Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.
by Nancy Butts
Some of my favorite books are written in omniscient viewpoint—and yet omni POV is my least favorite form of narration. It makes even the most modern of books sound antique—and don’t even get me started on the almost ubiquitous head hopping to be found in novels with omniscient narration. I am convinced that such head hopping is the leading cause of vertigo among avid readers. Seriously. The National Institutes of Health should do a study.
OK, let me remove my tongue from my cheek for a moment. If you have read the earlier installments of this web series on viewpoint, you will already know that I am just a teensy bit prejudiced in favor of single viewpoint. I’m not all that fond of shifting or multiple POV; and I have just made it obnoxiously clear that omni POV, as I will call it for short, is also a member of my Hall of Shame.
That being said, I adore books like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket—both of which make use of omniscient narration. And I’m not just pinching my nose, holding my breath, and vowing to “get through it” when I read these books either. I actually enjoy what these two gifted storytellers are able to accomplish with their skillful use of omniscient viewpoint.
So what separates good from bad when it comes to omni POV? And why do I think that it is a very dangerous form of narration, especially for new writers?
Before I talk about that, let me back up and make sure it is clear exactly what omniscient viewpoint is. It comes in several different flavors, the distinctions between which can get fairly subtle. In the book The Power of POV which I have recommended multiple times in this web series, Alicia Rasley divides omniscient narration into three basic kinds: objective, classical omniscient, and contemporary omniscient.
For the purposes of this piece, however, I don’t think it’s useful to delve too deeply into the distinctions between them. If you’re interested, read Rasley’s book [which I think you should do anyway].
I think the most helpful way to look at omniscient narration is simply to think of it as another kind of third person. We are already familiar with limited third person, where a book is written using he/she but the perspective remains inside the mind of one or more of the characters.
Well, in omniscient narration you are for the most part outside the viewpoint of any of the characters. Thus you can think of omni POV as a distant or impersonal form of third person rather than a personal one; or an exterior form of third person rather than an interior one.
Whatever it is called, when you write in omniscient narration you are not limited by anything any of the characters know—hence the name omniscient, which means all-knowing. Omni POV is a good way to let readers in on information that you don’t want your hero to know just yet. For example, if your main character is trying to sneak up on the lair of the villain, you can increase the tension and suspense for readers by letting them know about the evil minions lurking in the shadows, while at the same time keeping the hapless hero in the dark about the danger that awaits him. ” Three men with guns stood as still as statues on the other side of the door whose lock Archie had just successfully picked.”
Omniscient narration is also handy in certain genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and sweeping historical sagas. Here a writer can use omni POV to do two things. First, the all-knowing author can use her omniscience to fill readers in on necessary history or backstory that again, no one character might know.
Second, if it’s important to the book for the author to keep track of how multiple characters are affected by something like a war , natural catastrophe, man-made apocalypse, or epic quest, omniscient narration is a smoother, more seamless way to do that than a frequently-shifting multiple POV. [Which can end up feeling like a game of musical chairs; when the chapter stops, readers wonder, which character’s chair do I have to scramble to sit in next?]
But in a touch of dramatic irony that fiction writers can appreciate, it is the very strengths of omni POV which can lead to its doom. The all-knowing writer’s ability to expound at length on absolutely any character’s backstory, any event’s history, any fantasy world’s provenance, or any sci-fi gadget’s fascinating inner technology can all too quickly lead to the dreaded “information dump.” That’s what it’s called when a writer allows the characters to go into hibernation and the plot to stall out while she goes on and on for pages of exposition, in what amounts to a term paper within the novel. Boring!
And if you’re not careful, omniscient narration can lead you to reveal too much, too soon—which can ruin a good thriller, ghost story, or mystery.
I also think that omniscient narration can sound old-fashioned to today’s readers, since many of the classics that we grew up on—or were forced to read by our English teachers at school—were written in omniscient narration. So even if a book was published in the 21st century, if it is written in omniscient POV, we feel a sort of literary déja vu when we read it—a flashback that makes the modern story feel as if it were a relic from the 19th century.
But to me the number one failing, the Fatal Flaw, of omniscient narration, is its impersonality. Readers don’t know who it is that is dispensing this encyclopedia of information. Is it some god-like narrator, or is it the author? If it’s the latter, is he or she wearing an invisibility cloak that we’re supposed to pretend not to see, or is this some kind of purposeful meta-fictional insertion of the writer’s persona into the book?
Or is the narrator an eerily amorphous no one at all? That’s the hallmark of what Rasley calls objective or camera’s-eye POV.
And not only are readers unsure of who the narrator is in omniscient viewpoint, and what their relationship to that narrator is supposed to be, they also aren’t given the opportunity to get know any of the characters all that well. As a consequence, readers may never bond with any character. That emotional distance heightens the risk of alienating readers from the book all together, to the point that they put it down for good.
Writers who use omniscient POV know this, which is perhaps why you see a lot of what is called “dipping,” or momentarily slipping into the viewpoint of one of the book’s characters. JK Rowling is a genius at this. The first chapter of Goblet of Fire is a superb example of how to write omniscient narration well.
Midway through the chapter, Rowling makes the graceful narrative glissade that is called dipping. Within the space of one paragraph, she descends gradually from the stratospheric heights of omniscience. First she slips into the heads of several nameless village boys, all at once, in a kind of joint or communal POV, telling us that they teased the crippled old gardener Frank Bryce simply for the cruel fun of it.
Then, in the very next sentence, Rowling descends even further. This times she dips into Frank’s head to tell us that Frank has misinterpreted the boys’ motives. He believes that they torment him because they blame him for the murders of Tom Riddle and his family—though we already know that those murders bear the unmistakeable stamp of dark magic.
The fact that Rowling changes POV twice in one paragraph could mark this as head hopping—the worst of the writer’s Deadly Sins. Indeed, it can be difficult to know when a writer has transgressed, crossing the line from dipping to head hopping, and I am probably a harsher judge of that than most. Nonetheless, I think Rowling avoids being branded with head hopping here primarily because for the rest of the chapter, she stays in Frank’s head. If she had jumped back out of Frank’s head again, that would have been head hopping.
But it’s a narrow escape, and that’s my point; it’s devilishly difficult to avoid head hopping when you write in omniscient narration and try to dip. Harsh judge that I am, I think that author Trenton Lee Stewart made that mistake in his best-selling middle grade novel The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Stewart uses omniscient narration throughout the book, though he frequently dips into several of the characters’ viewpoints. Most of the time, he stays in a POV long enough to avoid head hopping—but not always. Look at this passage where the adult mentor is telling the four young characters about a challenging task ahead. One of them gets a little nervous and needs a bathroom break.
…and then Mr. Benedict added, “Now, do you truly need to use the bathroom, or can you wait a few minutes longer?” [Omni POV]
Sticky truly did, but he said, “I can wait.” [Sticky’s POV]
“Very well…” Mr. Benedict said [Omni POV]
To me, going into a character’s head for just one sentence, and for no compelling plot purpose, is head hopping. So with apologies to Mr. Stewart, I do believe that’s what he’s done here.
The point is, if a talented and experienced author can make that kind of slip-up, what hope do the rest of us have of avoiding the same trap? It is just too perilously easy to go astray with omniscient POV.
So proceed at your own risk. If you are writing the kind of book that might benefit from the peculiar powers of omniscient viewpoint, then go for it! Just keep your wits about you at all times, and stay on the lookout for the pitfalls that await the unwary writer with this form of POV.
[© 2015 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]
Next—Which POV technique is best for you?