One time at a writing workshop, someone asked the speaker for tips on writing in omniscient. His response: Unless you’re Tolstoy, don’t do it.
Well, call me Tolstoy.
The thing is, I really wasn’t trying to swim upstream. I had to rewrite my novel in omniscient. Doing so cut it down to a manageable size, clarified the plot, and ratcheted up the pacing.
Unfortunately, it seems omni has fallen out of favor. Apparently it no longer speaks to our sensibilities; we don’t want to be told the story by a mysterious, god-like narrator (omniscient literally means ‘all-knowing’), but instead immersed in characters’ experiences. Or so I hear.
First of all—and this might be a little nit-picky—I’m not sure “god-like” is a helpful description. In numerous classic novels we find omniscient narrative voices that are so lively and distinct they seem to take the form of a character. Consider the voice in this oft-quoted opening line:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
The unnamed narrator sounds like some witty inhabitant of Austen’s fictional world—not God. Of course, there is such a thing as invisible omniscient (which I’ll get to in a minute), and if that seems god-like to you, go ahead and call it what you like.
My main beef with the critics is this: Why throw tools out of the toolbox? It seems to me we writers need all the help we can get. Besides, omniscient point of view is a pretty powerful tool, and I don’t believe it necessarily fails to immerse the reader in characters’ perspectives either. If you set it up a certain way, the benefits of a close third person limited don’t have to be sacrificed.
Someone might say: Why not just write in third person limited then?
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret…narrative distance can be as exciting and revealing as being up close and personal. Besides, you might find there are times when you need distance. Maybe distance better serves the story, or maybe you just need to take a step back to offer up some B-roll, to borrow a term from filmmaking. In my case, I needed to relate information no character could know. Otherwise I had not a novel, but 600+ pages of unintended Rashomon effect.
Filmmaking seems to be a good (albeit loose) analogy here. Suppose you have the following options to film a scene:
1. With multiple video cameras at your disposal, along with a director who can choose shots from any camera at will, compiling the footage on the spot (omni).
2. With multiple cameras, but no director (third person limited).
3. With a single camera, no director (first person).
As we move from option 1 to 3, there’s an increasing level of simplicity. But what at first seems easy—as easy as pulling out your phone—could turn out to be inefficient or too limiting for your project.
Omniscient is indeed more complicated, but it also gives you more capability. Yes, it requires skill and practice, but you don’t really have to be Tolstoy.
Here are a few things I learned (the hard way):
- Omniscient gives you freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility, which means it’s up to you to give yourself rules to follow. A few questions to ask yourself: How will your omni narrator affect the structure of your story? Which minds will your narrator need to delve into? How often? As you make these choices, also ask yourself: how does this choice serve the story?
For example, since I had already written my first draft in rotating third person limited with one POV per chapter, I decided I would stick with that structure as much as possible. In most cases I opened each chapter with my omni narrator—there’s your establishing shot—and gradually ‘zoomed in’ until I was essentially in third person limited again. (I’ll explain this technique more in the next post.) In later chapters when omni was already well established, I sometimes began in third person limited and stayed there. If I needed to switch to another character’s POV in the same chapter, I made sure the switch happened at the same time and/or place in the story.
- Sustaining ONE perspective is how you immerse your reader. Head hopping, on the other hand, makes it difficult for the reader to care about any of the characters. That said, head hopping can be used strategically in very very rare cases. It can be exciting and funny, or it can be disorienting and frustrating. Remember the movie, The Blair Witch Project? Nothing is off-limits, but whatever you do, be sure to hold those cameras steady. You don’t want your audience puking as they rush out of the theater.
- Decide on a narrative voice and stick with it. Maybe the narrator is an actual, opinionated person…. the protagonist as an adult or a ghost. Maybe it’s a neutral voice, or maybe it’s really you, the author. Whatever you do, choose something sustainable.
I tend to jump right into my character’s heads, rarely coming up for air. What I needed was unity and cohesion, so I decided to go with an invisible narrator whose voice was close to my protagonist’s voice, especially in terms of tone and syntax. It’s not easy to ‘zoom in’ on a different-sounding POV character, so you might find it helpful to consider which of your characters you want to keep at a distance and which you want to get up close and personal with when deciding on your omni narrator’s voice. (This might be one of those rare occasions when your characters really do tell you what to do.)
- Transitions are crucial in omniscient. I’ll talk more about them in the next post, but here’s a minor tip: don’t forget visual clues. A blank space within a chapter gives a clue to the reader that a some sort of switch is about to take place, but you still need to take a look at the words themselves and consider whether the visual clue is sufficient for the effect you’re trying to achieve.
I include this pedestrian advice because for the longest time I was reluctant to use anything but words to transition. I don’t know why I felt this way…I suppose it felt like cheating. Looking back, I was really just being stupid and stubborn. Now I’m proud to say the space bar is my friend.
- Signal upfront and in no uncertain terms that you are writing in omniscient. Maybe there was a time when you didn’t have to be so explicit, but trust me, even if you think you’re bashing your readers over the head with a flashing neon light, you’ll still get that one reader who thinks you’re violating third person limited. Here are a few techniques for signaling omni:
Make a grand declaration in the antique fashion (a la Tolstoy or Austen). Yeah, it’s hard.
Relate something your protagonist doesn’t or couldn’t know. This technique tends to feels a little clumsy, but it has the benefit of being clear. For example:
“Kya was the youngest of five, the others much older, though later she couldn’t recall their ages.”—Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Begin with a full name and/or date. Formality feels very omni, but it might not be enough by itself. Notice how the author in the following example follows up with an external description of the protagonist (a version of “something your protagonist doesn’t know”):
“At half-past six on the twenty-first of June 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was escorted through the gates of the Kremlin onto Red Square, it was glorious and cool. Drawing his shoulders back without breaking his stride, the Count inhaled the air like one fresh from a swim.”—Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow actually begins with a transcript, and throughout the first chapter the author drops little clues which cumulatively signal omni POV. I keep returning to this novel’s subtle opening.
—Perhaps the best advice I can give on writing in omniscient is to study novels written in omniscient. Don’t just read them, study them.
Speaking of studying…In the next post I’d like to take a look at the invisible omniscient John Williams uses in his 1965 academic novel, Stoner (it’s an unfortunate title for a book that has nothing to do with getting stoned). Although the narrative voice Williams employs rarely makes the grand pronouncements we often associate with omniscient (“Happy families are all alike…”), it does do a great deal of “telling” as opposed to “showing,” yet it also plunges us into Stoner’s experiences at just the right moment, giving us the level of intimacy we’d expect of a novel written in a close third or even first person.
What do YOU think of omniscient? As a reader and/or writer, do you gravitate towards a particular point of view in fiction? Do you have any advice or thoughts on POV you would like to share?