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Descriptive Settings and Third-Person POV:

 1 Wolf 1066, Wed, 1st May '13 7:42:47 AM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
For a number of my current projects, I'd like to go into some degree of detail about locations and settings but reveal the plot/action from third-person limited POV.

As has been noted a number of times on this forum, lengthy info-dumps can be problematic (so obviously any such detail would have to be kept short, relevant and engaging) and fitting vast amounts of information into the 3P narrative can seem contrived or out of place - a person getting up in the morning and "noticing" all sorts of details about his/her home/car/spaceship/houseboat doesn't gel well.

It works a lot better if the detail is viewed through the eyes of a someone seeing things for the first time - and I've seen some rampant scenery porn done extremely well in this way - but that's not always possible to do with the plot.

How jarring would it be if a story/chapter/scene commenced with a few short descriptive paragraphs in, effectively, the omniscient voice to set the scene and then move into the third-person voice following the viewpoint character interacting with that scene?

Along the lines of "it was an old house badly in need of a good paint-job and some minor repairs but with a good view of the valley" followed by "Joe let himself in the front door and collapsed into his favourite chair, totally done-in by a hard day at the salt mines" rather than Joe, for some unknown reason on today of all days, noticing that the house he's come home to all these years is old and could do with some TLC and the great view despite being done in and caring only about slumping in his chair for a few hours of pure vegetation before girding his loins enough to make himself something to eat.

He's not likely to notice the house, wonderful view, peeled paint, scarred formica table onto which he's thrown his keys, threadbare chair, over-flowing ashtray, scattered beer cans or whatever in his state, so fitting it into his POV is going to seem forced.

Would it jar terribly if the story went from following a viewpoint character's activities to describing their home/town/pimped-out-ride (I'm not talking lengthy history of the town and the lineage and noble deeds of the Founder or who he wrest the land from or what battles were fought, just a few salient details)?

edited 1st May '13 7:44:37 AM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
 2 Madrugada, Wed, 1st May '13 8:10:21 AM Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
Sure it will work. That's how most stories are done. "Viewpoint Character" doesn't mean that the audience is only allowed to know things that that character knows/sees/does. It means that when something is described from a character's viewpoint, that particular character is the one.
'He strutted across the bedroom, his hard manhood pointing the way' sounds like he owns a badly named seeing-eye dog. 'Sit, Hard Manhood!
 3 Ars Thaumaturgis, Wed, 1st May '13 8:40:00 AM Relationship Status: I've been dreaming of True Love's Kiss
This may be tiredness typing, so please taken the following suggestion with a grain of salt, but it seems to me that you might be able to describe the location in terms of the character's reaction — or lack thereof — to it.

For example, you might have something like the following:

Joe's weary eyes slid sightlessly over the familiar details of the room: its worn wooden floor, peeling wallpaper and cracked formica table. He didn't glance at the window, or pause for a moment to take in the dawn setting the distant mountains afire, or the glittering of the lake between mountains and house. He did, however, notice the broken floorboard when he tripped on it, cursing loudly; he resentfully filed it within his mind under "things to fix", and promptly forgot about it. His favourite mug was standing on the counter-top, full nearly to the top with coffee. He picked it up slowly — more tired than careful — and sat at the table, staring at the mug's endlessly cheerful kitten and the collection of minor chips and scratches that it had collected over the years.

Otherwise, yes, I agree with Madrugada, I believe.

edited 1st May '13 8:40:46 AM by ArsThaumaturgis

 4 Madrugada, Wed, 1st May '13 8:52:35 AM Relationship Status: In season
Zzzzzzzzzz
That would work well, if you can keep it up.

As soon as you've gone to a third-person viewpoint, there's an inescapable fact that everything is being seen and described by something outside of them, an unidentified and amorphous viewer; someone or something to whom all of the characters are "him", "her", "they", or "it". Given that, you don't have to limit what the audience knows to what a character knows.
'He strutted across the bedroom, his hard manhood pointing the way' sounds like he owns a badly named seeing-eye dog. 'Sit, Hard Manhood!
 5 demarquis, Wed, 1st May '13 9:57:22 AM from Hell, USA Relationship Status: Buried in snow, waiting for spring
Who Am I?
My understanding of third person limited is that the narration only includes those details that the POV character happens to know, and those are "interpreted" from the perspective of that character (i.e. the exact same scene could be described differently depending upon who the POV character is). I myself use third person limited with multiple POV characters that way- although I'm using the third person voice, the reader sees things through the eyes of the character. Thus, the third person limited narration style provides the author with less flexibility than using omniscient.

That said, there are various tricks one can use to get around this restriction, if the story calls for it. As a general rule, narrative voice should not change very often, and never within a single scene. There are a few examples of well-known works which alternate between third person omni and other modes. "The Poisonwood Bible" uses first person for most of the narrative and then switches to third person to describe scenes where the protagonist isn't present. It's generally considered challenging to pull off, though, and the risk is that unless very skillfully employed, the readers will become confused.

