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Is Limited Third Person the Right POV Choice for Your Mystery?

detective in third person
Single male image, third person limited point of view

A View from the Edge – Third Person POV

How you tell your mysterymakes a difference. Point of View (POV) is the voice that tells the mystery to your readers. Third person point of view allows readers to know what the narrator thinks and experiences without goingdirectlyinto their head. You limit the perspective to one person’s perspective.

Ursula K. LeGuin gives a great description of third person limited point of view in her writing manual, Steering the Craft.

Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., canbe told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.

Connect with Your Readers

Third personlimited point of view creates an intimacy between readers and the characters. Even though the story is not in firstperson,as a writer you can reveal thoughts and responses that allow readers to sense and feel what the character does.

Using different scenes, you can tell the story from the point of view of characters other than your protagonist. Many mystery and suspense writers alternate between the protagonist and the antagonist.

Create Mystery with Uncertainty

Because the story is told from a limited point of view, the emotions, secrets, and backstory of secondary characters – especially suspects – remain uncertain.

You challenge your sleuth to dig deeper to discover motivations and actions these characters keep hidden. Your sleuth’s challenge is to peel back the layers of understanding to solve the puzzle.

Build Tension

When the character has limited knowledge, so does your reader.Your reader is trappedin the head of the character. As you keep secrets from the character, you build tension for the reader. Page-turning is the key to keeping readers involved.

As your protagonist encounters challenges, your reader follows along expectant for the next discovery. Good mystery writing involves keeping your character, and your reader, in suspense.

Reader Comprehension Evolves

As the mystery progresses, your reader’s perspective on characters and situations evolves. This evolution of understanding is exactly what mystery readers want. Because they see only what the character sees, they are tied to the discovery path of your mystery.

Writer Challenge for Third Person Limited POV

The most common challenge, for beginning writers, to third person limited point of view is the temptation to head hop. That means changing character heads within a scene. Don’t do it.

If you go outside the view of your protagonist, use separate scenes to illuminate another character’s point of view.

Limit the number of characters you use to narrate your mystery. Besides the protagonist and the antagonist, choose wisely if you want to let your reader inside another character. The point of your mystery is to create a puzzle for your reader. Too many viewpoints muddies the waters of your story. You are more likely to confuse the reader rather than enlighten them.

Choose the point of view before you begin your mystery. If you have doubts, try writing the beginning in first person and third person to see which flows better. I tried this a few years ago thinking I wanted to be inside the protagonist’s head in first person. As I thought about how the story would unfold, I realized that third person limited would work better for the mystery.

Alternating between third person and first person is a device some writers use: third person for the protagonist and first person for the antagonist. In the hands of a skilled writer, this technique can work.

Your Choice for Storytelling

Third person limited point of view is the standard storytelling device in popular fiction. Use this point of view to your advantage as you create a mystery trail for your sleuth.
Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash​Zara Altair

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