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Feb
23
2016

Omniscient and POV -- by colibri

I will try to simplify the subject the way I understand it. In the last five years, I've read everything there was to read on "omniscient" and would like to share it with you.

It is understood that Omniscient narrators know everything, which means they are not bound or limited to a character's perception at any time (contrary to its neighbor the 3rd person limited). Omni narrators can and do follow isolated characters, but they don't *become* them.

The narrator is describing what’s happening. It’s not because the narrator turns her/his attention to one character in a paragraph or a scene that the POV changes. It’s not because, in a dialogue, a character is predominant that it becomes her POV. That’s why it’s called omniscient—and not limited third or multiple POVs.

It’s safe to say that multiple POVs = also third limited — one character at a time (with the illusion of omni sometimes, due to the nature of cycling through different heads).

Whereas omni = subtle or not-so-subtle POV that may go into characters but always has the narrator's perception at its core? The narrator being a character in itself, in a sense, but always one step removed, sort of like the grandfather character in Snow White (often, it's a little more subtle).


What is the role of the narrator? The narrator is the consciousness, which filters the events of the story and expresses them in some ways. In omniscient, the narrator is active or not so active, and the story is his POV.

Someone once told me:
But when the narrator chooses to describe everything as if the MC were describing it, she/he has created in the mind of the reader the belief that the author has chosen MC to narrate.

Good question and at the heart of the confusion. The fundamental question in talking about POV is actually: Who is telling this story, and where do we stand in relation to the events?

If the narrator is a character experiencing the events of the story, we call it an internal narrator. Usually, no one sees any problem with that.

If the narrator has no part in the action, we call it external narrator. But the narrator is not (necessarily) involving herself and giving her opinion—that's something else. This would be more like Sherlock Holmes and the Great Gasby.

There are few ways of doing omniscient. I’ll only talk about the one I use. If the narrative goes right in and gives the reader a character's interior monologue and physical perceptions as they occur, it becomes stream of consciousness (you can check this out on line) and the sense of a narrator almost disappears altogether.

Thinking in terms of psychic distance, then, the closer into an individual character's consciousness the narrative gets, the more the character is present and the more their voice dominates, the more the narrator and his voice fade out. That’s the reason many writers believe I’m writing in a character’s POV—it almost feels like it until they notice someone else’s thoughts. They then believe it’s a breach of POV.

Getting deep inside characters’ head (whether they're the narrator or courtesy of an external narrator who takes you there) is the way we become most intimately involved with those characters. It's entirely possible for us to be engaged with another character and care about what happens to the MC's children or husband or anyone else the narrator wants to bring into the story. I write my narrative nonfiction in a style closely related to fiction, so my narrative NF reads like a novel, with the difference that the characters are not telling the story—I am.

My beta readers, and a few writers from my group at CC, have told me that they like omniscient because it makes the reader participate in every aspect of the story, on the spot, as the event occurs. It makes the reader feel closer to the secondary character with direct thoughts instead of filtering them with: looking as if, perhaps he was, it seemed, etc. which then becomes third limited.

I barely touched the subject here. If you want to read more about it, my main source is from Emma Darwin: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2011/10/point-of-view-narrators-1-the-basics.html

I read many blogs on the subject over the years and NOBODY explains it as Emma Darwin does. She knows her stuff.

I hope my short presentation helped trigger the curiosity of those who are not sure about what style to choose.. If you want to find out everything there's to know about POV and Omniscient, Emma’s blog is long to read, but is worth it. She also writes on other subjects that are just as informative.

Thanks for reading my modest presentation,

Colibri

Posted by colibri 23 Feb 2016 at 01:29
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Responses to this blog

Ckovac 23 Feb 2016 at 11:31  
I was writing omni and everyone who had read my work said I was breaking POV and needed to switch to 3rd limited, which I then spent considerable time and effort doing. Very frustrating for a first-time writer.
Mybook 23 Feb 2016 at 23:17  
I’d like to add my comments to your post, which I find most helpful. And thanks for the link to Emma.

Writers have been led to believe for too long that they need to stick to one POV. This is one way of writing, yes, but there are others. We’ve also been told that if the MC does not see it, it does not happen. This makes sense only if you write in present tense. If you write in past tense, a narrator recounts the event after the fact. He knows everything that happened. Omniscient is a single narrative voice telling the story from an outside perspective.

You are right, Colibri, when you say that the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know and hear the narrator because he uses his characters to tell the story and the narrator fades off.

