What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV

What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV

Writers don’t only have to decide which character’s point of view the story will be told in, they also have to figure out whether to then share that character’s narrative in first-person, third-person, second-person, or (*cue ominous rumbling*) omniscient POV.

The point of view (or POV) in which you tell your story’s narrative is arguably the single most important decision you can make about your book. POV will affect every single word choice. It will decide which scenes are included and which are not. It will influence your readers’ perception of your characters. It may even dictate the plot itself.

I get a lot emails from authors who are confused about omniscient POV. Most of them are getting slapped on the hand by editors for using it. Some are astonished to learn there even is such a thing, much less that it’s frowned upon. Omniscient POVs have a grand tradition going back to the beginnings of literature, and it’s no wonder many authors default to omniscient POV, since this is the narrative voice in which most of us humans tend to verbally share stories.

Why All the Fuss About the Omniscient POV?

So what’s the problem with the omniscient POV? Why are so many authors confused about it? And why are so many editors delivering digital hand slaps because of it?

Omniscient POVs are tricky. I have to admit, I always wince (just a little) whenever authors tell me they’re writing in omniscient. I’ll admit this upfront: not a big fan of the technique–if only because there is so much more intimacy to be found in the tighter POVs of first-person and deep third-person. Furthermore, because omniscient is a POV that has largely fallen into disuse, it can be a harder sell to agents and editors.

However, that isn’t to say the omniscient POV can’t be wielded effectively. We definitely do still see a book here and there that uses it (usually in the literary genre). But the omniscient POV can be challenging to get right. Authors often struggle to maintain a consistent omniscient voice and figure out how the omniscient POV differs from random head-hopping (which dips in and out of multiple characters’ tight narratives without warning).

Perhaps you’re one of those authors who is considering an omniscient POV for your story, or perhaps you’re already wielding an omniscient POV and struggling to understand why you’re taking flak for it. Today, we’re going to explore what makes the omniscient POV tick and how you can figure out if taking the chance on it is the right choice for your story.

What Is the Omniscient POV?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a quick exploration of the differences between the four major types of POV used in narrative fiction.

Omniscient POV

As its name suggests, the omniscient POV is one that tells its story from the perspective of a narrator (usually–implicitly–the author himself) who “knows all and sees all.” This narrator is rarely characterized or explained, and readers accept this without ever wondering who is telling the story. This narrative functions on the idea that the author/narrator already knows how the story will end. He is able to observe the thoughts and motives of all the characters (although still within certain limits, as we’ll discover in a minute). The omniscient narrative does not tell the story from the perspective of any particular character; rather, it observes all the events in an unbiased fashion and reports back to the reader.

Example:

Bleak House Charles DickensWho happens to be in the Lord Chancellor’s court this murky afternoon besides the Lord Chancellor, the counsel in the cause, two or three counsel who are never in any cause, and the well of solicitors before mentioned? There is the registrar below the Judge, in wig and gown; and there are two or three maces, or petty-bags, or privy purses, or whatever they may be, in legal court suits. These are all yawning; for no crumb of amusement ever falls from Jarndyce and Jarndyce (the cause in hand), which was squeezed dry years upon years ago. The short-hand writers, the reporters of the court, and the reporters of the newspapers, invariably decamp with the rest of the regulars when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes on. Their places are a blank. Standing on a seat at the side of the hall, the better to peer into the curtained sanctuary, is a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet, who is always in court, from its sitting to its rising, and always expecting some incomprehensible judgment to be given in her favor. (Bleak House by Charles Dickens)

Third-Person POV

The third-person POV tells the story in the third-person, referring to all the characters with the third-person pronouns “he” and “she.” Technically, the omniscient POV is also told in third-person, but the distinction is that a deep or tight third-person POV restricts itself entirely to the perspective of a single character within any given scene. Usually, the protagonist is the primary narrator. Only details observed by the POV character or knowledge he has personally gleaned or assumed can be shared (i.e., if the narrator doesn’t know another character’s mother died, then the narrative can’t share that information with the readers).

Example:

Way of Shadows Brent WeeksStepping out from the niche he’d been standing in, Azoth looked down the street toward the guild home, a hundred paces away. Maybe he didn’t need to go with Blint now. He’d killed Rat. Maybe he could go back and everything would be all right. Go back to what? I’m still too little to be the guild head. Ja’laliel’s still dying. Jarl and Doll Girl were still both maimed. There would be no hero’s welcome for Azoth. Roth or some other big would take over the guild, and Azoth would be afraid again, as if nothing had happened. (The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks)

First-Person POV

In a first-person POV, the protagonist himself is telling the story directly to readers and referring to himself by the first-person pronouns “I” or “me.” Like deep third-person, first-person is entirely restricted to the thoughts and observations of the narrator. He can’t dip into the thoughts of other characters for the obvious reason that he can’t read their minds (unless, of course–he can).

Example:

Cat Lady's Secret Linda YezakFrom the bus station to the hospital is a long five blocks–a miserable walk anytime, but especially in the mid-morning heat. My net is too short to use as a staff, so the best I can do is just limp along. The hospital entrance doors slide open. Frigid air form inside blasts out, evaporates the sweat on my face, and feels heaven-sent. People stare as I cross the polished gray floor to the elevator bank, same as they stared while I walked over here. I greet them head-on. I know I’m a sight. Who wouldn’t stare at an old woman in a bright green t-shirt and baggy plaid pants? Can’t blame them for that. (The Cat Lady’s Secret by Linda W. Yezak)

Second-Person POV

The second-person POV is used only rarely. It tells the story using the pronouns “you” or “your” to refer to the protagonist–in essence, making the story about the reader.

Example:

If on a winter's night a traveler italo calvinoYou are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone. (If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino)

Omniscient POV: Authorial Observation

The key to wielding an effective omniscient POV is all about maintaining a uniform narrative voice. The omniscient POV allows you to dip into multiple characters’ heads, but you will be acting more as an observer than a reporter. As a result, the omniscient POV is much more prone to telling, rather than showing—which means it’s (ironically) a much less immersive style than deep third-person or first-person.

