Writing Excuses 12.7: Description Through the Third Person Lens
Key Points: Learn to let the character’s voice, thoughts, and feelings come through when describing, especially in third person. Combine characterization and description! Get specific with what the character notices and does. Pay attention to what they notice, and what they miss. Describe the small things, let the reader imagine the large things. Focus indicates thought — what the character sees, what they hear. Exercise: try and include every sense in a scene. But don’t spend too long! And beware going overboard on all the senses all the time — no one licks a vase. Add your infodumps in third person to emotion, action, dialogue — dribble them across a scene. Pick out the important information and avoid the irrelevant infodump. Losing viewpoint? Check the emotional investment in the scene. Make sure you have the right scene. What happens when the main character knows something, but doesn’t let the reader know? Frustration! Use focus, something else compelling to keep the main character going, and sometimes, it’s just background for the character, no matter how surprising it is for the reader. Or… give the reader the information! Often knowing the secret makes the action more compelling. Or make that other plan a contingency. Think surprising, yet inevitable.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to Describe Through the Lens of a Third Person Narrator.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] And here we go. So, third person is what I trained on, right? I’ve done some first person, but third person is still my favorite. I come ba… I do first person now, and it’s good for some exploration, different things, but I love a really solid third person narrative. How do you let a character’s thoughts and feelings come out when you’re describing? I ask this question because you’re going to do a lot of description, listeners, and description is one of those things that can easily get bogged down. Right? You can easily just lose your sense of character and things, ’cause you’ve got a page of description. I found that if you can let the voice of the character come through the way they describe the world around them, you can both characterize and get setting going. I think it’s a skill that is very useful, particularly for fantasy and science fiction writers to learn, because you’re going to be describing lots of weird stuff.
[Mary Anne] So, I actually describe more normal things, even when I’m writing science fiction. So, for example, in my most recent book, The Stars Change, the humans have gotten together, they’re trying to stop an attack on the alien compound, but because my characters are South Asian and it’s the middle of the night and they’re planning, they have to stop and like make samosas, because that is what you would do. That is what my family would do.
[Mary Anne] Like, you have to eat to fuel what you’re doing. So I tend to have my characters do a lot of domestic tasks, even in the middle of an action-adventure kind of thing. I think in those domestic tasks, you can show a lot of character. Like, if you are washing dishes, and your hand is shaking as you are putting down the glass, like that indicate something about your mental state, for example.
[Brandon] That’s perfect.
[Mary] Exactly. I mean, if my family were doing the same thing, we would be making pimento cheese sandwiches, which other people find vile. But it is that idea of getting very specific with the things that the character notices. I actually want to hark back to something that Wesley said in epi… In January, about how there’s a very thin line between third person and first person. If you’re writing third person, with what we call an emotionally invested narrator, where the narrator is very in tight, tight third person, you’re going to be using a lot of the same tricks that you are… That you use in first person.
[Wesley] So, I mean, I was about to say that…
[Wesley] You totally stole my thunder there. But…
[Wesley] What I was trying to say, what I was going to say is, really, I tend to marry my point of view with my narrator. What happens is… You… The point of view doesn’t… They don’t notice everything. So what you want to focus on is what that person sees. So when you’re doing description, that specific person might see certain things, but completely miss other things. That’s something that you want to like kind of play with when you narrate.
[Brandon] Dan al… Often has said… It’s one of the things that he said that I find very brilliant, is that you describe the small things and let them imagine the large things. Which works very well. The small things are going to be very individual to what you’re going to see that other people wouldn’t, or things that everyone else would notice that your character glosses over.
[Mary] Going back to puppetry, the thing we use is focus indicates thought. It’s not just what your character sees, but the sounds that they hear. Like when we were waiting to record this episode, we… The podcasters had all failed to notice that the air conditioner was still running, but our audio engineer totally noticed that the air conditioner was still running.
[Mary] Then once he points it out, we’re like, “Oh, yeah. That is making a really horrible sound. Oh, yeah.” But it’s that kind of thing that you’re looking for, the specificity of character.
[Brandon] Yes. Everyone should write a story about our audio engineer.
[Brandon] I mean, he’s going to notice all kinds of cool things.