This style has been rejected for so long just because some bright guy came up with an idea, and thousands followed suit. It will take just as long to erase its bad reputation. I personally like omniscient, because it gives me a complete picture right away. I don’t care to be in one person’s head all the time. Sometimes we need a break from our main character, and we don’t need to change chapter or paragraph to do it because it’s not multiple third or limited third. Alternating viewpoints from chapter to chapter is not omniscient. It is only omniscient if the viewpoint changes within a single scene.

I hate the term head jumping because omniscient is not. Saying that it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene, and that they have whiplash is ridiculous. That must be a really confusing and badly written story then. Omniscient doesn't mean jumping around from head to head, it means having a wide lens in which to take in everything and give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it.

Many inflated examples are given to show how bad omniscient is. It’s not fair because those examples are exaggerated to prove the blogger’s point. We’ve heard it all: head hopping, confusing, it takes away from the intimacy, etc. It’s about the execution—not the method. If you can control your omniscient story, and give the reader the right amount of information, you can increase tension considerably.

Right now, I’m searching for stories that are written in omniscient. Your article came at the right tine.


Katy 24 Feb 2016 at 04:28  
Quote by: Mybook
Omniscient is a single narrative voice telling the story from an outside perspective....

It is only omniscient if the viewpoint changes within a single scene....



You contradict yourself with these two statements.
Omniscient never changes viewpoint. It is always the narrator relating what a character is thinking or feeling.

Jkang 24 Feb 2016 at 06:18  
I wrote my first story in omniscient because that was the POV of all my favorite fantasy books at the time (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, etc). When I joined CC, critters brought up the head hopping issue. I did plenty of research on how to do Omni (studying how Hemmingway, Austen, and others dipped into characters' thoughts) and didn't understand what I was doing wrong. In frustration, I caved and decided to go with the more popular Limited Third. Over time, I learned about narrative distance, which helped me understand the perspective shifts in Omni (though by this time, I had written three books in Limited, and preferred it).

From what I have learned, the difficult part of going from one character's thoughts to another is control of narrative distance. When in the omniscient narrator's voice, you can tag the inner thoughts and feelings. The problem is that when you pan in to a closer narrative distance, you pan back out before switching heads.

Here's an example from Pride and Prejudice which shows the shift from the omniscient narrator to a character's close inner narrative:

Elizabeth allowed that he had given a very rational account of it, and they continued talking together, with mutual satisfaction till supper put an end to cards, and gave the rest of the ladies their share of Mr. Wickham's attentions. There could be no conversation in the noise of Mrs. Phillips's supper party, but his manners recommended him to everybody. Whatever he said, was said well; and whatever he did, done gracefully.

Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but of Mr. Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went, for neither Lydia nor Mr. Collins were once silent. Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won, and Mr. Collins, in describing the civility of Mr. and Mrs. Philips, protesting that he did not in the least regard his losses at whist, enumerating all the dishes at supper, and repeatedly fearing that he crouded his cousins, had more to say than he could well manage before the carriage stopped at Longbourn House.



The first sentence is in the omniscient narrator's voice, but sets up the shift to Elizabeth's thoughts in the first clause. The way I read the second sentence is Elizabeth's perceptions of the event. In the second paragraph, we transition out, and by the end of it, we are dipping into the head of Mr. Collins.

Here's an example I've brought up a few times from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:


This always happened when he felt miserable or put upon, and he had never been able to explain it to himself. In a high dimension of which we know nothing, the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered. He began to feel litle pricks of water behind his eyelids. Bureaucratic cock-ups, angry men lying in the mud, indecipherable strangers handing out inexplicable humiliation and an unidentified army of horsemen laughing at him in his head— what a day.

What a day. Ford Prefect knew that it didn't matter a pair of dingo's kidney's whether Arthur's house got knocked down or not now.

Arthur remained very worried.




It starts off in the narrator's voice, very omniscient with the mention of Ghengis Khan; but then, we get into the thoughts of Mr. Prosser, and then go deep with the "Bureaucratic" sentence, which ends in close psychological distance with "What a day."

THEN, it stays deep, but switches to Ford! How awesome is was that switch, from Close POV of one character to Close POV of another.

AND THEN, in the next paragraph, we are in Arthur's head.

Katy 24 Feb 2016 at 06:41  
Quote by: Jkang...

Here's an example I've brought up a few times from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

[quote

This always happened when he felt miserable or put upon, and he had never been able to explain it to himself. In a high dimension of which we know nothing, the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered. He began to feel litle pricks of water behind his eyelids. Bureaucratic cock-ups, angry men lying in the mud, indecipherable strangers handing out inexplicable humiliation and an unidentified army of horsemen laughing at him in his head— what a day.