The omniscient narrator observes the characters and draws in-the-know conclusions about their thoughts—rather than reporting the blow-by-blow, in-the-minute firing of their synapses. An omniscient narrative is sort of like you telling your friend about the plot of a movie you watched. Because you’ve seen the movie, you know how the story’s going to end and you can make educated guesses about the characters’ actual thoughts during the story–but you’re not in their heads as you’re re-telling their story.

What’s the Difference Between the Omniscient POV and “Head Hopping”?

A lot of authors who attempt the omniscient POV get shot down on accusations of “head hopping.” Head hopping is the common gaffe that occurs when the narrative breaks “out of POV” and jumps without warning from the perspective of one character into the perspective of another.

The key to understanding how omniscient POV differs from head-hopping is in our definition of  character “thoughts.” In a deep POV, every word of the narrative is technically going to be taking place inside the narrator’s head–and therefore is part of his thoughts. That’s not the case in an omniscient POV.

Rather, in the omniscient POV, the narrative is free to observe the mindsets of various characters. What it’s not free to do (at the risk of confusing readers) is portray those thoughts in the unique and personal voices of the individual characters. Basically, what that means is that direct thoughts are pretty much off-limits (although there will always be the occasional exception to confuse things).

For example, you might write:

“Jeb wanted to go home, Sally was happy to stay where she was, but Billy just wanted them to stop arguing.”

But you wouldn’t write:

Jeb stared out the windshield. Man! I just want this stupid vacation to end, so we can go home.

Beside him, Sally studiously flipped through her magazine. I don’t care what he says. I’m staying.

In the backseat, Billy covered his ears with his hands. Even when they’re not fighting, they’re fighting!

The Difficulties of Omniscient POV

The problem with the omniscient POV—and one of the big reasons editors are no longer so keen on it—is that it’s dad-blamed tough to write. As you’re learning, this is largely because it’s a difficult concept to get our heads around in the first place!

Her Fearful Symmetry Audrey NiffeneggerThat isn’t to say editors won’t accept it (Audrey Niffenegger’s sophomore novel Her Fearful Symmetry was omniscient–and earned an advance of $5 million in a bidding war between publishing houses–largely, on the blockbuster success of her previous book, the first-person Time Traveler’s Wife).

What editors will always be looking for in an omniscient POV (or any POV, come to that) is an amazing narrative voiceThat voice needs to be not just something that serves the story, but something that pops off the page and pulls readers in. That kind of voice can be more difficult to accomplish in an omniscient POV, if only because the narrator’s voice is much harder to define.

Brothers Karamazov Fyodor DostoevskyDo you still feel the omniscient POV is the right choice for your story? The best way to learn how to write powerful omniscient POVs is by reading masters (Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov comes to the mind). Read omniscient POVs like crazy and take apart the narratives until you get a feel for how they work and how you might apply them in your story!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever considered using the omniscient POV in your stories? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

 

 

What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. When I first started to learn about how to write fiction, I was under the impression that the omniscient POV allowed a writer to be more “literary,” but since I acknowledged that I was a ‘newbie’ and likely not able to write in a literary way then (if ever!), I chose Third Person Multiple for my story.

    I discovered that I love writing voices, getting right into the minds and hearts of my characters, and that if I did so, they wrote the scenes for me. Magic.

    For my WIP, I’ve chosen First Person for my protagonist, and Third Person for the other two POV characters. I wanted the challenge of learning to write in a new POV and was afraid that I’d fall into the “I, I, I” trap with First Person (doesn’t seem to be happening, thank heavens), but the story demands more than my protagonist’s POV.

    I think each of us finds the magic in writing fiction in different ways. For me, I can’t imagine not using a deep POV, although I might try it in a short story one day.

    • “When I first started to learn about how to write fiction, I was under the impression that the omniscient POV allowed a writer to be more “literary,”

      Same here. When I was younger, most of my reads were classics and most classics were written in omniscient POV, so I just dove in, no questions asked. It was a disaster. I was definitely not made for this type of writing and will never get back to it again. These days, if I want to be more intimate with readers, I’ll go with first-person, and if I want some distance, I’ll choose third-person, one POV per scene.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Really, this isn’t at all an incorrect assumption. Literary novels and short stories are just about the only place we still see omniscient POV used purposefully anymore.

        • I love omniscient, in my novel I’m using one, he is an observer, he is retired after living the experience with all the characters one by one. he is now in front of a court and a judge telling his story to convince the jury he is a repentant being wanting to go back home, paradise. The judge will decide what heaven to start him in his process to reach the highest after being a demon, a servant of the devil, a prince of hell. He has nothing to do with the characters’ deeds and accomplishments, villains and heroes. I know I am crazy, I know I need help. But, I know that if I want to learn I have to do it once at least.

        • L. J. Robinson says:

          I head hop, but there are bridges between the different POV so that the reader becomes a roaming consciousness on a track of my design. I’m mindful not to busy the track so that I don’t confuse the reader. It works, but all this negative talk of head hopping being wrong has me worried.

  2. Bethany says:

    Thank you very such for explaining each POV type and giving examples!
    This was so helpful for me to understand and wrap my head around this whole concept, and then to make the necessary changes to my own work 🙂
    Thank you for what you do!

  3. I think that what I was thinking was “omniscient” was really “third person.” I am sure I have confused the two in my writing somewhere (am I brave enough to go back and check?) I say I prefer “third person” because in any scene, I figure out who has the “goal-disaster” and that tells me whose scene it is that will receive the POV. I have a WIP that I will definitely be paying closer attention to (to which I will be paying closer attention)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is an easy confusion to commit, because while omniscient is always third-person, third-person isn’t always omniscient.

