Monday, August 6, 2012

Grammar ABCs: O is for Omniscient POV

Omniscient: having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness or understanding.

In this Point of View (POV), the narrator is a God-like character. The narrator knows everything about all of the characters, places and events involved. You can put the readers inside anyone’s mind at will and the author can state facts that none of the characters are aware of. Now this may seem like “the key” to you. We could tell the story so much quicker. Why should we worry about who is able to know what—that seems so complicated, right?

But look at this example, something beginning writers often fall into: He bit his nails and thought that she did not understand him. He watched her and wondered what to say. She brushed her hair and thought that he needed therapy.

It is jarring, and can bump the reader out of reading concentration, which is absolutely not a good thing. You want the reader to identify with your main character(s) and to keep turning the pages.

This POV is considered rather antiquated (used more in 19th Century writing) and is not used as often now. I think the major reason is that reader involvement is low—you really can’t get into your main character’s emotions and feelings and let the reader get to know him/her unless you use first- or third-person POV. And if you’re switching around from one character’s head to another, that tends to confuse the reader. It also tends to “tell” rather than “show”. Many agents and publishers will reject a work that contains too much “head-hopping.” (Romance novels seem to be the exception.)

Some well-known authors use a snippet of Omniscient at the end of a scene or chapter, especially in mysteries or thrillers.

For example: Groups of workers walked steadily down the darkening road on their way toward the plant just visible in the dusk. The night shift would soon start. No one seemed to notice when they were joined by a tall one-eyed man and his limping young companion.

It’s not wrong to do this, but if you’re a purist in sticking to one POV, you might ask, if we are in a particular character’s mind and no one notices these men, how do we know they’re there?

I’m not saying never use Omnisicient POV. I’ve read books where I’m almost finished before I realize it’s been written in Omniscient. If it’s done well, with a lot of skill, it can be quite effective. But the key is skill and practice: knowing the rules so you can break them in a way the reader won’t notice.

Do you like or dislike reading this POV? Have you ever used it effectively in your own writing?


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series. 
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  1. Love your new bio photo, Heidi!

    I detest omniscient POV. But I have also found it creeping into modern writing due to television and film influence: writers find themselves "cutting" to different viewpoints within scenes. For example, a scene mainly from the protagonist's POV with a "shot" of the antagonist lying in wait tagged onto the end of the scene "for added suspense" (but unnoticed by any characters).

  2. For those who get sick of tight POV, it's fun to play with an omniscient "sound" at the beginnings of chapters by widening the lens. Such as, with your example:

    Groups of workers walked steadily down the darkening road on their way toward the plant just visible in the dusk. The night shift would soon start. No one seemed to notice when they were joined by a tall one-eyed man and his limping young companion. I used my good eye to locate the back door and signaled my buddy. It was time to move.

  3. Great post, Heidi! And I love your new photo, too!

    As a fiction editor who's always on the lookout for POV gaffes like head-hopping or hovering viewpoint, I find any omniscient POV jarring and annoying. Not only is the reader held at arm's length from the protagonist and his/her thoughts and emotions, but it stretches credibility. In real life, we're only aware of what we see, hear, and otherwise perceive, we can't soar above to find out what the bad guy or other characters are doing when we're not there, or go inside their heads to find out what they're thinking. So it's more realistic if the story only reveals what the POV character of a scene is able to perceive.

    And Kathryn, I know you're an excellent writer and editor, but I'm afraid your example wouldn't work for me, especially with the shift in the same paragraph and the use of "I." Might work better with a new paragraph and "He," but if I were editing it, I'd advise the writer to take out the omniscient writing there.

  4. There are trends, fashion, and prejudices, but the only thing that really matters in fiction is whether it works. For my part, I detest blanket dismissal of perfectly good language and literary devices. Much good writing has used passive voice, taken the omniscient POV, and employed to good effect all the things that are the current subjects of simplistic how-to advice and knee-jerk rejections.

    Present company accepted, of course.