Without knowing more about your story, it's hard for me to advise you. I've seen authors open a chapter with third person omni in order to create an ominous tone before switching to a particular character's POV (esp useful in horror stories). Another use, mostly seen in sci-fi or fantasy, is to include a "quote" from a non-existent reference work, such as a history book being written after the events described in the story, in order to provide some background info ("Dune" made esp. effective use of this). It all depends on what your story requires.

You can find some more info on narrative voice here.
“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
 6 Wolf 1066, Thu, 2nd May '13 6:51:49 PM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
[up][up][up]I'd find that sort of writing very hard to keep up. I'm trying to write a similar sort of thing in one story where the viewpoint character comes home and checks his house for any sign of intrusion/burglary (to both give him a reason for being so observant of details and show the sort of person he is), wherein some details of the house and its furnishings are shown - further revealing a lot about the character - but I'm finding it hard to smoothly write that level of detail.

[up]Thanks for that link. The article and other articles on that site are proving very interesting and useful.

I could write a very omniscient "it was an old 1950's house in need of some TLC, all the furnishings were old and mismatched and there was nothing to attract the attention of a burglar" sort of section but I fear that would seem out of place with the following 3P-limited viewpoint wherein the actions and thoughts of the character show things about the setting.

I also fear that a "detail-heavy" 3P-limited perspective would contrast badly when details decrease as the story progresses - going from "he passed the scarred and stained formica-topped table" to "he rested his elbow on his desk", which is my usual level of "showing".

edited 2nd May '13 6:58:56 PM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
 7 De Marquis, Thu, 2nd May '13 7:19:22 PM from Hell, USA Relationship Status: Buried in snow, waiting for spring
Who Am I?
I guess the question is why you feel the need to describe the house in the first place? If the character truly doesn't notice it, then how does it contribute to the story?
“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
 8 Jabrosky, Thu, 2nd May '13 7:34:30 PM from San Diego, CA
Madman
I like to think of third-person Po V as the literary equivalent of those video games like Guild Wars or World of Warcraft where you're looking down at your character as you play. You follow the character around and can only see things in their immediate proximity, but since you're not exactly in the character's head, you have enough distance to describe, say, what the character looks like to outsiders.

As for description in general, I believe the amount should depend on the subject's familiarity to readers. If you're writing a scene set in a modern-day Starbucks, for instance, you don't have to describe too much detail since most readers already know what the inside of a Starbucks looks like. For more exotic settings and characters such as those you might encounter in speculative fiction, on the other hand, more description gives people a better perception of those unfamiliar objects.

edited 2nd May '13 7:37:56 PM by Jabrosky

 9 Wolf 1066, Thu, 2nd May '13 7:50:09 PM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
[up][up]In some cases, the setting - especially a person's residence - can convey a lot about the person themselves and "show" rather than "tell" their priorities, socio-economic group, interests etc.

A millionaire's home is likely to look a lot different from that of a blue-collar worker (and if it doesn't, that in itself is going to reveal something about the mindset of the occupant) and can be used to convey that distinction far better than "He was a successful businessman who pulled 6 figures a year".

A hoarder's going to be edging his/her way through clutter, a teenager's wall is going to look different to that of an older person (or an older person who still has Motorhead posters on his wall is going to be of a particular type).

We know a lot about the Patrician of Ankh-Morepork by his spartan living quarters.

The Joe that slumps in a crappy old chair with cigarette burns on the arms is different in many ways from the Joe that slumps in a plush Italian leather chair.

The fact that my brother's dining room perpetually has packs, tents and assorted camping equipment in it tells a lot about him (he's a very different person from me - my camping gear is usually on my bedroom floor).

[up]Exactly that. The interior of Starbucks is unimportant, description-wise, as it's a "known quantity", but exotic/alien/futuristic or personal spaces need to be described to some degree or other, depending on what the reader needs to know about the places/time/people.

edited 2nd May '13 7:54:50 PM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
 10 De Marquis, Fri, 3rd May '13 5:05:01 AM from Hell, USA Relationship Status: Buried in snow, waiting for spring
Who Am I?
OK, so what you want to do is describe the house in a way that reveals something about the character, but you are concerned that the character himself wouldn't notice the very things that help reveal him?

Luckily, even in third person limited, you are not restricted to simply describing the things that a character only notices at one particular point in time. You can describe the house in terms of things he had noticed in the past ("He had always meant to buy nicer things, but had never gotten around to it") or hypothetically would notice if he ever bothered to look ("He never noticed the mismatched furniture, the peeling paint, the scared formica table. It did have a good view of the valley"). Or even in terms of things that this character specifically wont notice ("He carefully and unconsciously failed to notice the mismatched furniture, the peeling paint..."). Anything will work, just so long as it is somehow related to that specific character's perceptions, or lack thereof.

3PL POV shouldn't be detail-heavy to begin with, unless the character is the type of meticulous person that focuses on lots of details. Always use as little detail as you think the readers need to get your point. That said, probably every story ever written starts out by providing background details, which fade away as the action starts, so I wouldn't worry too much about that.

