WRITERS WORKSHOP: 3rd Person Omniscient (Part 1)

Omniscient POV

AKA 3rd Person Omni

Or: Taming a God

 

Here’s the third part of the outline for the Writers Workshop we recently did on Points of View and Tense. I separated the entire outline into separate blog posts for ease of use and navigation, and since Omniscient POV is such a dense topic, I’ve separated this into two posts.

For the first part of this outline, 1st Person POV and 2nd Person POV, click here.

For the second part of this outline, 3rd Person POV Limited and 3rd Person POV Multi, click here.


Omniscient Point of View: What it is and how to use it.

 photo Omniscient POV with meat heads_zpssgrywdtb.jpg
Omniscient POV.

This is what the idea of writing in Omni POV can seem like. Author as Omniscient god, with his mind-reading tentacles in all the characters’ meat heads all the time.

But there’s the rub. Say you have an epic story that’s so shiny and all the characters are so super special, wouldn’t it be the best thing ever to write down everything that happened? The reader should know every special thing every special character thought, right? That’s what Omni can do, right?

Err…. Yes and no.

The answer is in the name itself: Omniscient Point of View.

Omniscient means allknowing in a story, not alltelling of everything that happened while the story was going on. Also, Omniscient means all-knowing, NOT all-powerful. That would be Omnipotent. Sometimes I think people see “Omniscient” and get so awestruck, the rest of the name for this narrative mode gets forgotten.

Here it is: 3rd Person Omniscient Point of View.

What does this mean? Try thinking of it this way. The Omniscient Narrator is a foreign news correspondent in your world’s story. He’s a reporter. The story unfolds from his Point of View. He doesn’t have the “godly” power of “dipping into” your characters’ heads. He doesn’t need to; he knows everything already. He doesn’t exist to directly participate or have a major stake in the outcome of the plot (he might have opinions about the stakes), he exists  to report events as they unfold.

Let’s deconstruct this a bit more: Point of View is the reader’s access point into a story, or how the reader will experience a story based on the reader’s relationship with the narrator (is the reader *inside* the narrator, or *with* the narrator, etc.). So you’re already familiar with 1st Person POV (“I am going to tell a story as it happens to me.”) and 3rd Person POV Limited (“He/She is going to tell a story as it happens to him/her.”).

3rd Person Omni (aka Omni POV or just Omni) can look like “Let me tell you a story in which I don’t actually participate in.” Think of it like this: an all-knowing entity, pretending to be a Star Trek Captain, who adheres strictly to the Prime Directive. No interference whatsoever. Right now, let’s say it’s Starfleet Captain Morgan Freeman, and he must report what happened in his very unique, very distinctive voice.

 photo Omniscient POV Jellyfish 2_zpstkbydskx.jpg

That’s the heart of it. 3rd POV Limited and 1st POV Limited are both participants in the story, play roles in the story, have stakes on the outcome of the story. 3rd POV Omni is not a participant, or not a high-stakes participant, but exerts a presence in the way the story is told (tone, voice, syntax, even outright opinions).

 

Sometimes, the presence is palpable and distinctive. It can hit you in the first line: something along the lines of “Come, gentle reader. Bend your ear to this tale I present.” Or a few pages in: “If you’re of a tender soul and sensitive to such titillating taboo topics, pray avert your gaze from the next scene for in it yadda yadda.”

Sometimes, though, the narrator isn’t as obnoxious. In fact, sometimes the narrator is transparent, and the text seems like 3rd POV Limited. You might go pages into a book, unsure, since the story starts off following one of the characters through some worldbuilding stuff. 3rd POV Lim and 3rd POV Omni share that 3rd POV prefix and thus share the same pronoun bank. Characters will be referred to as He/She/It.

Let’s move on to Omni and headhopping by taking a look at an epic historical fantasy on anthropomorphic space-travelling racehorses.

Let’s call your main character Waterbed and his love interest Honeybear. Say you’re writing 3rd POV Limited from Waterbed’s POV in chapter 1. If, within the same paragraph a few pages in, you suddenly switch to describing Honeybear’s feelings, that would be headhopping. In 3rd POV Limited, the POV should literally be LIMITED by the POV character’s meat head. Hopping out of Waterbed’s meat head to get into Honeybear’s meat head is, therefore, headhopping.

If you wrote in 3rd POV Omni, the narrator is all-knowing. The Narrator already knows what everyone’s feeling and junk. To the Narrator, the meat heads are transparent, thus, no need to get into or out of them. For example, why would I bother trying to get into your meat head if I already know exactly what you’re thinking/feeling in the past/present/future. Seriously. Why would I bother? I would simply report on your applicable thoughts and feelings so the story makes sense. 

Logically then, it follows that we can use the term “headhopping” to refer to a switching from one limited POV to another (aka, hopping out of a meat head and into another meat head). But in Omni, that meat and bone limitation doesn’t exist, therefore the term “headhopping” has no application. Me saying “You’re headhopping!” while reading your Omni POV would be like me saying “You can’t lane change, fool!” if we’re traveling through space, in which there are no lanes.

What might actually be happening in Omniscient POV when that criticism of “you’re head hopping” pops up is this: the transitions between different character’s thoughts, emotions, or points of view are too abrupt.

And like with 3rd person Multi, within each scene, try spending the most time reporting the feelings and thoughts of the character who has the most at stake. (Think Frodo when he’s all, “Oh man, Gandalf, I don’t know if I can leave the shire!” Did we spend equal time in Sam’s head? Or even Gandalf’s, though G-man had the juiciest gossip? No, it was Frodo. And switches from reporting on what Frodo thought and felt to what Gandalf thought and felt were marked by scene breaks.)

 photo Omnscient POV Jellyfish example_zpsp0zq8wkc.jpg

What does all this mean for you? Well, dear writer, let me use some clumsy arrows to show you.