      • ….and that right there is my wrestling mat. My literary WIP is omniscient…I think…until I read an article like this and I debate again if it should be third-person. This kept me from draft writing for a good six months and I finally decided to start hammering it out to see if there’s a dominant trend. I would say yes, it’s omniscient and third-person so far, but not third-person and omniscient!

        I foresee ten drafts ahead.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Omniscient almost always *is* in third-person. (The few exceptions are when a first-person narrator is looking back with the omniscience of hindsight in recounting the story.) But a story can’t been a tight third-person in any sense *and* omniscient at the same time.

        • Tia — the question is: who is your reader getting the story from? Are they getting it directly from the character, with no revelation of anything not known to the character? Then it’s not omniscient.

          If the narrative reveals information not known to the characters, then you are using an omniscient narrator.

          Voice also enters into this. If you’re deep in the character’s POV, the narrative will be in the character’s voice.

          If you’re using a narrator, then the narrative will have a different voice than the character.

          • Kristen- I’m currently at the 25% mark of the draft. So far, I’ve been aiming for omniscient because when I hit the point where I said, “pick something and get going” it seemed the best fit. As I see it so far, the reader is getting the story from an unseen narrator who is making it clear via build up that something is coming but its not in any specific character’s voice- I’m not sure I’ll keep all of that tho- it has some spoon-feeding vibes to it in a few places. What I want is multiple POV freedom, one for each scene or chapter, without being locked into only the protagonist’s mind. I like that “eye in the sky” ability with the dominant character for each scene’s pov shared with the narrator’s voice. I’m not experienced enough to know if it’s right or if it works yet. Head hopping has become a temptation, I hadn’t read much about “deep third person” or “limited”, and warnings that editors may not accept the approach are sobering.

            I saw this story as a dream first, from start to finish, in color, with a plot and characters, and an external narrator. In my dream there were multiple protagonists, which became unwieldy in the actual planning. I wanted to show the drama from each POV, letting the reader be the judge. I’ve got it down to a single protagonist but I’m not groovy with that yet. I want it to be *their* story, not just hers.

          • Tia — You can totally use deep POV with more than one character. Like you said, one per scene to avoid head hopping. But I find this gets impractical if you have more than four or five viewpoint characters.

            But if you want the eye in the sky view, that does require an omniscient narrator.

            Like KM said, is is all about what’s best for the story. Press ahead. You’ll get there! 🙂

      • Zak Nelson says:

        Thanks for this blog post! I just looked up the Niffenegger and look forward to reading it!

        Just to be clear, omniscient isn’t *always* in third: Moby-Dick comes to mind (“Call me Ishmael,” says the most famous omniscient first-person narrator in the world!), and I’m told Kathryn Davis’s far more recent novel Duplex is in a first-person omniscient voice. Also, I believe there is much science fiction and fantasy that employs third-person omniscient these days (most of it, maybe?), so I disagree that lit-fic is the only place you find it: in fact, it can be harder to find contemporary lit-fic using 3rd-omniscient than it is to find it in genre fiction.

        Also: the disastrousness of head-hopping can be relative. Lonesome Dove does it well, though I agree that it is old-fashioned and might draw readers out of the story if they aren’t accustomed to it. And I also agree that head-hopping is definitely something to monitor carefully, especially for beginning writers.

        For contemporary examples in lit-fic though, I suggest Last Night At Twisted River (Irving) and The Known World (Jones). Going back in time a bit further, we still have in the 20th century Steinbeck and McMurtry working in omniscient third.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Good point about the first-person narration of some omniscient books. Essentially, these narratives are still third-person, with the slight difference that the narrator is actualized into a specific person–albeit still an all-knowing one, usually thanks to hindsight.

        • Lorin O. says:

          I don’t believe that Moby Dick has an omniscient narrator in that the book unfolds pretty exclusively via Ishmael’s perspective and he only knows what he knows of other characters motivations and desires through observation or through having their stories related to him.

  4. I did a two-part analysis of the omniscient POV after reading Billy Coffey’s *In the Heart of the Dark Wood*. His use was masterful, and his novel is a great contemporary example of the POV.

    BTW: Thanks for using The Cat Lady’s Secret as an example. I’m honored!

  5. Thanks for helping me realize the difference between omniscient POV and head-hopping. Although I’m not very keen on using omniscient, it’s great to learn more about story-telling. The first example of omniscient POV that pops into my mind is Lord of the Rings (and Hobbit for that matter) by Tolkien. Is that right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You know, I have to admit I’ve yet to read Tolkien. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he wrote in omniscient, but perhaps someone else can chime in here with the definitive answer.

    • Natasha is correct. Lord of the Rings is written in omniscient POV. It’s also, despite being absolutely fantastic in every other way, an example of why there’s a problem with the ability of the omniscient narrator to slip into passages of telling. Tolkien goes off on long history lessons that slow the story down. You couldn’t get away with those in deep POV.

      Speaking of deep POV, the best book on the topic is Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. She does a great job of demonstrating why deep POV is more engaging for readers.

  6. Jane Austen was brilliant at making omniscient feel intimate – I never felt distanced from Emma, for instance, did you?

    A modern master of the omniscient POV for children (yes, there is such a thing) is Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, the Sally Lockhart series).

    I worry that the reason so many editors don’t like it is that they, themselves, don’t understand it. I’ve been wrongly corrected by an editor at a workshop, who wanted to treat omniscient like 3rd person limited.

    • ps. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) are well-known modern writers who use omniscient with ease. Curiously, all of them are English writers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re right. Nowadays, when someone (me included) sees third-person POV, they instantly make the assumption that it’s a tight POV. When the narrative moves along and proves them wrong, their own misconception jars them. It’s one of the inherent dangers of a comparatively little-used technique.

  7. I love Omniscient, and would love to write everything in it. Unfortunately, not all stories work well with it. Fairy Tales do, though.

    Of course, I am that oddly lone voice who can read a book with head hopping and not be bothered by it.