[Wesley] Like, for example, I saw… I have a five-month-old baby, and I have like Superman hearing now when it comes to babies crying. Like I can hear a baby cry from a hundred yards away. But everything else, it’s a complete like a buzz to me. But when I hear… When there’s a baby crying, I hear it right away.
[Mary Anne] Interestingly, my kids are older, they’re seven and nine, and now when I hear a baby crying from the apartment building next door… I hear it. I still hear it in a way that I never did before I was a parent, but then I have this immediate wash of relief.
[Mary Anne] Not my problem. I don’t have to deal with it.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s best at family events. Where you’re like, “Crying. Oh, it’s not mine.”
[Mary Anne] It’s not mine.
[Mary] Well, you know, interesting, along those lines, when I need to get my parents attention now, I have to use their first names, because they no longer hear mom and dad as being me. When we’re out, I’m like, “Dad! Dad!”… “Ken!” “Whuh?”
[Brandon] I’ve seen you do that with him. Yeah.
[Mary] Well, he had a concussion from surfing.
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, that’s another story. Yes.
[Mary Anne] This is… I’m thinking about, when we talk about these little details, this is I think when you have the exercise where you have the students like try and include every sense in a scene. What do you see? What do you smell, taste, hear, etc.? I think that’s really useful for thinking about third person observational details.
[Brandon] I love that one.
[Mary Anne] Again, like people are going to notice different things, they’re going to hear different things.
[Mary] Also, I think, how long they notice something. This is a thing that I will see people fall down on in third person a lot. That there is a small, telling detail, which is a great detail, but they spend too much time lovingly describing it. It’s like… This is equivalent of your character going and standing in front of the thing and staring at it. Because that’s how much time your reader is spending with the thing. If that’s what you want, awesome. But if it’s not, then you’ve just completely misled us.
[Brandon] This is an awesome point. Because even with someone who really knows something, like the… Let’s just say you hear a bird calling in the next room. Right? One character is like, “Oh, there’s a bird squawking,” and another character says, “Oh, that sounds like a macaw.” That alone is enough to give us the characterization. If you go on for a paragraph about what a macaw sounds like versus what other birds might sound like, then you have… You’ve overemphasized this point to the point that it loses its meaning and wraps around to something else.
[Wesley] One thing to add to that is like usually when you describe a scene or a setting or something, you want to use the senses, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, but if you use like three senses, then you’ve built that description. If you start using all four or five, then you’re really overdoing it, because nobody actually looks at something and goes how does everything look, sound…
[Mary] I’m going to lick this vase.
[Wesley] I’m going to rub it really gently and see how it feels.
[Mary Anne] I also think you need to think about the scope of the piece you’re telling, right? So if you are starting to write a novel that is going to be War and Peace link, then you might have room for a paragraph or two of sensory description in your opening. If you’re writing a 2000 word short story, you gotta be fast.
[Brandon] Do it in half a word, if you can.
[Mary Anne] That’s right.
[Brandon] So, infodumps. The dreaded infodump. Right? How do you manage an infodump? I ask this because I’ve found, while you, Mary Anne, mentioned that first person can be much harder, one thing I feel is it’s easier for is doing infodumps. Because I feel if I can set it in the character voice, I can get across all kinds of information while having a fun voice talking about it. How do you get these infodumps in third person, and how do you manage that information?
[Mary Anne] So, this is something I have students do exercises about, and I think a lot of it, for me, is if you can attach it to an emotion, it makes it feel more organic. So, for example, let’s say I need to get across some piece of cooking information. As I said, I write a lot of domestic things, so I need to get across something like that. Well, instead of like putting the recipe on the page, what I have is a mother and daughter having a huge fight in the kitchen about the other things that are going on, and in the midst of it, the mom is yelling at the daughter that you’re not chopping the onions small enough. That is a key piece of information that I’m trying to get across, but it’s wrapped in an ocean.
[Wesley] You could even, just to add to that, you can add that to action and dialogue, where if you have… Let’s say a block of information you need to convey, you can split that infodump apart over the course of an action scene. There’s your location, the time of day, there’s the wind that’s blowing, the injuries that are happening… You really can just kind of put that information into the scene, and just kind of dribble it out over the course of a chapter.