What a day. Ford Prefect knew that it didn't matter a pair of dingo's kidney's whether Arthur's house got knocked down or not now.

Arthur remained very worried.




It starts off in the narrator's voice, very omniscient with the mention of Ghengis Khan; but then, we get into the thoughts of Mr. Prosser, and then go deep with the "Bureaucratic" sentence, which ends in close psychological distance with "What a day."

THEN, it stays deep, but switches to Ford! How awesome is was that switch, from Close POV of one character to Close POV of another.

AND THEN, in the next paragraph, we are in Arthur's head.



None of that seems "close" to me.
"Arthur remained very worried" doesn't seem to be "in Arthur's head" as you assert. I read it as classic omniscient: a narrator relating the thoughts of others. Ditto the P&P excerpt.


Katy 24 Feb 2016 at 07:04  
Quote by: Mybook


I hate the term head jumping because omniscient is not. Saying that it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene, and that they have whiplash is ridiculous. That must be a really confusing and badly written story then. Omniscient doesn't mean jumping around from head to head, it means having a wide lens in which to take in everything and give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it.



I just wanted to touch on this. First, omniscient is one thing, and head-hopping is another entirely. And it's head-hopping that is confusing, not omniscient.
I agree that if someone is confused by head-hopping, then yes, it is a badly written story.
(It's my opinion that head-hopping is inherently confusing. I just finished the first novel by an author who is now long established, and the confusing head-hopping made me so angry I almost didn't finish the book. Luckily, there were only scattered instances, but in every case they were completely unnecessary. Good story wrecked by bad writing.)

And while you did not say it outright and probably did not mean to imply it, one does not need omniscient to "give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it."


Anomika 24 Feb 2016 at 08:25  
I'm sorry everyone told you that you were breaking POV. It seems to be one of those writer things that gets their panties in a bunch. It might help to remember your goals. Who you are writing for. These things are going to tell you what you should and shouldn't do.

We all know too well the success of a large number of books that most writers cring at. So... If you goal is to write for the general population and you are any good at it, you might to hear that your stuff is 'wrong' or 'sucks'. I won't list the books that fit in this category. We all know them. We all cring (in jealousy).

And lastly, no mater what you do in your book, it will never upset writers more than what i'm doing in mine .
I switch from 3rd limited to 1st person every few chapters. I can't wait to hear the cries of pain from the literary style guide police.

So, I say write on! Listen for people telling you they got confused or brought out of the story. These are issues you will probably be more concerned with rather than sticking to one POV (which btw i think makes for super boring stories, just saying..)


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I write what you don't expect.

Mybook 24 Feb 2016 at 10:26  
Quote by: Katy
Quote by: Mybook
Omniscient is a single narrative voice telling the story from an outside perspective....

It is only omniscient if the viewpoint changes within a single scene....



You contradict yourself with these two statements.
Omniscient never changes viewpoint. It is always the narrator relating what a character is thinking or feeling.


Yes, Kathy, it's the narrator relating what a character thinks, but he uses a character to do it by dipping in his or her head.The narrator is not always so obvious as in Sherlock Holmes.
Mybook 24 Feb 2016 at 10:41  
Quote by: Katy
Quote by: Mybook


I hate the term head jumping because omniscient is not. Saying that it's very difficult for the reader to place themselves in a scene, and that they have whiplash is ridiculous. That must be a really confusing and badly written story then. Omniscient doesn't mean jumping around from head to head, it means having a wide lens in which to take in everything and give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it.



I just wanted to touch on this. First, omniscient is one thing, and head-hopping is another entirely. And it's head-hopping that is confusing, not omniscient.
I agree that if someone is confused by head-hopping, then yes, it is a badly written story.
(It's my opinion that head-hopping is inherently confusing. I just finished the first novel by an author who is now long established, and the confusing head-hopping made me so angry I almost didn't finish the book. Luckily, there were only scattered instances, but in every case they were completely unnecessary. Good story wrecked by bad writing.)

And while you did not say it outright and probably did not mean to imply it, one does not need omniscient to "give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it."




You are confirming what I said:
I hate the term head jumping because omniscient is not.. . . Omniscient doesn't mean jumping around from head to head, . . .

Your last sentence reinforces my comments.
one does not need omniscient to "give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it..

Right, good writing does, BUT it's often denied to omniscient just because it's misunderstood. What counts is "to give the reader a full sense of the world and the characters in it." (Omniscient included)
Colibri 24 Feb 2016 at 22:45  
Interesting points.

