Writing Excuses 7.12: Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint

Let’s talk omniscience, because we’re TOTALLY that smart. Specifically, we’re talking about the omniscient viewpoints. This is the POV from which Tolkien wrote, but we see it a lot less often these days. Has it fallen out of fashion, or does it just not work well?

Generally speaking, the omniscient viewpoint is where the narrator can see all of the action, all of the character thoughts, and is not limited to which character we’re following at any given time. We break this down a little, talking about the different types or styles of omniscient POV, discussing the strengths of each, and offering examples from Tolkien, Robert Jordan, Tom Clancy, Terry Pratchett, David Eddings, James P. Hogan, Frank Herbert and others (including some of our own stuff.)

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Writing Prompt: 1) Stick an omniscient narrator scene in between two 3rd-person limited scenes. 2) Have two characters carry on a dialog which is out of sync with what each of them are thinking.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Acacia, by David Anthony Durham, narrated by  Dick Hill

26 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.12: Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint”

  1. Well, I have to say, I find Dune had one of the other fundamental problems with omniscience. I did enjoy the book, but there is so much to keep track of (lots of world-unique terminology, lots of characters, etc) that the chaotic structure of head-hopping omniscience, no matter how well done, is overwhelming. Of course, it doesn’t help that thus far the only time I’ve read it was immediately after reading Mistborn and a few other books that are very strict about keeping to the limited viewpoint, making full-on omniscience painfully abrupt.

    Tolkien, on the other hand, isn’t disorienting because he keeps things simple enough that there isn’t enough to overwhelm. I can’t really credit him with the advantages of using a traditional fantasy setting because he’s the one who set those traditions but…my point is full head-hopping omniscience and an exceedingly rich setting make for a confusing book (plus, in Dune’s case, half the terms aren’t even pronounceable using standard English interpretations of phonics.) If any book deserves a wheel-of-time style glossary, it’s the original Dune books.

    If you want a positive and negative example of straight-narrative omniscient, H.G. Wells The Time Machine and …I forget his name…’s Treasure Island, respectively.

    In The Time Machine, we know the character survives, because according to the story he’s late to a dinner party with his friends due to the imprecision of his time machine (to a day, rather than specific hours in the day), and is telling his friends about his surreal adventure. He arrives greatly disheveled, so clearly something happened – we just don’t know what until it actually happens in his story, despite the blatant form of foreshadowing used (he goes off on a tangent at several points drawing on things he didn’t yet know at that point in the story).

    In Treasure Island, we can’t be sure the character survives indefinitely – indeed, there is a point in the story where Jim loses his status as viewpoint character for several chapters because of some manner of illness or injury (it’s been a while). However, the narrative regarding Jim’s cordial relationship with Long John Silver before he turns pirate reads like testimony before a magistrate. He’s careful to note a number of times how he didn’t know what kind of man Long John was, and is sometimes extremely blatant about it, like saying “this was before I knew about his planned mutiny.” Foreshadowing is one thing, but giving away one of only two noteworthy plot twists in the entire book before you’re a quarter of the way to it is not a good idea.

    (It might be debatable whether these should be called omniscient or not, but in both cases, despite generally following the narrators viewpoint, the discourse often reveals information that the character at that point has no way of knowing.)

  2. I read Acacia, it wasn’t written in 3rd limited, it was written in 3rd omni.

    Also, it wasn’t mentioned in the podcast, but the way I describe 3rd person omni, is that in ninety-nine percent of cases the narrator is not a character in the book.

    I don’t think you could call Dune, head hopping. Its just the narrator showing the thoughts of multiple characters in a scene, and is usually separated by paragraphs.

  3. Sam – that’s what head-hopping is. It’s just not being used as an insult for once.

    The only reason there’s a “head-hopping is bad” rule is because it’s hard to do. Same with second person points of view and the like – a well written second person passage is extremely immersive and engaging….it’s just virtually impossible to actually write one.