Limited POV: Character experiences the story. -> Writer writes the story as if in Character’s meat head. -> Reader reads Character’s POV.

Omni POV: Character experiences the story. -> Omni Narrator (Morgan Freeman) chooses to report the pertinent details of what’s happening to Character. -> Writer writes down Morgan Freeman’s Starfleet report. ->Reader reads Morgan Freeman’s POV reporting on what happened with Character. 

 


Let’s put all this to use.

Awfully generic example of 3rd POV Limited:

Bob fidgeted in his seat as the barmaid set a glass of ice water in front of Wendy. Great Gods, would the infernal woman find fault with this too?

“Is that tap water?” Wendy asked, squinting at the glass as if vile creatures lurked between the ice cubes.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the barmaid.

“I only drink bottled water,” Wendy snapped.

“Of course, ma’am.” The glass was whisked away, replaced by a bottle of Merlin’s Tears and a chocolate satin pie as big as a cyclops eye.

“You going to eat all that?” Bob asked.

Wendy, pie-filled spoon halfway towards her mouth, gave him a glance that could slice diamonds.

“Are you saying I’m fat?” she said.

“N-no. It’s just… that’s so much…”

She stared down at her plate. The silence between them stretched and Bob, giving up hope he’d be able to say anything to set it right, tried to turn back time. It didn’t work.

Now let’s try turning it into 3rd Omni:

Bob fidgeted in his seat as the barmaid set a glass of ice water in front of Wendy. He was worried Wendy, who hadn’t smiled once during dinner, would find something else to complain about. [1]

“Is that tap water?” Wendy asked, squinting at the glass as if vile creatures lurked between the ice cubes. [2]

“Yes, ma’am,” said the barmaid.

“I only drink bottled water,” Wendy snapped. [3] Immediately, she regretted it; the poor barmaid looked ready to spit in whatever she brought Wendy next. Not that Wendy cared; she was famished. She’d eat the food, spit and all. Perhaps even the plate if no one was looking.

This was because last time she had tap water at a pub, she’d gotten violently ill from some waterborne microbe. And now that she was pregnant, she couldn’t take any chances. Except just a second ago, she’d decided she’d eat the barmaid’s spit! Goodness, she could almost feel the pregnancy hormones shaving points off her Intelligence Rank.

The ice water was whisked away, replaced by a bottle of Merlin’s Tears and a chocolate satin pie with mounds of whipped cream – real cream, she could tell from the gloss – and even a cherry. She could barely hold herself back from burying her face in it, thinking what Bob would say if he saw her rooting about like a pig? [4]

Now, if Bob had known about her being in pig, or that her response to his next question would lead to the eventual destruction of Universe #624, he might have phrased his next question more delicately. Alas…[5]

“You going to eat all that?” Bob asked.

Wendy, pie-filled spoon halfway towards her mouth, gave him a glance that could slice diamonds.

“Are you saying I’m fat?” she said.

“N-no. It’s just… that’s so much…”

She stared down at her plate, free hand under the table. [6]The silence between them stretched and Bob, giving up hope he’d be able to say anything to set it right, tried to turn back time. It didn’t work.

[1] Narrator is spending some time describing Bob, dribbling info in about the scene in relation to Bob.
[2] Oh hey, guys. Wendy said something. Oh, and Wendy’s doing something. Let me describe that now.
[3] She’s kind of more interesting than Bob atm. Let’s describe her for a bit.
[4] She’s doing something by trying not to do something. Intriguing. Action. Find the reaction. She’s worried about Bob’s reaction. Let’s focus on Bob.
[5] Narrator using a pun to transition to Bob because he wants to clue us in on the significance this moment will have further in time.
[6] Oh you sneaky narrator. Why don’t you just tell us what she did under the table? Is it because you’re describing what Bob’s seeing, and not what’s really going on? Interesting…

Now apply what we’ve gone over here to your own WIP. Do you have:

1.      A narrator who doesn’t participate in the actual story.
2.      A narrator who presents the scenes by focusing attention on significant details, or mention only information that’s relevant to understanding that specific scene? (A technique I find helpful on revision is to pause at a questionable scene and ask myself “What would Starship Captain Morgan Freeman do?”)
3.      A narrator that blends well with the story? Do you have too many moments where the narrator takes center stage and draws attention to itself. Not a bad thing, but it can be obnoxious. Could be funny too. You never know until someone else reads your story.

Speaking of reading, for modern examples of how current published writers are using Omniscient POV, check out Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Jones’s book is a solid example that Omni is not just for fantasy or sci-fi epics.


Coming soon, Part 2 of Omniscient POV: Pros and Cons.

Other Writing Articles:

WRITERS WORKSHOP: 3rd Person Point of View (3rd POV) Limited/Multi
WRITERS WORKSHOP: First Person Point of View (1st POV)
WRITING: Foreshadowing
WRITERS WORKSHOP: Writer’s Block & Writing Anxiety


Connect with me by leaving a comment below, on Twitter (@JoanWIP), or Facebook.

Hang out in my mental playground! For cheaper than a venti latte, my highly-rated short stories are available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume and Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning Volume. #Fantasy #SciFi #Horror #Fables #Fairytales #SelfRescuingHeroines #DiverseBooks.

 Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning has been reviewed as “Smart” “Fresh” “Disturbing” and “the part of Wonderland people don’t talk about”!

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