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Writing Excuses 7.12: Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint

Writing Excuses 7.12: Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint


Key Points: Omniscient viewpoint, with a narrator who can see all the action and knows all the thoughts of the characters, is hard to get right, compared to limited and first-person. Readers don't expect it. Cinematic omniscient, or third person cinematic, uses a camera as a narrator. Another type is the storyteller, with someone telling you this story. This lets the narrator talk to the reader, while not necessarily letting the characters know. It's a good way to condense information. Another type is the occasional zoom-out, such as establishing shots. There is a distinction between narrators with a strong voice and neutral omniscient narrators. When writing omniscient, be careful of the temptation to indulge in world builders' infodumping. The main advantage of occasional zoom-outs is that you don't always have to have a character see everything. The final type of omniscient is pure omniscient, which may lead to head hopping if done wrong. It must be very clear who is thinking what, but this can be very strong. This kind of omniscient lets you dig deeply into several characters and cover a lot of information in a single scene.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 12, Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint.
[Mary] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Howard] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] We're excusing Dan, who is helping his child who got wounded, in fighting ninjas, I believe it was?
[Mary] Karate!
[Brandon] Karate. So I guess it wasn't ninjas... Well, it could have been ninjas. I mean, he could have been defending...
[Howard] He's taking him to one of those fancy American institutions of magical healing to get a cheeseburger.

[Brandon] Right, right. So. Omniscient viewpoint. This is, I think, the hardest viewpoint to write of the base three. Now, of course, second person is probably going to be technically harder. You should not be writing second person unless you're writing something very specialized. So compared to... I think, personally, I think, limited and first person, omniscient is harder to get right.
[Mary] I think a lot of that is because it's out of fashion right now, so people are out of the habit of reading it. Which means that you have to work harder to tell them that that's what you're doing.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's part of it. I also think that omniscient... This is personal philosophy on my part. I think that as fiction has grown and progressed... Fiction is actually relatively new. At least prose fiction. As we've gotten used to it, we've found that certain types of storytelling... The limited can be more powerful for certain things that people are trying to do. When in the past, they would just use omniscient for everything. Omniscient certainly is more powerful for certain types of storytelling. But as we've gained more tools, we've found that the types of stories we want to tell often fit better in limited. Because of this, omniscient... Actually, in the past, even when people were used to it, was sometimes used clunkily for the wrong type of story. So if people have read a lot of those stories, then they come and now write their own omniscient imitating that... They can be doing it accurately, but it's still not appropriate.

[Howard] Do we need to give like a little bit of a definition?
[Brandon] Yeah, I think we can.
[Howard] I remember when we first talked viewpoint in 2008, I did not understand what these were. So omniscient is where the narrator can see all the action and know the thoughts of the characters who are performing the action, and isn't restricted to a particular character's point of view. Anytime we say limited, like third person limited or first-person limited, we are limiting ourselves to one person's point of view.
[Brandon] Yep. Exactly.
[Howard] Omniscient just doesn't suffer from those limits.

[Brandon] Now, I'm going to actually break omniscient into several types of omniscient. Which, if you're going to write omniscient, you should probably be considering what type. Because Howard writes in a certain type of omniscient which Orson Scott Card has named the cinematic. What is the cinematic omniscient?
[Howard] Cinematic is a... I actually consider it a limited viewpoint, but it is limited to the camera who is usually not one of the characters. Yet sometimes the camera will adopt the point of view of one of the characters, so we can see something "through their eyes." Like, for instance, when you're looking through binoculars. Suddenly you go from a camera POV to an eyeball POV. Yet there are things... Because of the nature of the story I'm telling... I've moved away from using thought bubbles. So even though I can tell you what a character is thinking, I try not to, because I feel like that sours the story.
[Brandon] I think Scott Card would not like this called an omniscient. I think he does call it third person cinematic, is how he defines it. So that's one thing. But that's...
[Howard] But the moment I use a thought bubble, I'm not cinematic. Because in cinema... In Blade Runner, which is cinematic, when Decker is talking and narrating the story, it's now... It's definitely third person with a fallible narrator.
[Brandon] But you can show the thoughts of many different characters in a given scene if you want to, and I think you have before.
[Howard] I have.
[Brandon] You also have the narrator who knows all, and sees all, that occasionally pops in and gives extra information. I'm still...
[Howard] The narrator is definitely in an omniscient...

