A Matter of Perspective: Using Distant and Tight Third Person

Lights Camera Emoticow WritersdontcryAnyone who has written or read more than birthday cards has more than likely heard the terms "tight (or close) third person" and "distant third person." And yet, when it comes to nailing down exactly what they mean, when and how to use them, and why something feels off about someone's use of tight third person, it can start to get a bit complicated. At its simplest, all the two terms do is describe the zooming in and out of a book’s literary camera. Tight third person means the literary camera has a tight focus on the viewpoint character (sometimes, so tight as to be just on their face) so as to emphasize the emotions and thoughts of the character. And distant third person means the camera is panned back a bit, to give us a less emotional and more literal view of things—and also to show us the character has feet.

But where it starts to get complicated is when you realize there aren’t just two kinds of third person. Tight and distant third person are actually part of a continuum that stretches all the way from outer-space distant--to right up inside your character’s skull. The more distant the narration, the more emphasis there is on the narrator’s voice and opinions (and the more important it is to have a strong voice). And the closer the narration, the more emphasis there is on the character’s experiences—to the eventual elimination of the narrator’s voice.

Writers tend to be very opinionated about—well, everything! But in particular about what distances are best. But, of course, in reality, you need all the distances (or at least, more than one). Sticking to just one distance would feel bizarrely monotone, like holding a single note for five minutes in place of a melody. Instead, most novels use different pacing, narrative distances, and vocabularies for different occasions, which the author weaves together seamlessly—and naturally—like a maestro.

Of course, that isn’t to say you should use all the distances all the time—and mixed up with each other willy-nilly. As engaging as the excellent use of distances can be, unexpected shifts in distance are discordant, and one of the surest ways to disengage your reader. So, to help tackle the issue, I’ve adapted the five “psychic distances” outlined by John Gardner in his genius guide to writing: The Art of Fiction, and gone over briefly some of the details of each distance and how to move elegantly between them.

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