    It is ultimately all a matter of context and style. "He watched her and wondered what to say; she brushed her hair and thought that he needed therapy." I could imagine this as a tagline on a book jacket for a romance written in alternating POV.

    The writers and editors here are all good enough to rise above prescription-proscription pablum. (And I'm probably in trouble now.)

  5. Larry, to me it's not prescription/proscription, but what sucks me into the story and makes me care about the characters and their challenges, and omniscient POV is too neutral and uninvolved, and leaves me "out there" instead of drawn in and caring about the character and his problems and worried enough to keep turning the pages.

  6. Add me to the "NO NO NO" column. Nothing irks me more than getting to the end of the chapter and reading, "If he'd known that danger lurked around the corner, he'd have gone back to bed."

    But it's out there, and it's done by successful authors. J.A. Jance's Joanna Brady series, for example, is written in 3rd person omniscient. Yet her Beaumont series is written in 1st person. And when she writes a book featuring both characters, she sticks to each character's established POV.

    Me, I write 3rd person deep pov. I hate knowing something the character doesn't. Which is why I favor mystery over suspense.

    Terry's Place

  7. Terry, as someone who reads a lot of suspense and specializes in editing suspense, I advocate deep (close) third-person POV to my thriller author clients, and it works really well for thrillers. The only difference is that you're in other characters' POV from time to time, too, but in their own scene or chapter. Works great for us knowing what the villain is thinking/planning but the protagonist doesn't. Also, if the protagonist is in a scene, I think it should be told in his/her POV, as it would be jarring/off to have your main character right there but we're in someone else's POV.

  8. Some romance writers like Nora Roberts don't use omniscient for their head hopping. They use third person tight focus for each character.

    Nora being Nora, one of the most successful and loved authors on the planet, can get away with it. Any other author who attempts it, particularly new authors, is asking for rejection from editors and readers.

    Omniscient is still accepted in some genres and subgenres like epic fantasy which is about a big story, not about the individual viewpoint, but narrative is becoming more and more intimate. Pull readers out of a story by using omniscient, and good bye readers.

    Omniscient is also a massive stumbling point for newer authors who most often use it badly.

  9. It's hard to do well - kind of a cop-out really if it feels like an information dump and it happens even with seasoned writers. That first example had way too many "thats" for my taste, Heidi. ;)

    Here's an interesting POV convention from Victorian times we've written about here, if anyone is interested. It's something I've thought of trying in my middle grade writing.

  10. Really good points being made here. I particularly like Kathryn's suggestion to set a scene and a mood by using the omniscient briefly in the beginning of a chapter or a scene. Writers like Dennis Lehane, Louise Penny, and many others do this quite well, whether they are then switching to first-person or third-person POV.

    I would not want to have more than a few sentences of this POV before getting on with the story, but it does add some interest.

    I am working with a client now who is using way too much omniscient POV, and I am going to send her a link to this excellent post and the great comments. That should be of great help to her.

  11. While I agree that whatever works well is good, I must note that "good" is often subjective. And because our purpose is to sell books, it makes sense to pull our readers into the story, keep them there, and inspire them to tell all their reading friends about the great book they just read. With rare exceptions, this doesn't happen with omniscient POV.

    Head-hopping, on the other hand, does work if each head has its own chapter, scene, or is set apart by a blank line or other element to apprise the reader of a change -- and it isn't overused.

    Excellent post, Heidi! I, too, like that new photo. :-)

  12. I'm trying the first paragraph of my current WIP in omniscient POV and then (after a break) going into my usual third person POV. So far I like it, but hey, we're talking first draft here. I'm just thrilled there are words on the page.

  13. Omniscent point of view isn't as easy as it would seem, since you don't want to get the reputation of being a headhopper.

    Morgan Mandel

  14. One more thought: Omniscient POV doesn't allow for any surprises. As a reader, I like to be surprised once in a while. It's so boring to always know everything that's happening.

