56. Point of View Part 7: Omniscient

Author: Nola Published: 5 months ago.
Tags: humour, head hopping, information dump, POV, third-person, point of view, omniscient, scope, flexibility, distance, suspense, third-person omniscient Category: Writing tips

Do you have delusions of grandeur? Would you like to read the thoughts of everyone you meet? What about controlling your universe and beyond? If those options thrill your socks from the inside out, then omniscient point of view could be the right vehicle for you.

In omniscient point of view (or third-person omniscient), there is a god-like narrator hovering over the action. This narrator has knowledge of past and future events, and knows what all of the characters are doing. This is different to third-person multiple POV where you’re actually ‘in the head’ of one character at a time (and only one viewpoint character per scene or chapter; see Part 6).

It can be further divided into objective and subjective. In objective omniscient POV, the narrator has a neutral voice and describes what is happening in much the same way that a video camera records events. In subjective omniscient POV, the narrator has a strong voice and can show what characters are thinking and feeling internally. (See Brian Davis’s blog for more information).

Omniscient POV has largely gone out of favour with publishers and readers because it’s a more distant approach than the other viewpoints I’ve discussed in the last few posts. It’s also hard to master, but does have its advantages.

Advantages

Scope and flexibility. This perspective can be effective for epic stories where you want to show what’s happening with a large cast in various locations (e.g. The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien or Dune by Frank Herbert). You can zoom out on the action and give an overview of events, you can zero in on a particular character or group, you can add commentary or history. You are all-seeing and all-knowing.

Distance as positive. Brian Davis notes that an omniscient viewpoint can work well in humorous stories where distance between the reader and the narrator adds to the comedic effect (e.g. the narrator in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offers humorous asides). Distance can also be exploited in mystery and suspense novels where the reader knows something the characters don’t know (Kristen Stieffel & Rebecca Heyman). Think about movies where you see the bomb under the desk, but the character doesn’t know it’s there (EEK!) Click here for some thoughts on that topic by Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense.

Disadvantages

Distance as negative. If the story is being narrated, it may be harder for the reader to connect with the characters and care about what happens to them. You have to work harder to make that connection in other ways.

Information dumps. If the narrator is an observer, it’s tempting to do more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’, or to dump big chunks of information in readers’ laps. See my earlier posts for tips on how to avoid these problems (Post 6 and Post 7).

Head hopping. This occurs when you’re following events from the perspective of one character, but then switch to the viewpoint of another character within the same scene. Brian Davis provides some excellent examples that show the difference between omniscient POV and head-hopping. Adele Jones has also written a brilliant guest post on this topic.

Conclusion

Omniscient POV can be effective, but it’s difficult to pull off. If your novel would be served just as well by third-person multiple POV, then that perspective would cause you fewer headaches. However, if you have a grand saga to tell and you’re up for a challenge, an omniscient viewpoint could give your novel that unique quality. Have you read any contemporary novels written from omniscient POV? I’d love to hear your comments.

Further Reading

The following blog posts provide more information and examples:

Using Third Person Omniscient POV by Brian Davis Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited by Kristen Stieffel & Rebecca Heynan (N.B. This blog also includes some brilliant graphics to explain various points.)

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