I’ve resisted writing about point of view because it’s been done so often. It seems like every writing book I own has a chapter on the subject. The problem is, few of these have much to say about the omniscient voice. Around the web, too often I’m finding misinformation on the subject. It seems some writers equate this legitimate point of view with poor technique often referred to as “head hopping.”
Please help me get the word out: the omniscient point of view is not the same as head hopping. It is true that the omniscient voice has been in disfavor with contemporary writers. Hence writing instructors more often than not warn new writers away from exploring what actually is a more complex option than the others.
First a quick — very quick — point of view (POV) summary.
• First person POV – I tell the story.
• Second person POV – you tell the story.
• Third person POV – he or she (or it) tells the story.
Where is omniscient in that? It’s an option of the third person POV.
The he, she, or it telling the story can be one or more of the protagonists. The story, then, is told from the limited view of one character or several at a time. The latter is called multiple third person POV.
The omniscient storyteller, however, is not limited. This is not to suggest, however, that the omniscient POV must have a god-like narrator. That’s only one kind of omniscient POV story.
It’s a good one, too. Many of the stories I grew up with had that kind of narrator. It’s the type of story that starts with something like, “Come gather around, children, and let me tell you a story.”
There might even be narrator intrusions from time to time, such as, “Now those of you who are afraid of the dark should not read this next part late at night, or when you’re home alone.” In other words, at certain points in the story, the narrator talks directly to the reader.
Throughout the rest of the story, the narrator manages the information, internal and external, from his own perspective. When he says the obnoxious little boy, the reader understands this is how the narrator views the character, and the narrator is right.
The movie The Princess Bride employed the omniscient narrator in the fantasy part of the story — the grandfather who was reading the story taking that role.
C. S. Lewis used the omniscient narrator in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here’s one example:
“We met one another in there, in the wood. Go on, Edmund; tell them all about it.”
“What’s all this about, Ed?” said Peter.
And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn’t made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down. (Emphasis added)
Notice how the narrator includes himself by using the pronoun “we.” The entire third paragraph tells his impressions and opinions, but the reader is confident he is right about what he’s saying.
There are other kinds of omniscient POV stories however. One of the characters in the story may be telling it after the fact. He’s lived the events and is looking back. Because of hindsight, then, he knows what the other characters did even though he may not have been present during the action. He even can know their motives and can speculate on what might have changed if this or that had been different.
A third kind of omniscience is more distant. It’s a camera-eye view that gives a more objective report of the events without tapping into the characters’ thoughts.
A fourth type is focused omniscience. The omniscient voice describes things the character couldn’t see or know — what’s happening behind him, for instance — but does so only for the focus character and no one else.
No writer should decide on omniscient voice because it is easy. In reality, it’s quite demanding. It allows for description the narrator wishes to make and is not limited by the character’s voice or opinion. But it must be consistent throughout the story. Because it doesn’t allow the reader the intimacy with the characters that first or limited third allows, the narrator descriptions carry more weight. That can be a challenge — one some writers relish. Others — not so much.
See also “Then What Is Head-Hopping?”