|All Seeing Eye in the Monastery of the Holy Cross, Jerusalem|
Photo by Ze'ev Barkan, via Flickr
When I started writing (at the age of 10), I instinctively followed my favorite models, not only in terms of content and structure, but also in terms of writing technique. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I discovered I was using Third Person Omniscient narration.
The term “omniscient” comes to us from the Latin omnis (all) + scire (to know). In Third Person Omniscient narration, the “omniscient” agent is the author who has a God’s eye view of his/her sub-creation in all its aspects. From this pinnacle of knowledge, he/she selectively distributes the narrative amongst a range of different characters.
There are a number of advantages to using this technique. For one thing, it enables the author to expand the narrative framework to include a widely-diversified—sometimes far-flung—set of locations. This tactic lends scope to the story, giving the reader the sense that he/she has stepped into a larger world.
A second advantage has to do with stage-management. Shifting the angle of vision around enables the writer to juggle several parallel plot lines with relative ease. It also enables him/her to play around with competing thematics: what one character perceives as good may be anathema to another. (To cite a topical example: with the Scottish independence referendum pending, it’s a matter of perspective whether you regard Robert the Bruce as a national hero or a filthy traitor.)
A third advantage has to do with keeping a sinister and provocative distance between your principle villain and the rest of the cast. It enhances his/her mystique if readers only ever get to see him/her through the eye of his/her henchmen, lackeys, prisoners, and discarded lovers. There’s delicious scope to crank up the suspense by making information available to your reader which is not shared by your protagonists. Having watched the villain set a Cunning Trap, we’re powerless to warn the hero against blundering into it.
Best of all, using multiple point-of-view characters allows the writer to imitate aspects of cinematic technique. This is especially effective when you’re orchestrating complex action sequences. If your novel climaxes with a naval battle, using Third Person Omniscient enables the reader to follow the action from several angles at once. One minute, we’re surveying the field of combat through the eyes of the admiral in charge of the fleet. The next minute, we’re at one with a member of an individual gun crew awaiting the order to open fire on the enemy.
All of which explains why Third Person Omniscient remains my favorite narrative mode.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.