[Mary] It’s, I think, one of the things that we’re talking about there is pairing it with a task. But one of the things that I also want to highlight here is that the key piece of information you were trying to get across is onions need to be diced small. A lot of times what happens when we’re doing the infodump is that we want to give the reader too much information. That you can actually give them something very small and very concrete and allow them to build the rest of it. A lot of times, we feel like I need to give the entire back story of how a rocket is made, and really, all you need to know toward this particular plot point is that the O rings sometimes fail. It’s like that’s… But you don’t need the entire history of rocketry. Sometimes we get kind of caught up.
[Brandon] If you were Tom Clancy, you would talk about the forging of that O ring and which ship it was put on and the name… Anyway.
[Mary Anne] Save it for the appendix, for the later books, the DVD extras.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Because you’re going to tell us about Amberlough.
[Mary] Amberlough. I have been waiting to do this as a book of the week for about a year now. I got to read this in ARC. It’s by Lara Elena Donnelly. It is… I have been so excited about this book. It is a secondary world fantasy, but there’s no magic. It is… This is not… It is an alternate universe that feels like a real place. It is… There are aspects of it that kind of feel like Weimer Republic, and also feel very contemporary. It feels a little bit like the 1920s, but a lot of themes that are… That will ring very, very true to you. Bear in mind, I was like… I read this in 2014. It’s an amazing book. Very powerful voice. She has different points of view, each of which is written in third person, but the voice for them is so compelling and so strong. It’s a beautiful book. Very powerfully written. It’s a debut novel. I’m so excited to see this book out.
[Brandon] Wow. Those debuts that are that good, it just makes you angry, doesn’t it?
[Mary] It really does.
[Brandon] You’re like, “Oh, man.”
[Mary] I know.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s get back to this. I want to talk about something we call losing viewpoint. A lot of times in my writing group, my alpha readers, this is a phrase they will commonly use, correctly, when my… I’ve had a long scene of dialogue or something like this, and they’re like, “I really lost viewpoint in this, I don’t know who we’re seeing this through.” How do you deal with that? Is it a problem? Do you think it’s one, or… How do you deal with losing viewpoint?
[Mary] I find that that happens when I forget about what my character’s emotional investment in… Is in the scene. Particularly when I’m in a situation where my character is not necessarily the major actor. When that happens, I have to go back and look at what they have at stake in the scene, and think about what is their attitude to this, how are they receiving this information, and make sure that I put in some kind of internal motivation, some free indirect speech often will be very handy for conveying what a character’s attitude is towards anything, and keeping that rooted in their…
[Brandon] Just as a reminder. Free indirect speech?
[Mary] Oh, sorry. Free indirect speech, popularized by Jane Austen, is where you take a character’s thoughts and you insert them in the narration in third person.
[Brandon] You don’t do a highlighted, italicized or whatever. I… What’s going on with me? It’s more along the lines of “What was going on with her?”
[Mary Anne] I think, for me, I don’t tend to lose viewpoint in the kind of way Mary Robinette’s talking about. I think ’cause of the way I write… I write in layers, so I tend to first lay down dialogue, and then I go back and fill in setting and fill in… So I’m sort of like thickening the scene as I go. I’m actually a very lazy writer, so like I throw down the bones first, everything I care about, and then I have to kind of make myself go back in and put the flesh on. But I do sometimes have viewpoint issues. Usually, for me, those are just carelessness. Honestly, it’s I’m not paying attention to POV and I’ve kind of slid around between first and third. It’s pretty straightforward editing to go and fix it.
[Wesley] I mean, a lot of times, though, for me, it’s structure. If I’m losing viewpoint, I tend to kind of like pull back and go, “What am I trying to convey in this scene? What thoughts do I want the reader to know?” Then it’s just a matter of kind of cutting off the fat. Because when you have too much in there, that’s when you start muddling the viewpoint.
[Brandon] Okay. So, different question. It’s a little off topic, but it’s something I wanted to cover before we leave talking about third person. How do you keep information from the reader without feeling like you are cheating?
[Mary] Och. It drives me crazy. You’ve read these books. They drive you crazy, too. It’s…
[Brandon] The main character knows something…
[Mary] And they’re like, “But I won’t…”
[Brandon] It’s in third person.
