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You’re Such a Know-It-All: Things to consider when writing in third-person omniscient point of view

One of the first things you have to decide when you sit down to write a book is what point of view you’re going to use. The first choice you have to make is whether to write from a first-person point of view (using the pronouns I and me) or a third-person point of view (using the pronouns he, she, they). If you decide a third-person narrative is the way to go, you still have another decision to make. Are you going to write from the point of view of your protagonist (and perhaps some other characters in your book) or the point of view of an omniscient narrator? An omniscient narrator is one who is outside of the action of your story. They know all and can tell readers things the characters themselves don’t know. They have access to what every character is thinking and feeling and are privy to events taking place away from the story’s action.

An omniscient narrator gives an author some freedom because they aren’t tied to sharing only what the point-of-view character in a particular scene knows and sees. This is particularly useful in sweeping stories with numerous characters, locations, and time frames. But an omniscient narrator can be hard to pull off. Not only does it create more distance between the reader and the characters of your story, but there are common mistakes that authors make when attempting to write from an omniscient narrator’s point of view. Let’s look at some important things to remember when writing from this point of view.

The narrator must have a “voice” worth listening to: If readers are going to get pulled into your book, the voice telling the story must interest them enough to make them want to keep “listening” to it. This is harder to do with an omniscient narrator than a narrator who is a character in the book because an omniscient narrator isn’t as well defined. We don’t dive into their personality the way we do your protagonist, and we don’t see them in action. They are frequently a disembodied voice relating the story, and it can be hard to figure out how to make a disembodied voice “pop.” If you use an omniscient narrator, make sure the storytelling voice isn’t bland. This doesn’t mean your narrator has to have a quirky or “loud” voice. An omniscient narrator can be quiet; just make sure quiet doesn’t mean boring.

Narration can’t dive into the voice of your characters: When I edit books purportedly written from the omniscient point of view, I frequently find the narration slipping into the voice of the characters. The author thinks they are writing from an omniscient point of view, but they are really head-hopping in a limited point of view. Head-hopping is when we see things through the perspective of more than one character within a scene. But didn’t I already say that an omniscient narrator can see and know all, including what every character is feeling and thinking? Yes. And if this peek into several heads is done from the perspective of the narrator, in the voice of the narrator, it can be okay. But if you are slipping into the perspective of the characters, this hop from one head to another can be jarring. To make this clearer, let’s look at a few lines told from both an omniscient point of view and a hop between two third-person limited points of view:

Omniscient narrator: Jason glared at Stuart, growing angrier by the moment. He couldn’t understand how Stuart had allowed this to happen. Stuart glared back, just as mad. Jason blamed him, and he wasn’t going to take that lying down.

Head-hopping: Jason glared at Stuart, growing angrier by the moment. What in the hell had Stuart been thinking? This was ridiculous. Stuart glared back, just as mad. No way in hell was he going to let this bozo put the blame on him.

Do you see the difference? In the first example, the narrator maintains his own voice, telling readers what each character is thinking and feeling without losing himself. In the second example, we slip into the voice and perspective of the characters. It isn’t the narrator who thinks this is ridiculous, it’s Jason. And it isn’t the narrator who thinks Jason is a bozo, it’s Stuart. It can be a subtle difference, which is why it’s hard to get right. Just make sure your omniscient narrator sounds like himself, not like the characters whose story he is telling.

Just because you can tell us everything doesn’t mean you should: Because an omniscient narrator knows all, it can be tempting to dump all of that info onto a reader. But even if you maintain the voice of your narrator, frequent jumps into the perspectives of numerous characters can still give readers whiplash. And though your narrator might know what’s going on everywhere, readers might not need that information to understand what’s happening in your story. Your narrator can tell readers anything, but you still have to decide what readers need to know. You still have to control the flow of information and the movement between perspectives. Don’t be seduced by the power of the omniscient narrator and relinquish control of the narrative.

Omniscient narration can be the right choice for certain stories. It can free an author to give readers information they wouldn’t have access to with a tighter point of view. If you think it is right for your story, be aware of the common pitfalls of using this point of view and work to avoid them. Happy writing!

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