JKang—In your examples, I have problems seeing anything other than omniscient all the way. I fail to see a change of POV. As Katy says, it's a narrator relating the thoughts of others and not characters' switch.

I often present the following text as an example of omniscient. There's no MC in this scene. It's more like a camera following the conversation between three people. At first, the camera is on Willy, but it's not his POV. The narrator is relating the feelings and thoughts of each character as they talk. The underlined sentences are omniscient. These could be deleted, and it wouldn't affect the story, BUT the reader wouldn't instantly know how each character feels. Without it, it would simply be a description of events.

“Guten Abend,” Richard said from the living room entrance.

“Guten Abend.” Willy took his time folding his newspaper, needing the diversion to take the edge off with his father staring at him. He rose and crossed to the liquor cabinet. “Would you like a brandy?” Willy did not really care for liquor, but he was out of beer.

Richard saw this opportunity to make peace with his son. “I’ll have Schnapps, if we still have some.”

“I can make coffee,” Martha said from the doorway. She did not approve of liquor, except for special occasions.

“No, no, that's fine,” Richard said. “I had enough coffee for tonight.” He selected a cigar from a wooden box kept on the table and picked up his cigar clipper.

Martha did not insist. The two talking was, indeed, a special occasion. She had never understood Richard’s indifference toward Willy. And something more than being at odds with his father was troubling Willy lately. He carried such a load of misery that it made her want to cry. She knew a girl had hurt him.

Can you see the omniscient in the underlined? In the last paragraph, we are in Martha's head, but it's still the narrator telling, having complete, unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.

Of course, it might be difficult to feel close to those characters being out of context.
But even with so little on your plate, do you find this scene confusing because of the omniscient?



Anomika 25 Feb 2016 at 08:11  
I did not find that confusing at all, but i didn't like it.

I took: "The two talking was, indeed, a special occasion" to be a direct thought. And "Richard saw this opportunity to make peace" as indirect thought, but i still felt in his head.

I don't think the hopping around (head or otherwise) was what i disliked about it. It was more the speed at which we switch from person to person.
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I write what you don't expect.

Colibri 25 Feb 2016 at 13:20  
Thanks for your response, Anomika. That switch from person to person is called dialogue. Its a fast paste conversation—no doubt. I sometimes do dialogues (especially between men) quick and to the point.
Anomika 25 Feb 2016 at 13:33  
Quote by: Colibri
Thanks for your response, Anomika. That switch from person to person is called dialogue. Its a fast paste conversation—no doubt. I sometimes do dialogues (especially between men) quick and to the point.



Do you mean "dialogue" as something other than conversation?
__________________
I write what you don't expect.

Katy 25 Feb 2016 at 14:18  
Quote by: Colibri
Thanks for your response, Anomika. That switch from person to person is called dialogue. Its a fast paste conversation—no doubt. I sometimes do dialogues (especially between men) quick and to the point.



But this example wasn't at all "quick and to the point" (aka fast-paced).
It's weighted down with all sorts of stage direction and everyone's thoughts and feelings. You've got a long sentence starting "Willy took his time..." that slows the pace right at the start.
If you want fast-paced, you can't clutter it up with all that extra information, most of which is probably unnecessary anyway.

Colibri 25 Feb 2016 at 15:15  
Quote by: Anomika
Quote by: Colibri
Thanks for your response, Anomika. That switch from person to person is called dialogue. Its a fast paste conversation—no doubt. I sometimes do dialogues (especially between men) quick and to the point.



Do you mean "dialogue" as something other than conversation?<br>



I'm not sure I understand your question. I mean oral interaction—communicative activities in both cases.

Colibri 25 Feb 2016 at 15:42  
Quote by: Katy
Quote by: Colibri
Thanks for your response, Anomika. That switch from person to person is called dialogue. Its a fast paste conversation—no doubt. I sometimes do dialogues (especially between men) quick and to the point.

But this example wasn't at all "quick and to the point" (aka fast-paced).
It's weighted down with all sorts of stage direction and everyone's thoughts and feelings. You've got a long sentence starting "Willy took his time..." that slows the pace right at the start.
If you want fast-paced, you can't clutter it up with all that extra information, most of which is probably unnecessary anyway.


It’s strange how we can see and feel things so differently. One person believes it’s too fast and another too slow and filled with unnecessary information.

The “unnecessary information” was considered and provides subtle foreshadowing. It’s true that it’s difficult to be in the context when we don’t know enough about the characters and the story.