    Since I have a series I am working on that is kicked off with a complete revisioning of Cinderella, this is great advice for me when I go back and start the edits on Episode One.

    Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You raise a really important point here, which is that the choice of POV should always be dependent on the story itself. If the story is best told in omniscient, then that’s exactly what should be used.

    • Eloise Hamann says:

      This is a reply to Laura. She is definitely not the only one not bothered by head hopping. I think it applies to all readers who are not writers.

      My fellow critiquers would call head hopping observations of feelings of different characters in the same scene even if it’s a committee meeting.

      • Laura M Banse says:

        I never even knew I had responses until I came looking for something else, and my phone brought me here. Brilliant!!

        I’m currently re-reading the Bride Trilogy (that ended up expanding to what, six books?) by Catherine Coulter. Not only was she my introduction to historical romance, but she was my introduction to what others might term head-hopping.

        I actually love the feeling of being that omnipotent observer that her writing evokes. I don’t mind the “detachment” others might feel. Rather, I like knowing what everyone is thinking and feeling. It makes me feel S though I’m on the same page as the others.

  8. Robert Richards says:

    This is a great article. I don’t think Uncle Orson could have done better. I’d like to point out, though, that your “But you wouldn’t write” example pretty much epitomizes the style of Nora Roberts, the most unbridled head popper I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

    I disagree with the notion that “every word of the narrative is technically going to be taking place inside the narrator’s head.” To illustrate how this is a fallacy, ask yourself if, when looking at a STOP sign, you actually say the word “stop” inside your head. Even if you read the word on the sign, you can do so without articulating that word inside your head.

    Look at this sentence of a narrative: “He looked like an apparition, revealed in the darkness only by the slants of moonlight diffusing through a scrim of clouds.” Those words don’t necessarily have to be the actual thoughts of a POV character. They may be only a representation of that character’s thoughts. To limit every word of the narrative to a character’s thoughts is restricting the narrative to an interior monologue (or, if done too stringently, to stream of consciousness narration). An alternative to head popping or to a deep, subjective-limited POV is what Dean Koontz refers to as “modified omniscient viewpoint.” If you’ve read Koontz, you’ll know what I mean.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The idea is that in a tight narrative, every word is inside the character’s head in the sense that even if he isn’t generating a conscious “verbal” thought about something he is experiencing, *his* experience is still being shown to the reader in his own voice. It’s always going to depend on just how *deep* we’re going. It’s a matter of degree.

  9. Whenever I get started on a story, this is always a question I wrestle with. I usually try out different POVs. At first, I always think that the best POV is the omniscient POV (mostly because I always think of writing in terms of campfire storytelling, wherein I imagine myself as the storyteller).

    But as often happens once I get started, it always feels lacking. My writing really does feel detached, and so I often end up rethinking my choice of POV. The next step, usually, is to try out 3rd person omniscient, and then 1st person. The biggest problem I have with 1st person is the fact that you literally have to get into character to write it. So unless you know your character at the deepest level, it sometimes feels pretty overwhelming, and I’m often scared that I’m not doing the character justice of portraying him/her accurately enough.

    As for omniscient POV, an interesting read would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At certain points, Douglas Adams pauses the action to take a closer look at what each character is thinking at a given moment–and he does this pretty well as it often ends up being pretty humorous.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hitchhiker’s Guide is kinda a unique proposition, since it’s so meta anyway. But it’s definitely a good example of a unique situation in which omniscient was obviously the best choice.

  10. I have actually really enjoyed using the omniscient point of view. But, to be fair, I consider the technique to be multiple third person points of view. There are plenty of third person characters I don’t consider on an emotional level. But I tend to appreciate the opportunity to have more than one main character in my stories.

    I have no qualms about sharing any character’s inner feelings, provided I can 1) take the characters one at a time and 2) limit the scene to focus on one character or another. In my experience with my current series, done well omniscient doesn’t sacrifice intimacy with characters. It gives my audience a chance to know more of my characters on an intimate level and decide which ones they value most.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As always with anything in writing, the key is “done well.” Omniscience, when pulled off brilliantly, is of course brilliant! 😀

  11. I am currently writing my novel in the first-person POV, but I think I might give the omniscient POV a try for my next book or fictional writing.

  12. Natasha says:

    While I agree with everything you say here, I think that omniscient sometimes serves for creating good dramatic irony. For example (again, referencing Tolkien), in the Hobbit, Tolkien chooses to describe the Gollum before Bilbo has a chance to meet it. Although it would be nice to see Bilbo discovering the Gollum, without us knowing what it is, the technique he used only served to make it equally–if not more–terrifying.

  13. Great article, K.M.

    I’ve heard writers say that first person is the easiest to write — probably because it’s how we all naturally perceive the world. But I can’t bring myself to do it mostly because I can’t commit to a single p.o.v. character throughout a novel. (Though one could argue that each different chapter could have a different “I” … a la Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.) So, yeah, I prefer third-person in most cases.

    I do think omniscient narrators can be useful, but it’s typically when the author’s/narrator’s voice is powerful in its own right; it needs to add something to the story — for example, comedy. Perhaps that’s why Mr. Gaiman, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Pratchett can get away with it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A lot of new writers gravitate toward first-person because it is, as you say, instinctive. But it actually is a more complicated POV than third-person, simply because it’s even more restricted. Third-person limited is a great place for most authors to start.

  14. I appreciate the depth of this article’s discussion, and the examples. Thinking about this, I wondered if Omniscient POV might be compared to a movie. Unless there’s a character voice-over, the director can’t show the audience each and every character’s exact thoughts; he can only show their verbal words and actions, and let the audience deduce their thoughts and emotions. However, as with omniscience, he can cut to any location or shoot any part of a scene he chooses.
    The more I think about this, though, the more it sounds like it’d be “third-person limited” or something like that. (Dickens and Austen are great examples of how omniscience is supposed to work.)
    I’ve never been tempted by omniscient POV; I did have to trim the head-hopping from my first full novel, though. Just love characters too much—we want to play with them all!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It *is* a good example as far as it goes. However, screenwriters will tell you they *do* use POV in a screenplay, both to occasionally direct shots and to create a cohesive perspective for the entire story. If you pay attention when watching a movie, you can usually tell which character’s “POV” you’re in.

