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How can I make a transition from third person omniscient to first person less jarring for the reader?


I'm working on a longish short story (I expect to hit somewhere around 5,000 - 6,000 words by the time I'm through) that starts out in third person omniscient POV, mostly because that allows me to peer into the heads of the various characters while still keeping a reasonable word count. So far, that's working pretty well for the first part, which is mostly setup for later events.

However, I feel that first person POV would likely work better later in the story, as I expect it would help the reader get into the head of the one character I plan on following in that part of the story.

So basically, I want one part of the story to be in third person omniscient, and another part in first person. How can I make that transition less jarring for the reader?

Or is this just a really, really, really bad idea and I should stick to either one?

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It is almost certainly just a really really bad idea and you should stick to either one. At novel length it has been made to work by people like Charles Dickens and Cormac McCarthy, but at short story length I can't imagine it being successful. Novels can be episodic in structure, but a short story is almost always a unity.

Furthermore, I would challenge this notion that first person allows you to get into the head of a character. On the contrary, it is the POV that most shuts the reader out of the character's head. An omniscient narrator, after all, is omniscient. They can go anywhere they like.

A close third person narrator, similarly, can go anywhere they like while focussing on just on character. (Close third, after all, is just omniscience with a stalker complex.)

But first person is always, in some sense or another, the voice of the character. It is what that character chooses to say, what they choose to reveal. But a character who chooses to reveal may also choose to conceal. In fact, this is what we assume tacitly about everyone we meet and listen to. They are concealing things. And what the conceal, though we can only guess at it, is just a revealing as what they show.

If has been well said that a first person narrator is always an unreliable narrator. We are always in a position to assume that what the character is choosing to tell us is something other than the truth, and never in a position to be sure that it is the truth. We may catch them in a lie, but we can never catch them in perfect verity.

This is the genius of the first person narrative when it is done well (which it very seldom is). It is like meeting a person in real life. We are never entirely sure that they are not hiding something from us, and that creates a tension in the relationship that can never wholly be removed.

So if the desire is to get the reader into the head of a character and know what is going on there, then third person is the right choice. If you want to create a mystery about what is going on there, a tension between what they tell us they are thinking and what they might actually be thinking, then first is the tool for the job.

But in a short story, pick one and stick with it.

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This was very helpful. Thank you. aCVn about 15 hours ago


Like this answer, I don't think you need to use first-person to get into a character's head. I want to focus a little more on how to do that in omniscient third-person.

An omniscient narrator can get into any character's head, as you said. You want to switch to first-person, maybe to focus ("we're following this character") or maybe to get deeper thoughts than narrate well (too many "X thought"s and "Y contemplated"s feel clunky). But there's a style of third-person narration that still lets you do that: revealing a character's inner voice. You can present the inner voice alongside action and dialogue.

This needs to be set off typographically. I'm used to seeing italics for this. So you'd have something like:

"Yeah boss, I can do that", Mark conceded. Again.

"Good. Have it on my desk by Monday."

With every step he took from Peter's office he grew more irritated. Why is it always me? I'm not the one who forgot to fill out those TPS reports. I told him that Sam had dropped the ball again. I shouldn't have to clean up after that loser just because he's the CEO's kid.

He felt his jaw tighten into a snarl. Calm down, Mark. Can't let that show. He took a deep breath, with effort relaxed into a neutral expression, and continued toward his cubicle, just in time to pass Sam on what must have been his sixth trip to the breakroom that morning.

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This was very helpful. Thank you. aCVn about 15 hours ago