Omniscient—Do You Dare?

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.

SO…stay tuned…


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?

28 thoughts on “Omniscient—Do You Dare?

  1. Great article, and timely. Nanowrimo is coming up, and I’m thinking about my nove.

    I have no preference for perspective when I read a novel, although when writing, I prefer 1st or 3rd person limited perspectives. I’ve also done rotating 3rd person when I want more of a mosaic novel, or I want to balance my characters. I guess for me, it’s easier to not give the game up, and since my novels are usually about a character, I find sticking with that character helps. OTOH, the ominiscient view does give me room to interject comments on what’s happening…

    About the only POV advice I’d like to share is that writing in the 1st person can be much easier and flow more smoothly because it lends itself to more natural narrative. Plus it provides a lot of wiggle room if one uses the unreliable narrator 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good luck on Nanowrimo. I know I wouldn’t be able to write a novel in a month, but it might be interesting to see what comes out of it. Sometimes a deadline is what’s needed—that’s definitely true for me.

      Funny you find the unreliable 1st person narrator easier…I actually think that would be the hardest of all to pull off. Then again, I find 1st person hard to pull off, even with a reliable narrator. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever written a character that all readers considered reliable.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post! Funny irony, just this morning I was thinking about narration in film. It, likewise, is considered something that should never be done (“show don’t tell”). And now it’s a blindly followed “rule” but, in fact, an opening narration is a very effective way to bring the viewer quickly into the story.

    And I very much agree about narrators not being god-like. The best ones have a personality all their own. (I can think of so many examples of outstanding omniscient narration!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Geordie had to get a cyst removed, which I thought was going to be no big deal. Well, it was a bigger deal than I thought it would be. He’s fine, but sedated. Ever since I brought him back he’s been both groggy and jumpy (now he’s watching monkeys on TV and looks like he wishes he had the energy to bark at them). Anyway, that and some sudden engagements had me running around for the past two days. I just now got a chance to sit down and mess about on the computer.

      I never really thought about the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ rule applying to film. I just assumed showing was what film did, but now that you mention it, I have noticed on a few occasions an actor talking to the camera to give a little introduction or aside. It’s sort of surprising and refreshing to be acknowledged directly. Seems to be gaining in popularity too…I just saw something like that in the show, Vanity Fair.

      Gotta love those narrators with a distinctive voice. Those are the books I gravitate towards, although the book I’m about to write a post on, Stoner, might have changed my mind on that.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, no, poor Geordie! I’m glad it went okay; it’s tough when our little babies are in surgery! (Stoned dogs are really funny!)

        One classic film example is 2001 which, has no dialog in the first (or last!) 20 minutes. It’s an incredible modern example of film showing. (Unfortunately for some, also of not telling hardly anything, which makes the movie very confusing. It’s not really possible to understand it without reading the book version Clarke wrote at the same time. But it’s sheer visual poetry.) Some filmmakers are better at it than others.

        I think there are forms, detective fiction for instance, that can stand more narration. Detective fiction is almost famous for it. Somehow it fits. The lone PI and his/her internal monologue.

        I love stories that “break the fourth wall” — that kind of narration is definitely my favorite. There is also the kind of narration as in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the Guide explains things. Literal info dumps from an encyclopedic galactic traveler’s guide. Or quotes from documents or newspapers. In a few cases, court room testimony serves to narrate events — I just read an Agatha Christie novel (Sad Cypress) that does that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I actually like omniscient. It can save a lot of time. Unless it’s done very poorly, I don’t think the vast majority of regular readers care. And as you describe, it’s not like you can’t selectively zoom in to third person limited when that’s the best option.

    I’ve found that modern writing advice can, in a lot of ways, be pretty dogmatic. There’s often lots of advice about finding your own way of writing. But don’t mess up third person limited! Getting good advice on omniscient often requires reading older books on writing. One I read several years ago, advised not switching viewpoints in the same scene early in the book. But once the reader had a relationship with the viewpoint characters, then it was much easier to get away with.

    That being said, I think about Dune, which was written in omniscient, and did head hopping from the first scene forward. But it’s worth noting I never felt as close to Paul Atreides as I did to many other protagonists, although in the case of that novel, that might have been intentional.

    My own preferred method is rolling third person limited, with an occasional omniscient interlude. The interludes serve to convey a lot of information very quickly. The only other way to convey that information would be to create viewpoint characters on the fly just so we can get their perspective for one scene. Many people despise that technique, and it can be overused and abused (cough-Dan Brown-cough). I personally don’t have an issue with a viewpoint character only being briefly on stage if their specific viewpoint serves a purpose, but introducing one just to convey information seems pointless.

    So I’d go forward with omniscient if that’s what’s working. If you try to publish traditional, you might have to fight with editors, but I’d stick to your guns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Unless it’s done very poorly, I don’t think the vast majority of regular readers care.” I think you’re probably right about that, especially when you look at bestselling airport books. Then again, it probably depends on genre and the like.