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
 11 Wolf 1066, Fri, 3rd May '13 5:49:11 AM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
Cheers very much for that.
Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
 12 demarquis, Fri, 3rd May '13 7:00:46 AM from Hell, USA Relationship Status: Buried in snow, waiting for spring
Who Am I?
Gladly. Have a Tui for me... smile
“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
 13 Wolf 1066, Fri, 10th May '13 9:38:18 PM from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Wolf1066
Here's a rough first draft for a scene, attempting to describe the place from the point of view of one of the characters.

I'd be interested to hear opinions of it. Physical descriptions of places and people are not my strong suit.

Even though he knew no one had been detected going down the driveway or entering the house since Andrea had left the house that morning, Ian took a stroll around the outside of the house, visually checking the windows and doors and keeping an eye out for anyone lurking nearby. As he went, he also made sure that none of the concealed micro-cameras were obstructed and that the thermoelectric sensors were not visible

Built in the mid 1950s, the house was nearly seventy years old. The stucco walls, wooden casement windows and corrugated iron roof were all in need of a fresh coat of paint, but were otherwise sound. The windows themselves were coated with clear security film to prevent them from shattering if struck.

There were no signs that anyone had attempted to break or pry open a window and the front and rear doors were both secure.

Satisfied that there were no signs of a forced entry, he unlocked the deadbolt on the rear door and entered, automatically locking the door again as he closed it behind him.

As in most houses of that era, the rear door gave access to the laundry, with its mid-nineties “Smart Drive” washing machine and even older dryer.

Within a few seconds, his mobile phone chimed an incoming message – the notification that the door had been opened.

He stepped from the laundry into the tiny kitchen and opened the old-fashioned ventilated food safe just inside the door. He felt between the slats of the shelf to locate the hidden button and pressed it. As he shut the safe door, his phone chimed again, alerting him that he had pressed the button. He knew that five other phones should also have received both notifications.

Despite two confirmations that the alarm system hadn't malfunctioned or been by-passed, Ian still did a full sweep of the inside of the house, checking the window locks as he went. From the kitchen he entered the dining room, with its old formica-topped table and mismatched dining chairs, and from there into the living room.

The living room was as he expected: old television set and basic DVD player on a cheap stand, old computer on its battered kitset workstation and worn, but comfortable, sofa. Nothing really worth stealing there. The only decorations were photographs in cheap variety-store frames.

He went up the hall and checked all three bedrooms. Here, as in the rest of the house, the furnishings were old but serviceable and offered little to interest a burglar. The standard joke they made was that a burglar would probably leave them money out of sympathy.

Finally satisfied that the house was secure and untouched, he went opened the utility closet in the hall. It was lined on both sides with small shelves that contained various household items and cleaning products and there was a large shelf above them that held boxes.

He moved an innocuous-looking item from one shelf to another then pressed a remote control, similar to that for a car alarm, on his key ring. There was a nearly-inaudible click. He pushed on the rear wall of the closet and the entire section below the upper shelf swung away, revealing a stairwell beyond.

The lights in the stairwell came on automatically and he pulled the closet door shut behind him then made his way down the stairs, swinging the fake wall shut as he went . At the bottom of the stairs, he unlocked the metal grill that blocked the passageway at the bottom and made his way to a large underground room.

This room, in contrast with the living room upstairs, was luxuriously set up. A large modern flat-screen television, flanked by two cabinets containing DV Ds, dominated one wall. Below it was an expensive stereo and the small computer tower that acted as music and video server.

Facing the television were three matching leather sofas all within easy reach of a large walnut-and-glass coffee table.

Here, the walls were decorated with expensive framed pictures and there were two large display cases filled with the family's treasured ornaments and heirlooms.

There was a large drinks cabinet to one side of the door and to the other was a bench with a sink and a small refrigerator. On the bench was an automatic espresso machine that ground its own beans. He rinsed out his mug and dialled up a double short espresso. While the machine ground beans and went through its routine of tamping the grounds and flushing them with hot water, Ian boiled some water and got the milk from the fridge.

He topped up his double espresso with boiling water, added sugar and milk, then made his way back down the passageway to his office.

The walls of his office were lined with replica pistols, rifles and submachineguns – mostly airsoft weapons with accurate trademarks and a few non-firing zinc-alloy replicas – and there was an antique desk in one corner on which his laptop sat.

This was where he came to relax amid his collection.

He put his coffee down beside his laptop and sunk into the leather-upholstered swivel chair. While waiting for his laptop to start, he took a charger cable and plugged it into his arm – it wasn't feeling tired yet, but it wouldn't hurt to give it a bit of a top-up and he preferred to run it on external power when he could.

He lighted a cigarette and settled down to check his emails. He hadn't even finished his coffee when his phone chimed to announce that the rear door of the house had been opened.

edited 10th May '13 9:40:35 PM by Wolf1066

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
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