As for "being weighted down with all sorts of stage direction and everyone's thoughts and feelings". I'd say that a scene should start with some stage direction to position our characters and there’s nothing wrong with developing everyone's thoughts and feelings—a good way to feel close to them, no? I have my style and a story to tell.

In any case, this short piece was not meant to be critiqued but illustrate what I meant by omniscient for those who cared.

Interesting comments, though.

Anomika 25 Feb 2016 at 16:27  
I should also try to be more clear. By quick switching, I wasn't refering to the conversation but the delving into the past or inner workings of the people... One then the other. After each dialogue there is alot of information about the person themselves. This type of discriptions, like her not approving of alcohol etc, is important for painting a picture of people. However, i found that adding that type of "heavy" comments after each line of dialogue gave me a sense of hopping around but not in the sense of pov hopping. More like picture painting hopping. It was as if 4 canvases stood in front of me and you put one stroke on the first, then moved to the second, then the thrid and 4th before returning to the first. This felt quick and choppy. I woulkd have liked painting a bit of one character before moving to the next canvas. I would have cut about half the comments out after their dialogue. If the information was important put it in later.

I don't think this sensation can happen in 3rd limited because the narrator might be painting another character, but it's always limited to the pov. I think it's only omni where this could happen. The narrator knows the history and inner workings of everyone so the narrator can paint all 4 characters at once, but i don't find it's a good idea.

I should also apologize as I didn't realize this was your work. I thought it was pulled from some famous omni pov novel. And i wasn't criting it as much and just discussing it.

After wtiting this, i can see why you chose it to illustrate omni.

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Colibri 25 Feb 2016 at 19:46  
Thanks, Anomika, for taking the time to clarify your views. I understand perfectly what you are saying. When I read that piece often, especially out of context, it starts to annoy me too. It sounds kind of jerky and staged. Yack!! It’s probably what Katy meant by: all sorts of stage direction. I'll work on it.

It might be a good idea for me to pick out a chapter to be critiqued before going on with publishing. When we think we’re finished, a skeleton comes out of the closet.

That little presentation on omniscient served ME well.

Jkang 25 Feb 2016 at 20:31  
When you see "What a day" in the Hitchiker's example, you are in the head of first Mr. Prosser, then Ford. It's not saying, What a day, or What a day, he thought. It's clearly close narrative distance. Otherwise, why would it be written twice.

Same thing in the excerpt you posted:


Quote by: Colibri


Martha did not insist. The two talking was, indeed, a special occasion. She had never understood Richard’s indifference toward Willy. And something more than being at odds with his father was troubling Willy lately. He carried such a load of misery that it made her want to cry. She knew a girl had hurt him.

Can you see the omniscient in the underlined? In the last paragraph, we are in Martha's head, but it's still the narrator telling, having complete, unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.



From just this passage, without reading the narrative voice throughout the book, I would argue that the lines "The two talking..."and "And something more..." (does this omniscient narrator start sentences with conjunctions?)" are narrative thoughts. The narrator isn't telling us that the paternal relationships were troubling Willy; that is Martha's conjecture.

That said, I have no trouble following it who is thinking what. Anyone who has read children's chapter books like Magic Treehouse should be able to follow it.
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Katy 26 Feb 2016 at 04:28  
Quote by: Jkang
...(does this omniscient narrator start sentences with conjunctions?)" <br>


Is that a problem?

Scottydm 25 Mar 2016 at 18:20  
Colibri, good article. However your example is weighted down with, what feels to me like, too much stage direction. I agree with Anomika: not confusing but didn't like it either. It seems sloppy and I doubt you need it. It's telling.

Browne and King define omniscient differently. They define it as when the narrator reveals something to the reader that no character knows or sees. For example the narrator might show the reader magma moving, in fits and starts, from miles underground closer to the surface. Or it could be a fly-over of a complex battle scene, where the reader sees brief snatches of events.

Emma Darwin calls what you're doing free indirect style. You mentioned psychic distance. At first I thought you were referring to Emma's article by that name. She gleaned some of her ideas from John Gardner's book and David Jauss' brilliant essay From Long Shots to X-Rays. The fascinating thing about all this is that it works with both first- and third-person personal pronouns attached to the narrative.

In her psychic distance essay Emma mentioned a short story by Jane Gardam titled "The Great, Grand Soap-Water Kick" where the narration is so far inside the character's head Emma calls it "pure 5" (Jauss calls it stream-of-consciousness). Curious, I found a copy for sale and bought it. The story starts with the character referring to himself in second-person, switches to first, then occasionally dips into third. But it all works and it's all wonderful.

Well, gotta run. Take care and have fun writing.

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