      However, as far as your description of omniscience in a move goes, yes, you’re spot on.

    • Gabriel Fregoso says:

      POV in cinema is very murky, and depends on a variety of factors, but the most important being context established by the director (and this depends on whether the director believes in the authorial presence of the filmmaker or his absolute, though impossible, neutrality).

      Hitchcock would build from objective to subjective, as in the beginning of “Psycho” by establishing a panoramic view of a location (location is very important to Hitchcock movies), then cut closer on one building, then cut closer to one specific window on the building, and then use that window as a psychological pivot point to then cut into the interior of the room where the two introductory characters are. Even when we see Janet Leigh for the first time, Hitch uses a slightly elevated point-of-view looking down at Marion Crane, and not on the horizon line running through her eye-level.

      Hitch, who came out of German Cinema, having worked with great filmmakers like Fritz Lang, and learning the rules of subjective cinema, knew that triplicate editing ruptures the viewer’s connection to the fluid, uninterrupted presences of the camera, which means that at the very beginning of “Psycho,” he is signalling to the viewer the presence of the director as the Omniscient Narrator, able to cut and interrupt the narrative at will. These cuts also establish the theme of “slashing” which becomes a motif throughout the movie for obvious reasons.

      In other movies, Hitch uses one uninterrupted take to go from an objective establishing shot to a more close and “limited” focus on one character… so that in the rules of German cinema the very act of moving the camera forward our backwards in space, indicates the presence of the director/camera as an omniscient narrator with his own subjectivity. “Why” might you ask? It’s because long in the early days of cinema, objectivity with a camera was defined as being a shot that was at a height of five feet (believed to be the average eye level at the time), and a neutral distance from the scene (like a person sitting in an audience for a play), and absolutely static. This school of cinema believed that a cut could only take place at scene breaks, otherwise you risked revealing that the world was artificial.

      Germany, Russia, and France, however, reacted to this self imposed neutrality in their own ways, exploring radical departures in camera placement, camera movement, and editing, and realized how they could tell cinematic stories in a much more exciting way by breaking from the idea of objectivity. Each school had their own definition of objectivity, and in turned developed their techniques for subjectivity. These schools then had individual practitioners like Lang and Murnau, who realized the same subjectivity, but executed them “differently” according to their own directorial language.

      Lang and Murnau both worked for UFA in Germany and then emigrated to the U.S., when Hitler came to power; Hitchcock worked under Lang in UFA, and was an admirer of Murnau, and then went to Britain and then the U.S. later in his career. A lot of Hitchcock’s cinematic language, though personally his own, stems from his training in the Germany film industry prior to the rise of Hitler.

      Back to “Psycho.”

      It makes sense that Hitchcock establishes himself (or the camera) as an Omniscient Subjective narrator from the movie’s beginning, because the movie itself switches character focus and POV quite often.

      Hitchcock hones in on Marion’s POV, and for the first half of the movie, we see everything from her subjective POV. We even get to hear her thoughts as she is considering how to steal money from her boss. Even when she is driving, we hear samples of dialogue which are supposed to be her memories coming back to haunt her and stir up the guilt of her transgression.

      In the movie’s most pivotal and violent scene, Hitch artfully imposes Omniscient neutrality through editing. Though he uses montage and collision editing, the camera is never from Marion’s perspective or from her killer’s; the camera remains in an omnisciently subjective limbo, because Hitch knows she is going to die, and he knows that the camera is going to continue living after her death, and that the audience is still supposed to remain in the dark as to the true identity of her attacker. At this point the omniscient subjective narrator even has the ability to follow water down a bathtub drain.

      Anyone familiar with the movie knows how it keeps switching points-of-view from this point forward. But this is all made possible by the fact that, right at the movie’s beginning, Hitchcock established himself as the Omniscient Subjective narrator. And he had a clear and definite idea of when he was dipping into character subjectivity, when he was pulling out into camera subjectivity, and when he, as the director, was trying to remain as neutral as possible.

      You can contrast “Psycho” with Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” which also uses a Omniscient Subjective POV, but relies less on editing to reveal the authorial presence of the narrator (since the killer in Frenzy does not use a butcher knife, but rather prefers a necktie to kill his victims), and utilizes more the fluid roving, detached camera that can penetrate three dimensional space on seemingly on its own volition.

      Orson Welles was another individual heavily influenced by German cinema. A devout admirer of Fritz Lang (who wasn’t at the time?), Welles also utilized an outward inward, objective to subjective, point-of-view at the beginning of “Citizen Kane.” In the film’s beginning, once Kane’s estate is established in the upper right corner of the frame, the filmmaker uses lap dissolves to get closer and closer to the estate, but the estate never leaves the right corner of the frame, until he is ready to go inside. And then once inside, Welles takes us into a snow globe (or is this one of Charle’s childhood memories on the brink of his death), and then we get the famous limited focus on Kane’s lips whispering “Rose bud.”

      Again, it makes sense that Welles chose an Omniscient Subjective narrator, because this is a movie that leaps from one character to another in order to help the audience piece together the life of Charles Foster Kane from the third person limited memories of those who knew him best.

      I could go on and on about Hitchcock and Welles and German Expressionist cinema and its influence and codification of early American cinematic techniques, but the key here is that the Germans did believe in objectivity and neutrality, though they favored subjectivity, and filmmakers like Welles and Hitchcock understood the rules enough to make them their own.

      However, if you sit and watch these movies with younger generations, they are almost convinced that Welles and Hitchcock had no rules or principles guiding their every choice. They don’t understand what a cinematographer or a screenwriter means when they tell them “this shot is unmotivated,” “this this scene is a rupture in POV.” They seem to think that there are no rules whatsoever and just accept the aesthetics as they are presented.