[Brandon] Yup. So what you're doing... But let's break this down. One base type of omniscient that you can do is the storyteller. Someone is telling you a story, and the storyteller has all the information. You get a sense that there is some person out there doing this to you. This usually has a conversational tone. Often, the storyteller will use the "I" "I don't know..." Or "you." They'll address you. "You wouldn't know this, but..."
[Mary] Taleswapper, the narrator of Seventh Son, by Orson Scott Card is a fine example of the present narrator.
[Brandon] Actually, the Hobbit, I'm pretty sure, is in this...
[Mary, Howard] The Hobbit, yes.
[Mary] Yeah, The Hobbit is exactly...
[Brandon] The narrator in The Hobbit is not very present, but you can tell from the...

[Brandon] So let's talk about this one first. What... Why would you use this type of omniscient?
[Mary] Well, one thing it allows you to do is to do a direct address to the reader. That can often, although not always, but that can often pull the reader in in different ways. By making them feel invested. Which is actually part of the reason that first-person... It's a tool that first-person can also use.
[Brandon] It gives you a little bit of a first-person flavor for a third person story.
[Mary] It also allows you to talk about things that it would be useful for the reader to know, but that you don't necessarily want the character to know. It gives you a way to comment on them. I use... Technically, Shades of Milk and Honey, I'm doing that so that I can use direct address and so that I can, in brief moments, step back and comment on my characters.
[Brandon] Well, one of the big strengths of first-person that third person doesn't have is this way to infodump through a direct address where you can add just a little bit of a flavor, or sometimes in first-person a strong flavor of character, to the infodump in a way that makes it very interesting. The Alcatraz books, if you've read mine, I use a very present narrator to allow me to infodump and crack jokes in these big narrative blocks.
[Howard] Yeah. It's interesting because in Alcatraz, what you've got is after a fashion an omniscient narrator because he's been through all this, but he's omniscient and unreliable because he's lying to us about things.
[Brandon] Right. Really, Alcatraz is first-person omniscient. It's a first-person telling a story where he knows all the information after the fact, and is now telling it to you, while the actual things that are happening are happening in first-person limited. So we're moving between first person limited, Alcatraz's viewpoint, and first-person omniscient. It makes for a really screwy viewpoint, but it allows him to do some of these things with omniscient. It can be a wonderful way to get across some information.

[Mary] Yeah. It's also a good way for... Because you can get across information, it's a good way to condense things as well. Since we're talking about... We were talking about cinematic, an example that you guys can actually read is Report from the near Future: Crystallization by David Gerrold. That's in the Elemental Tsunami Relief Anthology. This is a short story that's basically about the highways in Los Angeles becoming hopelessly clogged. There are no named characters in this story. But it's incredibly compelling. It is the kind of topic that you would not be able to tackle in short fiction... The breadth of the story. You wouldn't be able to tackle it in short fiction, if you were trying to write in third person.
[Brandon] I would suggest a story called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin as another really good example of this type of story, because there are very distinct types of omniscient. We're going to talk about others. These both will give you a feel for what we're talking about.
[Howard] In Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears, there is a chapter called Three Shakes in which an omniscient narrator describes to us the first, I think, second and a half following the detonation of a low yield nuclear weapon. It's not one of the characters' POVs, obviously. Nobody could have observed this. It's a fascinating read. It's incredibly gripping because it takes place in the middle of a story that is POV driven, and now the narrator has to come in and tell us...
[Brandon] I think that may actually be the second type of omniscient I'm going to talk about. Because...
[Howard] Oh, well...
[Brandon] We'll get to that in a minute. I think it might actually... But you can tell me when we get to it. But I actually want to stop us for our book of the week, first.

