Confessions of a Know-It-All

Recently I received a provocative letter from reader Jerry Shankin, on a topic that confuses many:

How can a reader tell the difference between omniscient POV and poorly written multiple third POV? By “poorly written” I mean when an author skips from head to head of her characters in the same scene. I would like to be able to definitely say, “Oh, yes, that’s definitely omniscient,” or, “This is clearly sloppy multiple third.”

A good question! Omniscient, as Mr. Shankin realizes, is much more than simple head-skipping. Here is an example of what he aptly calls “sloppy multiple third”:

The waitress was really pretty, Cal thought. She had gorgeous legs. “A BLT on rye toast,” he told her. She wrote the order down, wishing he would stop leering at her. Some guys had no class.

What is wrong with writing like this? In earlier centuries it was common. But modern fiction has come to prefer viewing the story through one set of eyes at a time, perhaps because that’s how we view the real world—through our own eyes only. Sticking to one POV per scene therefore feels “more real” than jumping patternlessly from one character’s thoughts to another’s.

So why does omniscient POV do it? And how can it be done successfully? Let’s look at some examples.

What is omniscient POV?

Omniscient POV means more than going into multiple characters’ minds per scene. Historically, an omniscient viewpoint means literally that: The author knows everything and tells the audience about it. He interrupts the story to address the reader, offering editorial comments on the action. Here is Thomas Hardy in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, published in 1895. Tess is about to be raped by Alex d’Urberville:

But, some might say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awakened. … As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it.

Clearly these are not Tess’s thoughts (she’s asleep at this point), nor Alex’s, who is interested in neither angels nor pity. They are Hardy’s.

Modern uses of omniscient POV are more subtle, but essentially the same. The author is a definite voice in the novel, giving opinions and comments that are not coming to us through the eyes of any character. Such a technique is no longer common, but when done well, it can add great richness to the story. Readers receive not only the characters’ thoughts, words and actions, but also an uber-view of them, wider than the characters could possibly realize themselves.

Here are quick tips on omniscient POV:

  • Omniscient POV is when the author’s voice gives opinions and comments that do not comefrom any character.
  • Flexibility and richness are two assets of omniscient POV. You can dip into anyone’s mind, contrast opinions and happenings, and introduce information the characters may not realize themselves.
  • If you use omniscient POV, use it throughout. It should contribute to an overall tone or attitude toward your subject matter.
  • Here, for instance, is an excerpt from John Irving’s best seller, A Widow for One Year. We are given a long description of Marion Cole’s beauty as she waits on the dock for Eddie, the teenage boy who will be her husband’s literary assistant for the summer:

    In the summer of 1958, it is just possible that Marion Cole was one of the most beautiful women alive. … The first driver off the ferry was a fool. He was so stunned by the beauty of the woman walking toward him that he turned off the road into the stony sand of the beach; his car would be stuck there for over an hour, but even when he realized his predicament, he couldn’t take his eyes off Marion. He couldn’t help himself. Marion didn’t notice the accident—she just kept walking slowly.

    For the rest of his life, Eddie O’Hare would believe in fate. After all, the second he set foot on shore, there was Marion.

    This excerpt illustrates both facets of omniscient POV. It offers us the author’s evaluations of Marion, of the errant driver and of Eddie’s lifelong belief. It also tells us what’s going on inside the heads of the driver, of Eddie, and (in the paragraphs preceding the ones quoted), of Marion. Irving knows everything, and tells it freely. He is a voice in his own novel.

    What’s lost or gained?

    But doesn’t Irving lose that sense of continuous reality mentioned earlier? If he’s bouncing around among his characters’ thoughts and emotions, and also offering his own, what happens to that ideal of replicating the human norm of seeing reality from only one POV, our own?

    Obviously, Irving has sacrificed it. He’s run another risk, too. One reason omniscient POV has fallen out of widespread fashion is because it tells the reader how to interpret the action. Many readers don’t like being told what to think. (More on this later.) Good writers only accept such losses when they can gain more than they lose. What is gained by an omniscient POV? Two things: flexibility and richness.