[Mary] “Think about it now.” It’s like grrrr. I had to do this in Valor and Vanity. Which was a heist novel, and my character knew about the heist, but I needed to hold information back. And I didn’t… I wanted readers to be able to go back and see me being honest if they read it again. So what I did was I used focus. I made sure that any any scene where she would have been thinking about the thing, that there was something else that drew her attention. So that that other thing was more compelling. Occasionally, you can get away with the character beginning to think about something and being interrupted, but if you do it too often and if the interruption is not really compelling…
[Mary Anne] They will just get annoyed.
[Mary] They get annoyed.
[Mary Anne] And rightfully so.
[Mary] And they can see what you’re doing.
[Wesley] So, I do this a lot. I really like this thing. So, like, for example, in The Rise of Io, I have a very big twist in the middle. For me, the character, when I’m in the character’s point of view, he’s not thinking of the twist at the end. He’s thinking I need to do this now, I need to do that now, this is why it’s important. So you can think about what he needs to do right in front of him without giving away his true intention at the very end. That’s kind of what I focus on, is… We all think of the big picture, but really, when we’re in the moment, we’re thinking about what our tasks are ahead of us. That’s kind of what I focus on.
[Brandon] One time that I did it, I went back and forth on it. Because I felt like I was cheating. Right? I still tell readers, I think I was cheating. How I did it was what the character was contemplating was their own death. They knew the twist was coming that would probably lead to them dying. Every time it came up, it was like I can’t focus on that right now, I have to do everything else I can to make sure this thing I’m thinking about doesn’t happen. But then it’s kind of a what was this thing you’re planning? It went on long enough that I worry it got frustrating. But that is one time that I used it.
[Mary Anne] I’m sorry. There are two things I wanted to mention. One is I totally want to echo what Mary said about the emotional truth in voice, but I think sometimes what you have is a character who this critical piece of information is so background for them that they… Like, it’s just part of the world they live in. It may be something that is very surprising to the reader. I’m thinking of something like Ancillary Justice. Right? Where the author was really using the reader’s assumptions to create a twist and a surprise that we didn’t see coming. But which, of course, made sense that it wouldn’t have been an issue for the protagonist. Right? So I thought that was very smart. It doesn’t come up all that often, but if you can pull it off, it’s great. For me, I tend to, I admit, I do a lot of jumping around, in both multiple third person limited viewpoints and jumping around in time. So, like in any given short story, I may be three months in the past and then jumping into the future and so on. I feel like that is a really useful way to manage revelation of information.
[Mary] So, two other things that I wanted to tag onto that is that a lot of times, just the choice to withhold the information is the wrong choice. That you get much more compelling narrative from having your character actually think about that thing directly.
[Brandon] To piggyback on that, one of the best examples… I often have used it on the podcast… Is Dune. Where when someone is a traitor and planning something… Dune is omniscient. Herbert just tells you. This person is planning to betray them. Now squirm while you watch everyone else interacting with the person.
[Mary] A lot of times having information is really interesting. The other thing that you can do is have your character think about their plan, but have a different plan that is the one that you actually execute. That… So your surprise plot twist is “Oh, and then they’re able to do this thing.” It’s like that’s so cool, but I can’t have them think about that, because… It’s like have them come up with a different plan and save your really cool plan for the contingency that they have to execute when things go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s…
[Mary Anne] Nice.
[Mary] It’s a really fun thing.
[Wesley] So it has to be… Like they have to think about the plan, but it has to be an honest plan.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Wesley] So, a plot twist doesn’t work if no one sees it coming. So the reader should be able to look at that plot twist and go, “Oh, my goodness. Throughout the entire book, she was telling me she was going to do this, and I just never saw it.”
[Mary Anne] That’s the best murder mysteries, right? Where you get to the end and you’re like, “Ah, I didn’t see it coming, but it makes so much sense.”
[Brandon] Surprising, yet inevitable. That’s the phrase.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Mary Anne, you were going to give us some homework?
[Mary Anne] Well, I was just going to say that I love Ursula Le Guin’s book, Steering the Craft. It’s a very short little how-to-write book. She’s got like three chapters with exercises on various variations of third person that I find really helpful. I still… I assign it every semester and I do them again with my students every semester. I get something out of it every time.
[Brandon] Well, excellent. That is your homework. Go read some Ursula Le Guin. You will always find it time well spent, I have found. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.