[Mary] Yes. Book of the week is Acacia by David Anthony Durham. This is sweeping epic fantasy. Secondary world. It deals with all kinds of really interesting issues. I highly recommend this. It's the first book in a trilogy. Very, very much recommended.
[Brandon] Now, it's not omniscient. We just wanted to promo it because we like the book and we like him. But we highly recommend it.
[Mary] Actually, there are places where he uses omniscient as a tool, but it is definitely... It's written in third person.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. Howard, how can they get this? Oh, Howard just [garbled]
[Howard] Head on out... I popped in a cough drop so that I don't make horrible noises into the microphone.
[Brandon] You always make horrible... Nevermind.
[Howard] So. But this next horrible noise... Head on out to download a copy of... I'm sorry, what was the name of the book again?
[Mary] Acacia.
[Howard] Acacia?
[Mary] A-C-A-C-I-A.
[Howard] Acacia by...
[Mary] David Anthony Durham.
[Howard] David Anthony Durham. No, I really was paying attention as I was searching around for that cough drop.
[Mary] No. No, that's fine.
[Howard] You can start a 14 day free trial and get a copy of Acacia by David Anthony Durham for free and help support Writing Excuses.

[Brandon] Okay. So I would... These are my Brandon armchair splitting. So there are going to be things that blend between these. But I would call a second type of omniscient the occasional zoom-out omniscient. This is the omniscient... For instance, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, the first paragraph of every book is in omniscient. It's a zoom-out, you see the big land, then you kind of zoom in to a character viewpoint and you stay limited there basically for the rest of the book.
[Howard] It's an establishing shot.
[Brandon] It's establishing shot. There are some writers, however, that use these very frequently. They'll pull out and show an establishing shot. You get a viewpoint from an eagle flying overhead. Then... Or you get a viewpoint... For instance, of an explosion that no one can see. You don't feel like there's a present narrator, necessarily. Maybe there is in The Sum of All Fears, it's been a long time since I read it. But it's the sort of book where you jump out to an omniscient for a few minutes to give an establishing shot or to give some sort of information and then zoom in to a character viewpoint.
[Howard] Terry Pratchett does this with his footnotes.
[Brandon] Oh, yes.
[Mary] Oh, yeah, yeah.
[Brandon] No, he does this in actual scenes, too.
[Howard] He does this in scenes, yeah, but every time there's a footnote, you are going and reading the footnote and you are being knocked into omniscient. This is something that's outside the POV of the character whose POV you were in.
[Brandon] Yup. He does this actually quite a lot. He does it very effectively. You'll sometimes have a scene that'll zoom out. Or he'll sometimes start a book zoomed out.
[Mary] Yeah. I think Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass fall into that category more. There's a scene in Glamour in Glass... Which is predominantly in Jane's POV, and there's a scene where she's unconscious, so I zoomed out.

[Brandon] Yup. The reason I'm making a distinction here is because I view a big distinction between having a narrator that you feel... Someone that has their own voice that is addressing the reader and a sterile sort of omniscient where you're not trying to distract people and create a narrative voice for a narrator. Instead you're trying to give establishing shots.
[Mary] Yeah. This is why this is all fuzzy, because I could actually fit into either of those.
[Brandon] Yup. The reason I bring these and make these divisions is, I think as a writer, listeners, these are different tools you can use for different things. A lot of new writers come in and just start writing omniscient. They don't know. They haven't thought about this. They don't know the advantages of limited. By the way, we did a podcast on third person limited which I think you will find very helpful. It's a few years old now, but it's got some really great info. If you really want to write omniscient, there are things it can add. But you need to know what these are.