    Flexibility comes not just from the freedom to dip into whomever’s mind you choose, but also from the freedom to juxtapose varying outlooks, bits of information and chronological happenings. Nowhere is this more evident than in Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This novel repays close study of its artful use of omniscient POV. Here is Edinburgh schoolteacher Miss Brodie, trying to forcefully mold her young girls. She despairs of Eunice:

    It was intolerable to Miss Brodie that any of her girls should grow up not largely dedicated to some vocation. “You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstophine” she said warningly to Eunice, who was in fact secretly attracted to this idea and who lived in Corstophine. The term was filled with legends of Pavlova and her dedicated habits, her wild fits of temperament and her intolerance of the second-rate. “She screams at the chorus,” said Miss Brodie, “which is permissible in a great artist. She speaks English fluently, her accent is charming. Afterwards she goes home to meditate upon the swans which she keeps on a lake in the grounds.”

    “Sandy,” said Anna Pavlova, “you are the only truly dedicated dancer, next to me. Your dying swan is perfect, such a final, sensitive tap of the claw upon the stage … ”

    “I know it,” said Sandy …

    Note the flexibility of viewpoint here. Miss Brodie’s ambitious thoughts are followed immediately by Eunice’s totally opposite reaction, then by Sandy’s grandiose fantasy version of fulfilling Miss Brodie’s goals. The juxtaposition is hilarious, telling and even a bit sad in these three people’s complete misunderstandings. If Sparks had presented her narrative in more conventional multiple third person, with one scene each for Jean Brodie, Eunice and Sandy, the close juxtapositions that make this passage so funny would have been lost.

    In addition to the flexibility of jumping freely in time, space and character perception, omniscient POV can offer great richness. This is because it can introduce, through editorial comment, information and outlooks that the characters may be too limited to ever realize themselves. Marion Cole does not realize how beautiful she is; John Irving can tell us. This information enriches our understanding of the story’s context.

    There’s a subtle point to be made here. All writers, in all viewpoints, must choose which information and scenes will be presented, and in which order. In that sense, the author is always represented as a point of view in a work of fiction. His hand can always be detected by the discerning. But in multiple third, the author is like a stagehand arranging furniture and bringing the curtain up and down, but not visible himself. In omniscient POV, the author stands on stage, allowing his scene management to be obvious and even speaking some lines himself, ideas the characters would never be aware of.

    How do I make it work?

    To gain the advantages of omniscient POV and minimize the disadvantages, keep four guidelines in mind.

  • Make sure the author’s POV is a point of view. In other words, your use of the omniscient should contribute to some overall tone or attitude toward your subject matter. You can’t just jump around for no reason and stick in any old thoughts you happen to have. The authorial comments and the leaps from character to character should all create a single, strong impression. In A Widow For One Year (as in all Irving’s books), the impression is that, although human beings can be overtaken by the most appalling tragedies, they can eventually triumph through compassion and love.

  • What attitude do you have toward your characters and their story? Is your use of omniscient POV making that attitude clearer?

  • Don’t be too directive. This comes from modern readers’ dislike of being told what to think. Your authorial intrusions and POV juxtapositions should be offered with a light hand. Look again at the Spark excerpt. Jean Brodie’s folly, which looks funny at first, only turns tragic as her story unfolds, and we are never told directly by the author that Miss Brodie has in fact abused her power. Spark comments on the action; she leaves the interpretation of that action to the reader.

  • Be consistent. If you open a story with omniscient POV, you must use it throughout. It is inherently a distancing POV; the author stands a little apart from the action, commenting on it, so we readers of necessity stand there, too. This means that you as the writer must consistently maintain some distance from even your protagonist. Yes, you can go into his mind and heart and show us what’s there, but not too close for too long. Sustained closeness is the prerogative of an intimate third person and, especially, of first person.

    Omniscient POV can be tricky. But when done well, it can also be very satisfying to both writer and reader. Go ahead and try.

    Nancy Kress‘ most recent book is Probability Space (St. Martin’s) which is not written in omniscient POV.

    From the August 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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  • 3 thoughts on “Confessions of a Know-It-All

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