Each writer seeks to tell a unique story in an original, compelling way, but who’s narrating on the page? It’s relatively common for new writers to use an omniscient viewpoint—like God observing from the heavens, hearing thoughts from a variety of characters.
A recent online discussion among freelance editors discussed the common Point of View conundrum for authors and whether an omniscient approach should be encouraged.
An omniscient viewpoint isn’t wrong. It’s just incredibly hard to pull off.
Janet Benton is both a brilliant editor and teacher, and she comes across this question of omniscience with regularity. “Among my students and clients, a scattered POV usually results from writers not knowing what POV is and how to use it (and not knowing they don’t know). I call what I see most often scattered rather than omniscient because often they just add whatever perspective they need at the moment, sometimes not even realizing they’ve changed points of view within a paragraph or scene or chapter, certainly not realizing that this shift affects the story beyond that point of convenience. They usually aren’t intentionally trying to create omniscience.”
This jumping around reflects a lack of clarity about whose story it is and why it’s being told. If information is hauled in from any old point of view, there’s no center.
Editor William Boggess deems the omniscient POV his number one pet peeve in the fiction he works on. He runs into it all the time. “True omniscient is pretty rare, but wobbly perspectives crop up constantly.”
As an agent, he often saw the problem. “It’s just the kind of thing that gets ironed out somewhere along the line or becomes a dealbreaker for the book.”
I always used it as my canary in the coal mine—if there were perspective issues early on, I assumed that meant other things were going to be rocky as well.
“For freelance clients, in 90% of cases, I encourage the author to firm up into close third. They often admit that it’s just something they’ve never been conscious of before.”
Popular in commercial fiction, the close third person POV (or third person limited) uses third person pronouns—she, he, his, hers—to tell a story, but the narrative seems to come from one character’s viewpoint. More on POVs can be found here.
William adds, “If an author really wants to commit to omniscient, I’m happy to tackle the challenge. Old school Brit-lit gives some good examples (I think that’s where authors get a lust for omniscience, in high school and college), but Larry McMurtry also does it well in many of his novels, notably Lonesome Dove, and Colson Whitehead gives an example of a somewhat omniscient novel that’s still truly anchored around a single character in The Underground Railroad.”
Learning from the Masters
As both an editor, novelist, and teacher, Matthew Sharpe has studied the issue from all sides. “I’ve experienced this one from both sides, as an editor and a novelist—also as a creative writing prof. I guess this is a kind of professor-y approach, but I believe writers can be helped with omniscient point of view (and any other writing technique) by looking at how their favorite writers have handled it. Reading Middlemarch really helped me when I was struggling with point of view in one of my novels.
“I did something like a statistical analysis: how many sentences inside one character’s head before she moves on to the next? How many shifts in point of view over the course of five pages? Of course, there is no one formula, it varies from writer to writer and, within a given book, from chapter to chapter. But just seeing how great writers manage it is useful and inspiring.
“And then also, omniscient narrators have personalities and attitudes toward their characters. Eliot’s kind of maternal, gently sardonic attitude toward her characters really helped me figure some stuff out about the personality of my omniscient narrator.
“Anyway, that kind of close attention to a master text has been really fruitful for me, my students, and some of my clients. “Brokeback Mountain” is another good one, and Pride and Prejudice, and Brave New World, and lots of others….”
For editor Mike Levine, the discussion brought to mind something his grad school adviser repeated constantly. “A narrator (whether third, first, whatever) is also a character. Eliot, being a genius, could make us believe the story was told by a real person who just happened to know absolutely everything. (Another great example, much less consistent in his opinions, can be found in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.) For ordinary mortals, this trick is exceedingly difficult to pull off.”
A story told by an omniscient narrator can seem as if it’s told from no point of view at all.
“A narrator not fully imagined might point to the same problem with the rest of the characters. When advising an author having trouble writing a credible narrator, I take into account that it’s easier to attach the point of view to a character–third limited–than to imbue an omniscient narrator with character.”
Editor Ronit Wagman, who began this interesting discussion, says, “Many novels by beginning writers try to adopt an omniscient viewpoint but end up producing something more akin to head-hopping. I consequently suggest adopting a third-person limited viewpoint and sticking to one character’s perspective for the duration of the novel, or at least for the duration of a chapter (so long as each viewpoint character has a satisfying arc).”
Learning the craft
Another editor helpfully adds: “Whenever I have an author with POV issues, I tell them to read James Wood’s How Fiction Works. He breaks down the close third-person POV and shows how to keep it from sounding like a first-person POV with the pronouns changed. Learning to write the close third in this way, where the narrator steps back now and then in a way that first-person narrators can’t, is an excellent first step toward learning the omniscient POV.
“That said, typically I advise authors to stick with Wood’s ‘close-ish’ third for their first book, if they’re leaning that way already. Mastering that in itself is already a challenge.
“And here’s one more example of an interesting take on the omniscient POV: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stays primarily with the main character, but briefly shifts into other characters’ POVs, especially when two characters are sizing each other up. It’s nicely done. The trick is establishing that distance at the outset, opening in the narrator’s POV and quickly giving us two different heads (for just a line or two each), so that readers won’t feel jarred when it switches later, after a longer passage in one.”
Editor Julie Mosow urges caution: “Omniscient narration just isn’t a first-time novelist kind of thing; a writer has to be a master (or at least on his or her way to being a master) to make it work. I use Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto to show writers the gap between their writing and true omniscience when the question arises.”
Says novelist and editor Pamela Erens, “I would never out of hand discourage a writer from attempting an omniscient narrator but, yes, it requires real chops to achieve it.”
Writing from an omniscient POV is a riskier strategy than many writers first realize. It can feel old-fashioned, but more critically, if not handled skillfully, it may result in reader confusion. POV problems may be the primary reason preventing many talented writers from getting published. Vigilant awareness on POV is a must for career authors.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
The Red and the Black by Stendhal
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What POV best suits your style of writing? Do you ever find yourself slipping from one POV to another? Share your experiences with us on Facebook.