[Howard] One of the things... The pitfalls, I think, of the new writer immediately writing omniscient is that it lends itself very well to the enthusiastic world builder's info dump.
[Brandon] Yes, it does.
[Howard] Oh, I can just... I can give you all this information that's really cool that I wrote in my little wiki. Then when that writer is told, "Oh, you know what, you really should be in third person limited," they will force themselves into maid-and-butlering some of that info dumping. I think the rule of thumb is "Don't Info Dump," whether you're in omniscient or anything else.
[Brandon] Well, yeah, that's the rule of thumb, but it's the rule of thumb... Everybody has to info dump.
[Howard] At some point, yes.
[Brandon] You can have a rule that says don't info dump...
[Mary] But it some point...
[Brandon] At some point, you're going to. But... Yes, this is really good advice. What you just described is what I like to call the David Edding syndrome. He began most of his books with an omniscient world building chapter, a prologue that says, "The gods once did this..." Fantasy was very new back then, it was effective for him. They're still the most boring chapters in his books. But it gave a sense of... A feeling of scope. Now people keep wanting to do that, where I think the genre has progressed beyond having to do that.
[Howard] James P. Hogan introduced us to an interstellar situation... Or interstellar civilization of machines, and I can't remember the name of the book, but the first chapter was just like this, was omniscient as we watch a civilization accidentally get destroyed.

[Brandon] Yup. That's a great reason to do it. Let's quickly get in... What are you... Advantages are you getting from this type of omniscient?
[Howard] You don't have to put a character where they can see everything.
[Brandon] Yes. Basically, this type of omniscient, I've seen used most effectively in the... That's where you go in to omniscient. Only when there's not a character who could see it, you lapse into omniscient and give some information.
[Mary] Also, even if there is a character who could see it, if it's the only time you're going into that character's POV, that is going to be more jarring than stepping into omniscient. It's the most...
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah. It can be.
[Mary] Because as soon as you go into a character's POV, you give them a weight and an importance. If you're going to do that, and then not use them...
[Brandon] I just love to do that, though. I love to jump into a viewpoint and then kill them. But...
[Mary] If you do that with a lot of characters, it's different. It's when you do it with only one...
[Brandon] Oh, yes. If you have a primary single viewpoint protagonist for a book... This could actually be a really good tool to you, to say I'm going to balance this with an omniscient. An omniscient and a single character. Rather than using a single character and a cast of another 15 characters we only see once. The omniscient would be a really great tool.

[Brandon] Now there is one other major type of omniscient that I really think we need to get to. Was there something you...
[Mary] I want to talk about head hopping before we finish [garbled]
[Brandon] Okay. That's the last one. The last, and this is the hardest to do, but it is brilliant when it works. This is the Dune style. True, power omniscient, which is where you come in and say, "I'm going to withhold no information from the reader. I am going to show everyone's thoughts. I am going to head hop." So in a given paragraph, you are limited. That's it. Next paragraph could be another character's viewpoint and thoughts, and jumping from person to person to person in a given scene.
[Mary] Well, you can actually do this within a given paragraph, but you have to... This is why it's so hard, and why it is... Head hopping is generally considered a flaw, because most people don't do it right. You have to sign post really clearly whose thoughts you are in. When it is done wrong, you... What happens is someone will have a thought, but it is not clear to which character it could belong. That's when people talk about head hopping. Because you get a little bit of whiplash. Jane Austen does this beautiful thing in Sense and Sensibility where she's giving you the thoughts of two characters who are in conversation and they both think they are talking about something different. It goes back and forth, like on a line by line basis, but she's very clear. There is never any doubt about whose internal thoughts you're getting.
[Brandon] I think how Dune does it... I'd have to go back and look specifically. I think that anytime it is thoughts... He doesn't do the... There's two ways to do thoughts. You italicize it and say he thought or she thought. Or you just kind of say Mary thought that... I think he stays away from the second and always puts the thoughts in italics, which is why in the movie, they did the voiceovers, with so many thoughts. Because they were like, "How can we convey all of this?" So you have all these random thoughts of people thinking in their heads. That's why.
[Mary] There is a third type of conveying thoughts, which is to not put in the Mary thought, but just put the thought without italics.
[Brandon] No, no, you're right. There is a third way.
[Howard] Deep penetration.
[Mary] That's the one that I see people using in head hopping, that is just crazy making.
[Brandon] That's wrong. It's just... It leaves you disoriented.