      Scorsese, for instance, received a lot of criticism for”Taxi Driver,” in which the first half the movie is told in Third Person Limited narrative (with some first person voice over narration), entirely from Travis Bickles’ POV; then midway through the movie, the narrative leaps to the relationship between Iris (Jodie Foster) and Sport (Harvey Keitel). Though many critics liked the movie, they felt that this narrative jump took them out of the story for obvious reasons. Scorsese himself admits that the criticisms are valid, but concludes by saying he didn’t know any other way to do it.

      I have watched this movie numerous times with various individuals and they don’t ever complain about “being taken out of the story,” even when I ask them. (Personally, it does take me out for a spell). I often wonder if this loss in our ability to read visual language has a lot do with the idea that there are no rules that govern visual language, though people like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick have had lengthy interviews where they state otherwise.

      To illustrate how these conventions and definitions change with time, consider the work of Stanley Kubrick. Many people speak of a Stanley Kubrick “style.” A style implies a subjective approach. Many people read the movies of Stanley Kubrick as being “subjective” because they employ techniques that seems to modify or alter reality (especially editing techniques).

      But Kubrick himself said that his work was not subjective, but objective. That he did his best to employ the techniques of objectivity and to eliminate his own psychology from the equation so that the camera itself remains an Omniscient Narrator. Even in these instances, Kubrick said he reserved the right to make the camera from objective contexts to subjective moments. But overwhelmingly, the thought his body of work lent itself more to the study of objective narration in cinema than subjective narration.

      If you study the work of Hitchcock and Kubrick and compare their films back to back, you can see why many say that Kubrick’s movies are “cool, detached, and unfeeling,” (and not just because of subject matter); whereas many describe Hitchcock’s movies as suspenseful and exciting. This is partly because Stanley Kubrick’s Omniscient Objective approach allows the director and audience to ask questions about the events on screen; while Hitchcock’s Omniscient Subjective approach allows the director to create suspense in the audience.

      Kubrick’s detachment becomes especially interesting when he directs comedies like “Dr. Strangelove,” where his objectivity would seem to be antithetical to the generic requirements of making the audience laugh, and yet he still manages to succeed in great part because of the performances.

      In the end, I believe the general ideas and principles of literature apply also to cinema; and vice versa. Whether or not the general audience is keen to such principles or they merely consume them without thought is another question entirely.

  15. As a reader, I’ve come to dislike omniscient POV. It’s almost always done poorly (with head-hoppping) and I craze the intimacy of the deep 3rd person POV. I’ve written only in deep 3rd person so far, but I may take a crack at 1st person down the road.

    Great post – I hadn’t seen a good examination of omniscient vs. deep 3rd person.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think that’s the key: “it’s almost always done poorly.” When it’s done well, it’s a wonderful technique. But it’s arguably the toughest of all the POVs to do well.

  16. This just sums up everything wrong with Julius Verne “journey to the centre of the earth”. While Axel the narrator is taking part in the adventure and has to endure hurdles, some even put his life in danger, at a certain point he starts writing a diary in present tense and thus cutting any suspence and worry for the expedition. When his narration goes back to the past tense; all the thrill of the journey turns into ” what’s the next breathtaking description for the sake of nothing else?”

  17. When I first started writing, at 13 mind you, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The only thing I wanted was to get the story that was inside my head out so could concentrate on not concentrating on school.
    Essentially, my knowledge of how to write comes from my ability to write and how to craft a story by reading other stories and novels.

    Omniscient, something I didn’t even know about till I read your article, is something I have done before in one of the novels I was writing. In that case, I had no idea about personal narratives or omniscient narratives, but the story just seemed to come out in an omniscient narrative kind of way.
    Personally my, complete lack of experience, opinion leads me to write the novel how I feel that it should be written.
    So, I’m working on a book at the moment, but it is in third person narrative that jumps to and from character to character because I feel that the story should be written this way.
    Sorry if I’ve muddied the waters some more, but that is how I see it/explain it.
    Good writing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Omniscient often comes naturally, since it’s how we tell stories verbally. Absolutely nothing wrong with doing what you feel is right for the story, but it’s also important to understand how what you’re doing stacks up against the reader experience.

  18. Klaus Schilling says:

    I refuse to read anything with a tight POV, period. It requires empathising with characters, whichj I don’t, never did, and never will; ergo, I avoid it rigorously.

  19. Your definition of headhopping as:

    occurs when the narrative breaks “out of POV” and jumps without warning from the perspective of one character into the perspective of another.

    I know many writers who consider “headhopping” to be *any* change of POV without the mandatory use of three hashtags or double-paragraph spacing. To me, these conventions say “Dear Reader, I know you’re too dumb to pick up on this deliberate change of POV which I’m explaining at the beginning of this paragraph, so I’m warning you with these little symbols or an extra paragraph space.”

    I like to think more of my readers than that.

  20. Gabriel Fregoso says:

    Hi, K.M.,

    I’m always struggling with the concept of narrative point-of-view — specifically, because I sometimes write in Third Person Omniscient, and I am told that I break the point-of-view by some, not all, individuals. But I think a lot has to do with the different shades of Omniscient narration, of which not everyone seems to be aware.

    So I came across your site, and you state the following:

    “In the omniscient POV, the narrative is free to observe the mindsets of various characters. What it’s not free to do (at the risk of confusing readers) is portray those thoughts in the unique and personal voices of the individual characters.”

    After that, you give two examples. The problem, for me, is that I have been taught that there is a distinction to be made between Third Person Omniscient Objective, and Third Person Omniscient Subjective (yet it seems few others have been taught this).

