The Omniscient Viewpoint: Use With Caution

What is the omniscient viewpoint, anyway?
From the Wikipedia entry:

The third-person omniscient is a narrative mode in which the reader is presented the story by a narrator with an overarching point of view, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including everything all of the characters are thinking and feeling.

Who uses it, and why?
Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Tolkien. A lot of classical writers. Maybe because they came before TV and the internet and they wanted to include lots of info and backstory for the reader, who might not have been able to find it without Google. Also, Omni-view often increases your word count, and let’s face it–some of those guys got paid by the word.

Here’s what the Omni-view is NOT:
*An excuse not to work too hard on plotting and planning.
*A way to include a lot of needless backstory and teaching moments.
*A means by which you don’t have to decide whose story this is and what your story is.
*An excuse to head-hop into any character anytime.

The crucial difference between third-person close and third-person omniscient is that Omni-view includes an omniscient narrator voice, a presence that exists from the start as a voice between the reader and the story.

The omniscient narrator may go into anyone’s head at any time and it’s not a violation of viewpoint as it can be with third-person close.

The confusion between Omni-view and third-person close is one of the most common mistakes from newer writers. I did it myself when I tried to write in multiple viewpoint even though I wasn’t a newer writer. In one scene, I checked in with ten characters as they were going to bed, each one getting a new paragraph but not a scenebreak. Abrupt changes in perspective. Head-hopping at its worst.

One of my more blunt critique partners said, “People who know how to write in the omniscient view create an omniscient narrator voice.” At first, I was all, “Hey! I know how to write in any viewpoint!” But I studied it and realized I really didn’t. I decided Omni-view wasn’t a good idea for my complex YA paranormal novel. What all those storylines and characters needed was closer focus on the most important goals, not more perspectives.

From the first chapter of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, a young adult fantasy:

Ho Chi Minh City in the summer. Sweltering by anyone’s standards. Needless to say, Artemis Fowl would not have been willing to put up with such discomfort if something extremely important had not been at stake. Important to the plan.
Sun did not suit Artemis. He did not look well in it.

Artemis Fowl II by Earice

Someone is talking to the reader here, someone who is not Artemis and is not anyone else in the story. Colfer can do this because he’s established an omniscient narrator voice from the start. Artemis is an unusual teen hero: a ruthless twelve-year-old criminal mastermind. The dips into other characters’ heads help us see Artemis and understand his larger-than-life persona. And when Colfer does big, multi-level, multi-player battle scenes later, he doesn’t lose track of the story or what’s important to each scene.

Just because you can use Omni-view, should you?
I’m going out on a limb and I’m going to say; NO. Don’t use the Omni-view unless it’s the only possible choice for the story you’re trying to tell. Going from head to head to head is not the omniscient viewpoint; it’s no viewpoint. What you’re almost always trying to do is…(deep breath) A Close Third Multiple Viewpoint. (The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, will be called Close Third Encounters of the Multiple Kind. Or else that will be the porn version; it could go either way.)

Close Third Multiple lets you to do most anything you need to in most novels. You can drop into your villain’s perspective to show him setting up a bomb in the meeting room. In the next scene, your main character enters the room, unknowingly sitting next to the bomb. The reader knows how much danger the protagonist is in but the hero doesn’t, building suspense. No Omni-view needed.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling starts with a chapter in Omni-view to detail the fall of Lord Voldemort and the end of the wizarding world’s war. Baby Harry is dropped off at his aunt and uncle’s doorstep, unaware of his fate as the hero of the secret world. For most of the rest of the 7-book series, Rowling uses third-person close and stays with Harry, creating sympathy with the hero and also giving backstory and world-building as Harry learns the wizarding world. No more Omni-view needed.

Of course, there are violations of viewpoint all the time in published, bestselling fiction. But those writers are usually really good at something, like pulling a reader in. Most of us are hurting our chances of telling a good story well if we don’t have the basics of viewpoint down. No need to handicap your book from the get-go by writing a confused viewpoint.

So, what do you think? Is the omniscient viewpoint the right way to go for your novel? Am I being too harsh on poor, old Omni-view?

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14 Responses to The Omniscient Viewpoint: Use With Caution

  1. I wrote my first novel entirely in omniscient form. Then I joined the SW Critique Group.
    The feedback from the group was overwhelmingly in favor of my re-writing it in (limited multi) first person. Two years later, I’m glad I did. J’s point of view, in particular, was “the gold star” I was looking for. πŸ˜€

    That said, there is one person in SW group who thought my omniscient version was stronger in terms of the overall story.
    And she was a winner in the RMFW 2011 Colorado Gold contest. πŸ˜‰

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    • Chris Devlin says:

      Daven,
      It’s funny how you’ll get such contradictory feedback from critique group. In the end, you’ve got to go with your gut.

      I don’t recall reading your book in the omniscient view–was there an omniscient narrator? I do recall multiple third person.