[Brandon] Why would you do this, then?
[Mary] Well, because it does allow you to get deeper into a number of different characters. It allows you to cover a lot more ground. Particularly if you've got a scene that's really complex, like in Dune where there's a lot of different things going on. If you didn't do that, you would have the one scene where you're in one character's point of view and you get all of this political intrigue. Then you would have to duplicate that scene, all of that information...
[Brandon] From someone else.
[Mary] Someone else's point of view.
[Howard] I think the Jane Austen example is probably best... Probably best distills the use. These two people are having a conversation, and are completely misunderstanding each other, and here's why. You give them...
[Brandon] Well, one of the reasons that this actually works so effectively and people do it, I think, is because it encourages the writer... The writer has to be really good, but it encourages them to avoid things like idiot plotting. Because it encourages them to avoid making these big mysteries that they can't fulfill...
[Howard] I'm not allowed to hide things.
[Brandon] Because both Jane Austen and Dune, what they will do is they'll give you up front all the information. The tension comes between you saying, "Oh, no, I see how they're misunderstanding each other" and... It's believable. Or in Dune, you say, "Oh, no, I see that this guy is a traitor from chapter 1. What's going to happen?" That's a much harder way to plot, then to just say, "Oo, who is the traitor?" Which is a fun way to do it, but it's a little bit easier.
[Mary] Yeah. It's much harder to maintain tension.

[Brandon] Man. Dan goes away, and we go 20 minutes on our podcast. What's up with that? We're going to... He's going to... Nobody tell him, okay? Don't tell Dan that we went so long.
[Mary] No.
[Howard] Shhh!
[Mary] Can I mention two recent books that are written in omniscient?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] Because it is out of fashion. So, Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. When I picked it up, I kept having this reaction of having difficulty getting into it because I was so out of the habit of reading omniscient, even though it is perfectly played omniscient. Then, All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen is a very recent book, just came out. This is again in omniscient. It is written in omniscient because it is Victorian. He's going for the flavor.
[Brandon] Okay. Right. He wants...
[Mary] But the way the book is written, there is no other possible voice it could be in.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] Gail Carriger's Soulless is also omniscient. I was three pages in and I thought, "Oh, no, that's a POV error. That's awful. That's... And there's another POV error. There's another... Oh, wait..."
[Brandon] We're on omniscient.
[Howard] I started back at the beginning and realized, "Oh, I'm in omniscient." Once I made that switch, the book was wonderful.
[Mary] In Lev's All Men of Genius, he signals very clearly right up front. There's absolutely no doubt when you get into the book. It starts omniscient and stays there.
[Brandon] I tell my students in class just don't write omniscient until you've written... But you listeners are probably on a higher level than most of my intro students. You've now listened to this podcast. Go ahead and try it out. Honestly. It's another tool in your toolbox. It's not one that should be forbidden. It shouldn't be forbidden. It's just forbidden to people who don't know the difference. So...
[Howard] So we want to give a couple of writing prompts?

[Brandon] Yeah. Give them writing prompts.
[Howard] Okay. I'm actually going to give two. Writing prompt number one. Stick a scene in between two third person limited scenes, where an omniscient narrator delivers information that isn't available to any of your POV characters. The second writing prompt is pull off this Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility thing. Have two characters carrying on a dialogue in which what is being communicated with the words is out of sync with what each of the characters is thinking.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent. You are out of excuses. Thanks for listening. Now go write.
Tags: cinematic, establishing shots, head hopping, infodump, narrator, omniscient, storyteller, thoughts, viewpoint, world builder's disease
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