    In the Objective variety, you would adhere to the rule you stated, like Hemingway does in “Hills Like White Elephants,” not giving access to the characters’ direct thoughts, and not really allowing the characters’ voices to color the narrator’s voice. The narrator would also not be able to use strong words demonstrating what the character is thinking or feeling. He would have to be limited to observable action, and could only record feelings or thoughts the characters articulate out loud. Note, however, in “Hills Like White Elephants,” there is one sentence where Hemingway does break the rule, using the adverb “reasonably” to indicate what the male character is thinking about the other people in the bar. Even though the voice is still clearly written overall in the dry and neutral language of the rest of the story, the use of the adverb is clearly not the narrator’s thoughts, but rather the character’s feeling superimposing itself over the narrator’s words, which violates one of the strictures of writing in Third Person Omniscient Objective. Even if one argues that it’s not the male character’s feeling, but rather the author’s observation, it still violates the rules of Third Person Omniscient Objective, since the narrator is not supposed to pass judgment on the events or characters, but rather is to transcribe them.

    When it comes to Third Person Omniscient Subjective, things get a bit trickier.

    The narrator is not simply a neutral fly on the wall, but rather an individual with personality. You can see this clearly in novels like “The Lord of the Rings,” or “The Hobbit,” where the narrator comes across as a humorous and comfortable personality well familiar with the histories of Middle Earth, and the narrator is choosing which scenes to present to the reader (like a grandfather telling his children a bedtime story); the narrator, of course, seems most interested in the points-of-view of Bilbo and Frodo, so will continuously hone in on Bilbo and Frodo at appropriate times in the narrative to tell us what they are feeling and thinking.

    This is where your rule is at odds with some popular fiction. In these instances, the Omniscient Subjective narrator will not only tell us the following: “Bilbo wondered how many golden coins he could steal,” but he will also include direct thoughts from the characters in italics: I wonder how anyone can see in such a dark place as this, wondered Bilbo.

    In these books, the Omniscient Subjective narrator is free to pass judgment on the characters (Tolkien speaking many times about Bofur’s weight); he is free to indicate what a character is thinking or feeling about another character; and he is also able to present a character’s direct thoughts either in italics, or in quotation marks, whichever he chooses at the time to help the reader have a greater closeness with the character on which he has focused.

    What’s more, the Omniscient Subjective narrator can reveal multiple points of view mid-scene, as long as he does so sparingly, and does not alienate or confuse the reader. This is really where personal sensibility and preference come into play, and will be a point that the writer might have to defend. It either works, or it doesn’t. It seems conservative editors really dislike these techniques, but seem to forget that cinema has conditioned many people to be open to such moments in literature, as long as the story plays in their minds like a movie, and they don’t sense some internal violation, or an obvious reel change.

    In “Little Women,” Austen clearly uses an Omniscient Subjective narrator, who is very opinionated, as a way of showing the reader the social mores of the time; but she keeps herself from dipping into the characters’ minds directly and so contrives passages where the characters are speaking aloud to themselves (like Lewis Carroll’s Alice), privately, of course, to reveal to the reader what they are thinking secretly.

    On the other hand, Dickens, who also uses subjective Omniscience in much of his fiction, doesn’t always feel the need to have his characters wonder aloud for the sole purpose of revealing their inner thoughts; he will at times dip into their minds and allow their own voices to superimpose themselves over the narrator’s voice.

    “A Christmas Carol” is a good case in point, where many times you have to ask yourself “Is this the narrator talking, or Scrooge thinking?”

    The reality is that it’s a narrator who so despises what Scrooge used to be, and is so acquainted with the repugnant traits of his character, that the narrator is able to imitate Scrooge and to anticipate what Scrooge’s characteristic responses would be to subjunctive moments and situations. This is not narrator confusion, but rather the narrator imitating the voice of the character he is following (note: I have ran into individuals who think that “A Christmas Carol” is third person limited with omniscient moments).

    To add to the confusion, novels and popular fiction change POV without regard to the rules. For example, in Rowling’s “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” the novel uses Omniscient Subjective narration to hone in on Mr. Dursley, stays in Third Limited to explain Dursley’s observations of strange and peculiar happenings, then switches to Omniscient Objective to break away from Mr. Dursley to the outside of Privet Drive (where the Dursleys live) to introduce the reader to Dumbledore (using the the presence of Minerva McGonagal, disguised as a cat, as the transition device between Durlsey and Privet Drive); and then in Chapter Two, the narration begins with Omniscient subjective to once again pass judgment on the Dursleys, and to demonstrate the passage of years, and then locks onto Harry’s POV, and officially becomes Third Person Limited for most of the book at that point forward.

    None of these techniques employed in the first Potter book takes the reader out of the story, or confuses the reader. They all seem to work just fine, which begs the question: “Maybe the only rule is as long as your story works, it works?”

    So, how is a writer to continue to write in Third Person Omniscient Subjective when many individuals do not seem to be aware of the difference between Third Person Omniscient Subjective and Third Person Omniscient Objective? And even in the instances where editors and writers agree there is such a distinction between the two, they mostly disagree as to what can and can’t be done in Third Person Omniscient Subjective.

    From my readings and my conversations with writers and professors, I have concluded that Third Person Omniscient Subjective is the least understood when it comes to what the narrator can and can’t reveal about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Also, many disagree on “how” the Omniscient Subjective narrator can reveal character thoughts and feelings, some feeling it’s a no-no to reveal them directly; some feeling equally strong that the narrator can reveal them directly, as long as it’s clear. However, most agree that the Third Person Omniscient Subjective narrator can have a very lively and entertaining voice, unlike Omniscient Objective which must remain neutral at all times.

    Besides industry-related trends, is Omniscient narration falling out of use because there is no definitive consensus as to the different shades of Omniscience? It seems that Omniscient Subjective narratives have the most variety, and really it’s up to the writer to remain consistent. But how is a writer to achieve consistency if publishers themselves are not aware of all the shades of subjective omniscience and might mistake consistency for an unmotivated POV switch?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Wow, great points, Gabriel! You’ve raised some things I haven’t really considered myself. I hope everyone who reads this post also comes down to read your comment.

