Should I use 3rd Omniscient within 3rd Limited?

Sat May 20 2017

Soldiers and civilians react to the end of WWII

This morning, a reader sent me this question:

Dear Plot to Punctuation,

I won't take it personally if you don't reply, but I'm really struggling with a question, and I've learned a lot reading through your website.

I understand that with multiple 3rd person limited, I'm allowed to get into the heads of several characters. I also understand that I'm allowed to have a lot more characters, but that I'm not allowed into their heads. The question is: am I allowed to have scenes in which none of my POV characters appear? To put it differently, is it advisable to have scenes that are dramatic, enriching, and plot-moving, but which don't reveal anyone's feelings, thoughts, inner dialogue?

Great question! And I'm glad you're finding this blog useful.

First, you are of course "allowed" to do whatever you want. It's your story. But I suspect the real question here is whether this is a good idea? Why or why not? And what factors go into the answer?

A quick recap of multiple 3rd limited

To start, let's quickly go over the rules of thumb for this POV choice. (Newer readers can check out this article for the nitty-gritty about all your point-of-view choices.)

Multiple 3rd person limited just means that you have multiple POV characters, and each one is written using 3rd person limited POV. In that sort of novel, the guidelines are:

  1. Stick to just one POV character per scene. Don't switch POV characters in the middle of scenes, but only at scene or chapter breaks.
  2. Only give viewpoints to the significant characters in your story. The bit players don't warrant that kind of treatment.
  3. Use as few viewpoint characters as possible. When in doubt about some new character, don't let us into their heads unless absolutely necessary.
  4. When you have scenes that include more than one of your viewpoint characters, you must pick which one's POV to show the scene through. Pick the character who has the most at stake. Who stands to lose the most if the scene doesn't go their way? Using that person's POV generally gives you better drama.

The short answer: No

With those guidelines in mind, I would recommend against including a scene in which none of your POV characters appear.

To do so would mean switching, for that scene, from 3rd limited to 3rd omniscient. That's a significant stylistic shift, and is bound to make readers feel like they're suddenly reading a different book, or leave them wondering if somehow a chapter from a different draft of the book snuck in somehow.

The longer answer: No, because it changes the rules

The deeper reason why I say don't do it is that such a scene would violate the story's established rules for how information is communicated.

Since 3rd limited locks your readers into your characters' viewpoints, readers receive the same information your characters do, only that information, and at the same time the characters receive it.

The whole point of 3rd limited is the emotional power this limitation generates: by locking reader and character together in that way, the reader reacts to the events of the story at exactly the same time the character does. This creates greater empathy for the character, and pulls the reader deeper into the story.

Giving us a 3rd omniscient scene violates those rules: suddenly we're receiving information that none of the characters we care about is receiving. We can react to it, but we don't have anybody to empathize with while we do so.

Why do you want to do it anyway?

From a writer strategy perspective, I'd ask why you feel like you need this 3rd omniscient scene at all. If none of your POV characters are present, why do readers need to know about those events?

Probably because the events in that scene will come to affect the POV characters in some important way.

That's fine, if so, but doesn't necessarily warrant the jarring shift from 3rd limited to 3rd omni, and the way such a shift would leave readers feeling adrift from the characters for the duration of the scene.

How to have your cake and eat it too

Consider this: if the events of that scene eventually affect the POV characters, then at some point they must become aware of those events anyway.

The moment the POV characters learn about them is when the reader should learn about them too, because of the whole empathy-locking thing. Wait until then.

Of course, there's a danger. If the events in question are particularly surprising or shocking, then as a writer you may be concerned that readers will feel you've pulled a rabbit out of your hat. This concern may be why you're feeling inclined to write that 3rd omni scene at all.

Fortunately, you can get around this pretty easily, with a simple two-part strategy:

  1. Prior to the events in question, find ways to foreshadow them. If you can drop any kind of hints that something big is coming--even if we don't have a clue what it might be--then when it comes along we'll recognize it as the thing we've been waiting for.
  2. Pick the right POV character for this "big reveal" moment. The one that will give you the most impact from learning about those events after-the-fact. For which we refer back to guideline #4 above. Who are those events going to hit the hardest? Who will be most affected, either emotionally or otherwise? For whom is this big reveal the greatest blow? Pick that person to write the big reveal scene, and don't skimp on showing us that person's reactions to the news.

Thanks for the great question! I hope this helps.

And to everyone else, please send your writing questions my way, and I'll be happy to answer them on the blog.