      But I like J’s first-person POV best.

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  2. Mark Stevens says:

    Agreed & agreed. For me, the point is character, character, character. And I need to trust the narrator, and/or really know the narrator to engage in a story. The super omniscient, high-above-it-all voice does little to help in most cases. There are always exceptions. I like close third person, with multiple POV’s to really understand the tug of war (or wars).

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    • Chris Devlin says:

      Me too, Mark. I find the multiple third-person close offers enough freedom of movement within the story while staying focused on what’s important to the viewpoint characters. The distant omniscient view seems to come from another time, when writers spent a great deal of real estate describing the town, or the lineage of the characters, or the history of a place. You needed a God’s eye view for that.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  3. As we have seen previously, our hero is condemned by his use of omniscient third-person point-of-view.

    Great post.

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  4. Terry Wright says:

    I think the genre has a lot to do with POV. Mixing omni with close (or close multiple) is common to sci-fi and thrillers more so than romance or mystery. For example: Crichton’s narrative exposition on a scientific principle that a character is manipulating (for better or worse) richens the reader’s experience – and the reader expects it. The problem with omni-view is it’s easy for the writer to become lazy (I’ll just tell the reader my character is angry rather than than show the emotion with body language and/or visceral responses to the stimulus that created the anger). Like anything else, omni can be done well or done sloppily.

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    • Chris Devlin says:

      That’s a really good point, Terry, and I originally had a section in this post that went into genre as a way of assessing if you wanted the omni-view. (I cut it because the post was already so darn long.)

      It’s fairly unusual to find omni-view in a YA since the writer usually wants to stay close to the main characters. Colfer does a great job with the viewpoint and still making you care about the characters.

      One of my favorite books of the last few years is Brady Udall’s “The Lonely Polygamist,” wherein he violates many of the rules of fiction we hear so often. (One of them is shifting the viewpoint from chapter to chapter among many characters and including an omniscient-view chapter every now and then.) But he handles the tricky, complex, multi-character narrative so deftly that it never gets confusing or boring even though the book is 600+ pages.

      Omni can go anywhere and do anything as long as the writer knows what they’re doing.

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  5. Great post, Devlin. I’ve never actually wrote in omniscient POV before, and I don’t think I’ll ever try (with the possible exception of a prologue or two in one of my high-fantasy novels). I’ve written almost all of my novels in first-person, although I did write two in third-close. I’ve spent so many years working in first-person though, that it really is my favorite, despite it’s limitations. I think it’s because it’s seem the most personal to me.

    I do hope to write at least one novel (or novella) in second person. I think it would be really fun and challenging. I’ve only managed to write a few flash fiction pieces in second person, but they’re quite powerful. πŸ™‚

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    • Chris Devlin says:

      Eldridge,
      2nd person is gutsy for sure. I think I’ve read those in flash fiction. I’d like to read those stories.

      I’ve only really done the omniscient view on my massive Irish novel, so that I could pull back and show the progress and the devastation of the Irish famine. But I stayed in close third on the main characters otherwise.

      I was pretty ready to be done with first person after Trash and I’ve been enjoying the relative freedom of the third-person close multiple shifting viewpoint in St. Vitus. But I’d do first-person again. I, too, like the intimacy.

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      • I have one of my 2nd-person flash fiction pieces up on my site, The Mother’s Power. The rest will be in my book (a collection of short stories), Walking the Fringe of a Dark Mind, which I plan to e-publish sometime in the near future.

        I really haven’t read any of St. Vitus (which I need to), so I’ve only read your first-person writing. How long is the book, as of today?

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      • Chris Devlin says:

        The Mother’s Power is vivid and intense, as usual. I hope it’s not autobiographical?

        That’s great that you’re planning a short story collection. January/February might be a good time to publish, since I think e-readers will be a huge gift this season. (Awhile back, at a Colorado Gold conference, Eric Sidle (a techie-type guy) did a workshop on e-readers and he recommended looking at two main factors as predictors: readability and price point. Both of those have accelerated like crazy since then. E-readers are now below $100, which was the price point he thought would signal their mass sales.)

        And I have an iPad now, thanks to friends, so I can actually buy stuff! Good luck getting your stories together, I look forward to reading them.

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      • Glad you like it, Dev, but no, it’s not at all autobiographical. It’s a piece I was inspired to write after my semester studying neuro-psychoanlysis with a professor of mine. He worked with people who had severe personality disorders such as Dissociative Identity Disorder.

        Yeah, I was hoping to get it ready by Christmas, but the holiday season is always hard for me to get anything done, and I’ve already fallen behind on The Novel, so maybe by Valentine’s Day. We’ll just have to see. I have so much work to do on the short stories.

        You got an iPad? Cool. What great friends you have.

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  6. Chris Devlin says:

    Yeah, I imagine a mail carrier would be crazy during this time.

    And don’t I have the bestest friends ever? You’re joining very august company.

    Like

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