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 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.
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?