      “One I read several years ago, advised not switching viewpoints in the same scene early in the book. But once the reader had a relationship with the viewpoint characters, then it was much easier to get away with.”

      Fascinating. That sounds like the opposite of what people say to do nowadays, which is to set up reader’s expectations at the beginning and be consistent. Then again, how often do you see novels actually doing this? The funny thing is, once I hear such advice, I start looking for it in books I read, and if the book doesn’t follow the rules, I want to see a reason why. It’s not clear I’d be so critical—or even notice—had I not heard the rules…Which brings up a whole new topic: what to do when you have writers as your audience. Yikes.

      “…But it’s worth noting I never felt as close to Paul Atreides as I did to many other protagonists…”

      Totally totally agreed on Dune. I might have found it easy to put the book down because of that, but I kept reading because of the world building. Then again, I’m not sure why the protagonist—all the characters, really—seemed so distant. I’d have to take a look at the book again.

      I think your rolling third person limited strategy sounds like a good one. Omniscient with a light touch—Omni-Lite?—that can be really contemporary, especially when it’s done with a nice clean narration. And I agree, introducing a minor character’s POV is pretty risky. I’ve seen it successfully done for a comedic effect (Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections” comes to mind), but yeah, it can be jolting.

      “So I’d go forward with omniscient if that’s what’s working. If you try to publish traditional, you might have to fight with editors, but I’d stick to your guns.”

      Here’s to sticking to guns!..I mean, no, wait…that didn’t come out right…

      Liked by 1 person

      • On setting up reader’s expectations, I’m not sure most readers notice how much or how little viewpoint shifts we do. I think with head hopping, they might feel less connection with the characters without really understanding why. So the advice to minimize the shifts early on and relax about it later allows them to develop the same deep connections with characters they would with limited. So the head hopping doesn’t affect them later, at least not as much.

        The nice thing about omniscient is you have the flexibility to do that. You can have large stretches of essentially third person limited, then pull back when it makes sense. Straight third person limited Just gives up the zoom out tool.

        Where I think being careful about reader expectations is important is for things like whether the story is going to be light hearted or dark. If it starts as a comedy then shifts into gruesome horror later, that is probably a problem. Likewise if you seem to promise the reader that you’ll show them something, and you never get around to it, the reader will feel robbed.

        If you’re telling a space story or a supernatural one, it’s important to get that out early. George RR Martin in Game of Thrones starts off with a dark prologue involving zombies and magic. We don’t see anything else supernatural for most of the book, but it establishes that this is a world where there is supernatural stuff.

        Stick to those guns! (Just be careful the adhesive let’s you unstick when the time comes 😉 )

        Liked by 1 person

        • “So the advice to minimize the shifts early on and relax about it later allows them to develop the same deep connections with characters they would with limited.”

          It works well with pacing too. As you get closer to the climax, shorter scenes make sense.

          “Likewise if you seem to promise the reader that you’ll show them something, and you never get around to it, the reader will feel robbed.”

          Oh definitely. Nobody likes dangling threads. That’s a big reason why I rely so much on my writing group…they catch many of the little things I’ve forgotten about. After they’ve read a few drafts, though, I need some fresh eyes. Sometimes they rely on details from previous drafts that I’ve since cut without realizing they’re no longer there. Occasionally I find out from a reader outside the group that those details need to go back in to make sense of the plot. It’s a humbling process.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Great topic. I don’t know why people hate omniscient so much as I find it a rather interesting way to present a story. I myself prefer third-person omniscient (whatever you call it, it could be invisible omniscient but I don’t think so), where scenes take place as if it’s third-limited, but there’ll also be descriptions of hidden homes in the crevices of a mountaintop or radiation from a solar flare penetrating a space ship (things the POV character could never know).

    This is an interesting subject, thanks for writing about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a fascinating take on Omni. I don’t think it would be disorienting either since it’s definitely not head hopping. The best of both worlds really.

      In my next post I’ll talk about transitioning in more detail—that was the trickiest thing for me. I’m curious to hear what techniques you use to move from the crevices of a mountaintop to inside the POV character’s mind (or the other way).

      Like

      • I don’t really have a method for it. I just do what I’ve read in books I enjoy, which loosely goes like this:

        Kaladar’s thighs burned from all that climbing, and he yearned to be done with this leg of the journey, but hidden behind the cover of the snowstorm was an uphill path that stretched for another thirteen kilometres. Presently, he tugged the corners of his coat tighter around himself.

        “Sons of light,” he muttered. “I really should’ve packed more food.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for the example! I think I see what you mean by omni “as if it’s third person limited”…it’s definitely omniscient, but with the “camera” sticking with one character rather than following a bunch of characters. I think the key phrase here is: “he yearned.”

