Omniscient Narrative

by Jennifer Silva Redmond

For this week’s Ask The Editor, the question was from Gerald Hapeman who asked: “Why is the omniscient narrative still frowned upon, or at least unliked by most publishers?”

Hesitation

I have to start by saying that this is not an established fact, though it is an oft-repeated warning. Perhaps a few agents and publishers have stated that they shy away from manuscripts written in a third-person omniscient point of view (POV), but a quick Google search tells me that just as many say they are hesitant about a story written in first-person POV.

I am quite sure “first-person fear” is really more of a “first-timer” fear, because more beginning writers write in first person, and many beginning writers have not yet learned the craft of writing to the extent needed for professional publication.

In recent years, blockbuster YA fantasy series like Twilight and The Hunger Games have mostly all been written in first person. As a result, many agents and publishers have begun to focus on the first-person voice. I hear it is very difficult to get an agent or editor interested in a YA novel that is not written in first-person POV, so that may be where the “omniscient voice is dead” rumor began.

A talented writer, practiced in their craft, can write from any POV, because, in the end, it is all about story—and each specific tale calls for a particular voice to tell it. I have worked with authors who changed the POV after their entire manuscript was written and then changed it again before deciding on the final voice. It is a useful exercise – if one has the patience for such experimentation. That being said, let’s delve into why a professional reader might not be interested in a well-written manuscript written in third-person omniscient POV.

Differences of POV

Since all (or 99.9%) of omniscient POVs are written in third person, I am going to refer to the third person omniscient as just omniscient. The biggest difference between omniscient and third-person close (TPC)—also called “limited”, “tight”, or “deep” third-person—is the level of intimacy. Omniscient tends to be more formal and distanced, some might say “uninvolved.”

The omniscient POV has been called the “classic” POV and even the “professional” POV. The word “classic”—as with cars—is a nice way of saying “old.” The ancient classical storytellers may well have told their stories from an omniscient POV; the first printed stories definitely did. And many of history’s greatest works were written that way, by writers like Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dickens. Modern works in omniscient POV abound too, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, more recently, The DaVinci Code.

Dangers and Benefits

To be fair, there are some obvious dangers inherent in writing omniscient POV: One, it is hard to write in a consistent narrative voice that is neither a character’s nor strictly speaking, yours; and once you discover that voice, it is hard to maintain it consistently for 300 pages. Two, omniscient voice can easily begin to feel too formal or distanced from the emotion of the characters (though I would argue that that is probably just sloppy “showing not telling” writing at work). Three, since you can jump from head to head of the characters, it is easy to fall prey to the dreaded “head-hopping.”

Some benefits of omniscient POV can easily become drawbacks—the ability to give readers expository any time without having the character(s) know the info, to go off on tangents and use flashbacks, and to employ irony without using dialogue or “spoken” interior thoughts. All of these tools can be useful in the hands of a good craftsperson and downright deadly in the wrong hands. As an editor, I often highlight whole pages, even chapters, with the note: “Interesting fact/flashback/tangent, but how does it further the story you are telling?” (That’s always an important thing to consider, no matter the point of view of whoever is telling your story.)

Final Thought

In TPC, you can achieve all the intimacy of first-person POV, and still have the ability to jump into another character’s head (in a separate chapter or please, after a section break, so it doesn’t feel like “head-hopping”) and tell us things only he/she/they know, which are unknown by your initial TPC protagonist. Bottom line: TPC can do almost everything that first-person can do and almost everything that omniscient POV can do, with none of their drawbacks, which is why TPC is so popular in this “post-modern” era.

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Jennifer Silva Redmond, Editor

Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor, publishing consultant, writing instructor, and speaker. Formerly editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, she is on the staff of the Southern California Writers Conference, teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink, and was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies and national magazines, including Latinos in Lotusland, Books & Buzz, and A Year in Ink, Vol 11. A list of books she has edited and her client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com

6 thoughts on “Omniscient Narrative

  1. I’m a fan of omniscient, at least for my first book. It was really a buddy story between the two main characters, James Wong and Maria Cortez. It shifts back and forth between who the viewpoint character is. I found that this approach was harder to follow in first person. I love the Divergent series and it used a similar approach swapping POV character in first person. Even when labeling the chapter with who was the main person, I found it unsettling and harder to follow.

    Swiveling around the story with both slanted sides of a relationship really helped deliver more layers of subtext. You understand why a character views things a certain way, even when that character is in error.

    I also liked to include the barely noticeable narrator for irony as you mentioned in your article. This was often employed at the end of chapters for narrative transitions as well.

    Even with omniscient, I avoided scenes without main characters present or able to observe. I went to great lengths by adding surveillance and other plot devises to achieve that. It helped me to avoid the issue mentioned about the loss of intimacy in omniscient.

    1. Great comments–I especially like this: “Swiveling around the story with both slanted sides of a relationship really helped deliver more layers of subtext. You understand why a character views things a certain way, even when that character is in error.” So true!

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