1

In my story, there is a group of four characters that are called upon a classic macguffin hunt. The characters know that the macguffin is important, but they do not know all the details as why it is important. I want to provide that info to my readers, but while writing in third person limited, I'm not sure how.

I think a generic answer would be better to help others, but read on for my particular case.


To draw a parallel to something in the real world, consider Tabasco brand sauce. Now, almost anyone can cultivate peppers almost anywhere and use them to make a hot sauce. But only if those peppers are that one particular genetic strain, and only if they are grown on Avery Island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, can the sauce made from those peppers carry the name Tabasco. There is something about the soil or the weather or whatever, that gives those peppers their unique blend of heat and flavor that no other hot sauce can replicate.

In my fictional world, this certain vegetable can also be grown almost anywhere by almost anyone. It can be used to add a pleasant flavor to tea, and also added during fermentation to make a nice liquour. But if you use "special" vegetable, that tea can treat a disease, and when special vegetable is used in the cool quaff, it adds an extra kick the regular version just can't replicate.

Because I am the author, I know that this is because special vegetable grows on a particular cluster of islands. These islands are of volcanic origin, and located within a equatorial zone. An ocean current brings a stable climate, regular rains, and steady supply of nutrients. A unique crab lives there, and its burrowing keeps the soil turned over just so. Finally, sea birds in the area go out and eat a unique blend of fish during the day, coming back at night to (um, er) fertilize the special vegetables.


The characters know about the medicinal tea and the potent potable, and they know about the existence of these islands. They do not know any of the rest. I believe it help my readers understand the magnitude of the quest if they knew the details. I can't write a dialog where one character explains to another, nor do I want to break in with a sudden paragraph of omniscient narrator, then jump back to a character's point of view. I can't find any way to do this that doesn't seem really jarring, unrealistic, nor break the flow of the story.

5

Remember that terms like "third person limited" are not meant to be jails. They are descriptive.

If it works for your story to have one (or a handful) of scenes outside your protagonists' viewpoint, go right ahead and do it. No editor will break down your door with an giant eraser to make you change anything.

The Harry Potter series is told from Harry's POV, except two opening chapters (books 1 and 6, IIRC) which are just third-person limited, focusing on other people. That doesn't negate the rest of the tale.

In terms of flow, you can present it as a short chapter, an interlude, a prologue, or some other form of break so the reader knows that the "camera" is moving outside what's been presented before, and this is something special happening at the same time somewhere else.

3

If you need to convey specific information to the reader without resorting to an omniscient info-dump while staying in a third person POV your choices are indeed limited (pun intended).

Your MC can either discover that particular piece of information through their action (find what seems to be the McGuffin and see that it does not work as expected, so it is not the real one; find a book, a letter, a decaying ancient scroll with some partial info, etc.) or be told about it by another character.

Those are the devices at your disposal.

I must add though, that a conversation being held only to deliver the info is the same info-dump, only from a different narrator(s), and yes, it will be hard to make it sound natural.

What might work, however, is prioritizing what exactly your readers must know so the story can proceed without breaking pace.

Is it the dietary preferences of the particular breed of seagulls, pooping over the crop, or the fact that there is only one place the planet, where it grows, which is more important to your plot?

I wager it's the latter--you cannot go on a quest if you do not know where to go. The rest of your worldbuilding can stay undiscovered. While it is very tempting to introduce it to the reader in its wonderful entirety, trust me, the readers do not care about crabs, birds, and how well done the last night honey-glazed bear steak was. They care about the story and not the recipes of all the food your characters eat.

Break the info into pieces, and let your character(s) discover the important ones only as your story unfolds. Keep the rest and stick them in when the moment is right. Or never.

1

My first thought would be to add someone who farms these special vegetables as a character in a subplot, giving you all sorts of ways to work in the key information. You would still have to break the flow of the main storyline occasionally for these interludes, but the reader would readily forgive you if the farming subplot is interesting in its own right. As long as you have a good way to tie the farming character to the main storyline as the quest progresses, I think it would work.

1

Consider the possibility of a Prologue, in which someone other than the (subsequent) narrator lays down the essentials. If you do this, be careful with your writing style, since many prospective readers will simply glance at the Prologue before deciding whether to read the book.

Example: Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. In the original book, in real time, Hercule Poirot discovers a small piece of evidence. His own knowledge leads him to a theory, based on a news event that occurred long ago and far away. We learn about it later in the book.

But in the movie version, there is a Prologue, in which we are at the time and place of that news event. Then, after that fades, we go to the Orient Express.

0

I really wish we could get rid of the current terminology for describing point of view. First person and third person are not points of view. They are simply grammatical persons. Point of view is the angle or viewpoint from which a scene is described.

It would be much more helpful if we used terms like involved and detached to describe point of view. A involved point of view in one in which the action is described from the point of view of someone in the middle of that action. A detached point of view is one in which the action is described from the point of view of someone standing aside and watching the action.

Both detached and involved points of view can be written in third person or first person. Even if the first person narrative is written (putatively, of course, not actually) but the person involved in the action, they can still describe the action from a detached point of view.

Often, indeed, after we have been involved in some pieces of action, we step back and try to make sense of it from a detached point of view, because action in the moment is confusing. Our experience and our memories are actually formed more by reflection and reconstruction of the event than by blow by blow recall of the stream of events. So we adopt a more or less detached point of view even in remembering the things we have experienced, let alone in reporting them.

On the other hand, a person observing and narrating a scene from a detached point of view is able to move around and see the scene from different angles. With the privilege of the creator, the narrator has the ability to shift that detached point of view into the head of the character when they want to. Properly understood, this is not a switch to an involved POV, it is a detached observer temporarily adopting a point of view within the skull of the character. This is actually one of the great privileges and glories of the novel form, something neither the stage or the screen can accomplish.

Look at it this way and the difficulty disappears. You are writing from a detached point of view (the person you are writing in is irrelevant) and you are sometimes moving that point of view into the skull of a character and sometimes out of it. This is all completely legitimate and countless examples of it can be found in literature.

Of course, it is still possible to do it badly. But doing badly does not mean that you violated some rule of writing. It just means you did it badly. The cure is to do it well.

  • I agree with you but for different reasons. In Portuguese, we learn Genette's terminology (homodiegetic, etc) so when I first started coming across the English terms '1st person' and so on, I felt it was very limitating. I guess it's all a matter of perspective. – SC for reinstatement of Monica May 4 '17 at 18:42
  • While I do not mind at all your terminology, I am itching for the clarification on this passage: "...a person observing and narrating a scene from a detached point of view..." Are you referring to a character or an omniscient narrator? – Lew May 8 '17 at 13:15
  • @Lew Either one. Detachment is a literary stance. It can be assumed whether the narrator is a character or not. Indeed, it matters much more whether the stance is detached or involved than whether the narrator is a character or not, and whether the person is first or third. For instance, there is the device of narration by a minor character, in which most of the narrative is third person detached even if there are passages of first person detected or first person involved. Gatsby is an example. – user16226 May 8 '17 at 14:36

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.