    A television commercial for Swiffer (I think) shows a woman dusting her bookshelves and getting finished so quickly that she grabs a book off the shelf and shouts, "I'm going to read this." The next scene shows her engrossed in the story and her daughter entering the scene. The daughter says, "Can you believe the twin did it?" Mom looks up and throws the book over the back of the chair.

    That's how I feel about omniscient POV when I read for pleasure. I want to be absorbed in the story. I want to feel what the characters feel. And I want to be surprised.

  15. Linda, I like what you say about getting absorbed in the story, feeling what the characters feel, and being surprised. All requirements for my own fiction reading for pleasure.

    But in my books, it's not head-hopping if the POV changes at the end of a chapter or a scene, or even (not too often) after a scene break, with a space. That's just multiple viewpoints, and can be very effective. Just don't switch heads in the middle of a scene--or, heaven forbid!--within a paragraph! (Unless you're Nora Roberts, of course!)

  16. This is a great discussion! Thank you all for chiming in. No Larry, you are not in trouble!

    Dani, I agree about the "thats"--I just took the example verbatim as it had been written, otherwise, as an editor I would've taken the "thats" out too.

    I think what it comes down to is that to use omniscient POV successfully you need to be an already established author, like Nora Roberts, or an author with lots of writing practice and knowledge of the rules under your belt. It needs to be so seamless and unobtrusive that the reader doesn't readily notice it.

    Agreed, Jodi, POV can change with its own scene or new chapter. Head-hopping is like the first example, going from his to hers to his in the same paragraph.

  17. I dunno, Heidi. I'm reminded of a Sue Grafton in which protag, Kinsey Milhone, has a fit of omniscience about page 130 (ending a chapter) with the thought that (paraphrased) "little did she know the next time she saw him, he'd be on a slab at the morgue". This is the client she's talking about, and the reader really does have to wait until the end of the book for the guy be get shot. Talk about anti-climactic!

  18. I guess it really comes down to personal preference. Omniscient is an odd kind of POV; it definitely has its uses as a technique employed on a limited basis, but IMHO, too much of it and the readers start wondering why they're reading, because it's hard to care about people you're watching from a distance. I like to go too deeply into my characters' psyches as both a writer and a reader to dabble much with omniscient.

    I know this is not going to be a popular opinion, but I pretty much don't care if a writer head-hops. I don't see it as a writing mistake in every work that uses it. Sometimes it can make for some entertaining reads. I don't head-hop in my own writing as a matter of preference, but one of my all-time favorite authors, Robert McCammon, head-hopped like crazy in some of his earlier work, and those are my favorite books of his.

  19. She considered the question over a cup of coffee, and decided that being a head-hopper was better than being a hop-head.

  20. A couple of interesting variations here - might make a good follow-up post.

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  22. Dani, I don't particularly like the "little did she know..." scene endings either. I agree, it can give too much away.

    LOL, Silfert--I like it!

    Great chat today, everybody, thanks! Now, go write, and know that your editor is watching you...

  23. So sorry I missed all this great debate while away from the Internet yesterday.

    I would like to put forth that my example is neither omniscient POV nor head-hopping. It is telescoping from the first person, and a really great technique for relieving the intensity of deep first person POV. One problem with rookie first-person writing is the sense that you are "stuck" in deep POV, unable to break free. In my example the narrator hasn't changed, she's just setting up this part of her story from a broader perspective by showing you what's around before deepening the perspective.

    As Sharon said, though, it's all a matter of taste, and Jodie, I see you don't care for it. I just hope you don't edit it out if your clients use it. It isn't wrong, and some of us readers really dig it!

  24. Well, I'm a day late on the conversation, but admit to liking Omniscient POV. Heidi, the first example you gave didn't really seem Omnicient to me--just head hopping.

    As far as my own writing, one of my most popular titles The Adventures of Elizabeth Fortune, uses Omniscient POV throughout. I set it up as a "storyteller voice," and treated the "teller" as a character to keep the tone and language consistent. I dedicated the book to my grandparents (great storytellers), and M. Twain, among others. :-)

    I like posts like this with a lot of comment and opinion. Thanks everyone!


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