          1. “Kaladar’s thighs burned from all that climbing…”—from this alone, we wouldn’t know whether it was third person limited or omni. Could be either.

          2. “…and he yearned to be done with this leg of the journey…”—same here, except you’re distancing readers from the character with “he yearned”. Third person limited tends to go in the opposite direction—closer. Imagine if it had gone like this: “…and once he got up to the top—here was the final stretch—he’d eat that week-old bologna sandwich on Wonderbread sitting right there in his backpack, even if it was frozen, and surely it was by now.” From here, it would be hard to get back to omni without a few transitional steps. Even then it would be hard.

          3. “…but hidden behind the cover of the snowstorm…” Now we know something the character doesn’t know, which means we’re definitely in omni.

          What an informative example of transitioning. Seems to be working out for you, even if you’re sans method. Nice job!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Mm, I think that’s about right (about write). Seems to me the voice(s) has(ve) sovereignty — they’re key to compelling, immersive writing. As others here have said, readers (as opposed to writers) largely don’t concern themselves with perspectives, and halfway through a novel couldn’t answer which perspective it was written in. Because they simply don’t care. Voice, voice and wit; they’re the things to my mind. But then Tina knows more about this stuff than I do.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’m not sure I know more than you, Hariod, but I think you’re right about voice and wit. Which reminds me of that Martin Amis book you recommended that I have yet to purchase, though I did enjoy the sample. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it. Any more recommendations I can put in my queue?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Tina! Hope you didn’t mind me slipping in here unannounced. I can’t recall which Amis book I was blathering on about, though it was most likely one of two from his so-called London Trilogy — either Money or London Fields. The latter has the edge, for me, just, as Money could’ve done with some hard editing, I feel. (As I understand it, Amis refuses to have his work edited, and in that one it shows.) That said, it’s quite brilliant, and perhaps was a model for Roth’s later Sabbath’s Theatre. Hmm . . . or it could be said to follow in Nabokov’s footsteps of Lolita; all three featuring absolutely repugnant male protagonists, each of whom, by some magic skill I’ll never possess, those three authors managed to make likeable nonetheless; and extremely funny, to boot. I recently finished Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow (English: Plough) Over the Bones of the Dead, which was excellent, though perhaps the translation wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. Also just finished R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September which was superb though quite possibly only of appeal to English readers being quite parochial, and certainly ‘of a time’ — it’s one of those quietly clever ‘nothing happens’ books. And I also just put down Rachel Cusk’s Transit, which I found relentlessly dull. Oh, and I just finished Machines Like Me, which I felt was the messiest McEwan novel I’ve read, and I’ve read ’em all. Written with film rights in mind, Ian? It shows. Currently I’m reading The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by W.H. Davies, and which is unintentionally funny in parts. You gotta laugh, these days, ain’t ya gal?

          Liked by 1 person

    • I agree entirely Wyrd Smythe, and hello Tina! Long time as I am slower than a slow thing. Sorry to hear about your furry one, I know just how trying such times can be, and how drugs make dogs all over the show. I hope Geordie’s on the up soon. Fashionable writing is like any other kind of fashion really, it only suits certain people at certain times whilst the rest have to try and fit into a box that isn’t their shape at all. I love a good narrator, Breakfast of Champions came to mind straight away, and third-person is actually quite a feat to my eyes, ‘the voice’ as H says below. I’m not comfortable outside of first-person for the most part, it’s just the style that suits me best, though it depends upon the story and I think that’s the key – what suits the characters and the story? Sod fashionable, and sod the rules once you’ve learned them! Hahahahaha. My editor/proofer is thrilled I feel this way, as you can imagine.

      – Esme falling about upon the Cloud

      Liked by 2 people

      • The slow thing I am slower than is slower than the slow thing you are slower than, I assure you. My blurry-minded attempt to catch up on some blogging at 2AM is to blame for my brief and awkward appearance at your cloud. I meant to wish you a speedy recovery, but my phone wouldn’t allow me to do anything more than hit the “like” button, which felt odd, but I did it anyway. “Like, like, like.” For the record, I don’t “like” viruses. I promise to return chez toi to do things properly.

        Geordie Bear is doing better, thankfully. He got his stitches out and seems to like it when I scratch his scabs. He’s finally going in for a much-needed grooming today.

        Agreed that fashion only suits certain people at certain times (this reminds me of those “hip-hugger” jeans, a fashion that suited hardly anyone, if anyone, and never seems to go away). “Sod fashionable, and sod the rules once you’ve learned them!” Cheers to that.

        Now I’ll have to go look for Breakfast of Champions. I can’t remember when I read it. If I don’t find it on my book shelf, I’ll know I read it in high school (all those books inexplicably disappeared along with an entire PA system and two guitars.)

        Like

  5. Pingback: Narrative Distance | Diotima's Ladder

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