      Ultimately, I think there are two big answers to the questions you’ve raised.

      1. POV is more fluid than we sometimes pretend. However, the reason we impose such strict rules on it is because it’s so much easier for authors to produce a crisp narrative from within those rules–and, likewise, so much more difficult to manage the vast fluidity outside of those “rules” and still end up with a great narrative. In short: an author is free to use just about any blend of any of the recognized POVs if it works–which is a very tall order indeed.

      2. Like it or not (and many, many authors don’t), omniscient is out of style. Editors and agents do not like it, some to the point they’ll instantly stop reading when they discover it. This isn’t to say it’s not still a valid style, and one that some authors still find success with, but it’s a very tricky style for beginning authors to try to break out with.

    • Gabriel — You’ve clearly given Omniscient POV more thought than have a lot of the editors and agents who would reject it at first glance. If you’re doing it with control, you can get away with it. A few writers have lately, though mainly in literary fiction, like Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) and Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See).

      As for voice in Omniscient viewpoint: the _narrative_ should remain in the narrator’s voice but, as you point out with the Bilbo example, the characters’ _internal monologue_ can be in their own voices. Internal monologue is treated like dialogue rather than narrative.

      You ask, “Besides industry-related trends, is Omniscient narration falling out of use because there is no definitive consensus as to the different shades of Omniscience?” Industry trends are the main issue. Readers prefer deep viewpoint because it allows them to attach more closely to the characters. With Omniscient viewpoint there is always an intermediary.

      Furthermore, because omniscient has become so rare, some readers don’t know what to do with it when they encounter it. For example, in this New York Times article, a reader questions Ng about her narrator because he didn’t understand: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/books/review/the-return-of-omniscience.html

      Apart from industry trends, I think you are correct—the main reason omniscient viewpoint is out of favor is because not many teachers are providing instruction in it, and they’re not providing instruction because they don’t understand all of its complexities.

  21. Michael Stephensen says:

    Hi KM,

    If I am starting to outline a literary novel containing lots of homage and references to LOTF, would it lose effect if it was not written in Omniscient POV?

    Thanks

    • Michael Stephensen says:

      By the way, I do not need readers to identify with a character as much as usual. Like LOTF it is more of an allegory for problems is America.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would say you could do that in any POV.

  22. Btmansbestfriend says:

    Fine, based on this article (and it is well written and informative) I head hop. However, I am aware that I am relating information from a different character POV and I make sure the reader is absolutely aware of that. The story is told from the POV of the narrator and everything always goes back to that POV. I use a like-deep-POV technique where I sometimes relate the main character’s actions in a way that seems like deep POV, but is from the narrator’s (the book’s defeult) POV and sometimes it’s cut and dry narrative exposition, but I limit that because it is borring and droning sometimes. Anyway, I do like head hopping if done correctly. If it is related in such a way that you are clearly aware the narrator is omniscient and so of course he/she’d know all about everything (although it mauy not be related) then if you’re aware of the head hopping (it’s clearly cued in one form or another) what’s the big deal?

    If the story is set up around an extreme omniscient “the narrator is god so he/she can do what ever they want, including even stop time or shift space by flying the reader over the city to another part of town to watch something else happen then bring them back to finish the scene that is happening at the same time…and whatever other fantastic thing necessary to relate the story’type of story telling technique and it’s clearly done in a “with respect to the reader” type of way then what’s wrong with that as long as it is controlled, properly cued, and with respect to the reader?

    The novel I’ve written, and am now proofreading, is sort of like a movie, except with the added literary techniques of exposition, character internal thoughts, and feelings…which cannot be related in a movie. I want the novel to be basically a movie that is unique to each person who experiences it because they have to imagine it for themselves based on the written words.

    What’s wrong with head hopping as long as it’s not just jumping around with no regard for consistency?

    …and furthermore, would what I describbed above really be head hopping in the first place?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, what you’re describing is head-hopping. The problem with head-hopping is that it demonstrates a lack of control and focus in the narrative. Sometimes the expansiveness it offers readers is worth the risk; however, it often comes across as self-indulgent on the author’s part.

      That said, as with all things in writing, if you can do it in a way that works, that’s all that matters.

  23. John Dawson says:

    In my historical novel I’m writing in multiple third person PVOs, but not hopping PVOs within a chapter, EXCEPT that in many chapters I include a minor section as a narrative from an Omniscient POV.

    Can I get away with this mix?

  24. Thanks for this informative topic, K.M. Weiland. It’s spot-on! I’ve tried writing in the omniscient POV–when I started as a novice–and I admit, I sucked at it. I believe the omniscient POV takes away the element of surprise, leaving readers with no expectancy because the readers will know the thoughts of each character. Omniscient, in a sense, spoils plots. As an author, I want readers to “think” for themselves. I want readers to turn the pages in the novel to “discover” what the characters are thinking, which helps to keep the intimacy. The omniscient POV seems to overshadow the story, which doesn’t help the characters to develop distinct personalities, and, the omniscient POV seems to delineate the characters, keeping the reader from having that pleasure of getting to know the characters for themselves. The narrative voice of the omniscient POV seems to spoon-feed readers instead of allowing readers to delve into the mindset of each character in the novel.

  25. I disagree with your description of omniscient. You certainly can write in omniscient and show a character’s inner thoughts. I spent my entire life reading books and working in book publishing and I often write in omniscient.

    Currently I’m writing short fiction and sending it out to various print and web publishers and I’m learning that younger editors (and their young assistants) are not used to or perhaps do not understand omniscient and/or multiple viewpoints. I’m already old and cranky and this is making me crankier….

  26. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Good points here. Our choice of POV should be totally guided by the experience we’re trying to create for readers. If we’re trying for an immersive experience in which the reader identifies completely with the protagonist, then omniscience probably isn’t going to be the right way to go.

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