    Steven Erikson breaks all the rules about providing exposition in his Malazan Empire series – there is pretty much literally NO explanation whatsoever of anything that a character might actually think of or discuss in real life – heck, there’s a flying mountain that’s only ever described as such (or at all) in the glossary at the end of the book, at least in book one. And yet it works brilliantly.

    Similarly, Frank Herbert breaks the rules about third person perspectives by head-hopping and exposing everything that would normally be held back as a plot twist. And yet, somehow, magically, the result is pure gold.

  4. Long time listener, first time commenter here! Very nice episode. It was good to hear specific examples, which is something that I think you’re lacking on a lot of the time. It’s much more useful to talk about, say, characters doing sumb things when you can point out examples of books doing it well or poorly.

    One note about the Tom Clancy example – a second and a half far overstates the time of that chapter. It’s all of 30 nanoseconds – a “shake” is 10 nanoseconds, coming from the idiom “two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

  5. I was really happy to hear this episode. 3rd Omniscient is one of my favorite view points and I think it gets used a lot more then people realize. (which I suppose is a mark of when it is used well)

    Dune was already mentioned, as was Sense and Sensibility, but Pride and Prejudice is another example. While the narration always takes place relatively near to where Elizabeth is, we often catch the thoughts of Darcy, Miss Bingley, and others.

    A more contemporary example in middle grade fiction is the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage.

    Thanks for another great podcast.

  6. Howard, did you ever remember the name of the James P. Hogan book you referenced? (You described it as being about “an interstellar civilization of machines” and you said that in the first chapter we watch a civilization accidentally get destroyed.)

  7. Okay, I’m late to comment, but I’ve also really enjoyed omni in humorous books where the omni narrator has a strong voice. I’m thinking of John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream, which is probably the most recently-published omni book I’ve read. Plenty of narrator asides about characters and the world.

  8. Thanks for the mention!

    This was a fantastic podcast. I love omniscient. I know it’s out of style, but there’s something great about being able to dive on in to anyone’s mind at any moment – it gives every character a chance to really breathe, I think. Although, conversely, there’s another aspect of true omniscient POV – the hive mind. You can get away with saying things like “everyone in society knew,” which can be a really fun tool, if used correctly (it can also, of course, go horribly horribly wrong). Jane Austen used this constantly. It can be used with a light touch, such as “everyone in town knew of the affair” which almost seems like the POV is a member of the town and is generalizing, but if you get into specifics, such as “Mr. Day’s servants all knew about his affair. They knew he met Mrs. Knight every afternoon at four when his wife thought he was golfing. They met at the boathouse, and her giggles of pleasure could be hear quite clearly from outside. Many times the servants tried to bring Mrs. Day to the boathouse at four in the afternoon, so she might discover the affair herself, but they never succeeded, as Mrs. Day felt that four in the afternoon was far to warm a time to be outside, and could positively never go out before quarter after five.” It sort of makes a group of people into a singular character. It’s very tricky, because of course making a group of people have one mind is pretty offensive, but if done with a certain amount of deftness, can add real humor to a story. I think using that aspect is especially daring, too, for some reason.

  9. Great podcast, full of good examples – not just genre fic.

    Nice timing too, as a member of my writing group is thinking of going down this route.

    I was wondering if you could do a podcast on dealing with multiple time lines. Is this the right place for submitting suggestions? I don’t tweet.

  10. I was surprised to hear Mary and Brandon saying that 3rd Lim. has the option of a “pull back” or whatever you guys called it, where you write something that the character couldn’t see or experience. Mary gave the example, I think, of the character being asleep. I always thought this was a POV error for 3rd limited. Could you explain this a little more?

  11. Just to dumb this down a bit. I think The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky is written in 1st person omniscient. It has the narrator who knows everything after the fact of the action taken place.

  12. Just finished reading the book of the week (Acacia by David Anthony Durham) and wanted to say thanks for the suggestion. This book is really good and written exceptionally well. The premise is also very interesting and I think very unique. Everyone should check this out!

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