we may or may not believe there is anything to actually be upset about regarding the nephew’s bar mitzvah. Mort could be overreacting. Or he could be ill. We’re not sure because we’re only seeing things from his perspective. There is a narrative voice, but it takes Mort’s side.
Loigman’s choice of limited third person works for her novel because it shows how radically different each member of the family views the same events. By changing the POV character in every chapter, the reader is able to see that contrast in a way that increases the conflict in the novel. Take, for instance, this excerpt from the following chapter. It is from Abe’s perspective. He is Mort’s brother, and you’ll easily be able to see how different they are and why that might cause tension.
Abe was a lucky man. He told himself that every morning while he dressed and every night before he went to sleep.
If your story is an intimate dive into family life, like this one, limited POV might help. If you are writing a mystery, and it’s important to not give away all the details at once (remember, an omniscient narrator knows all–including whodunit), limited might be a good bet.
Remember, the most useful tips for writing in third person POV is to choose the one that will create the greatest tension and will tell your story the best.