It’s much harder to pull off.
Lots of people will warn you against it.
But if you do it right, it can crack your writing open in the best way.
Omniscient point of view—that godlike narrator who knows it all—is out of fashion. These days, the most common POV in fiction is “third-person close.” That’s where the narration only sees what your main character sees, only knows what she knows, can only speak her feelings.
But an omniscient narrator knows much more than what’s happening in front of and inside the main character. The omniscient narrator knows what all the characters see and feel and know, as well as things none of them know, like what’s past and to come.
People will warn you that omniscient POV is less intimate. Third person allows the reader to slip into a single consciousness, to identify with just that one, and see the others as threats or objects of desire. You know: like you do in your own head every day. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—many, many brilliant books and stories use third person close. It’s also much easier to control than omniscient POV.
But omniscient POV offers other readerly (and writerly) pleasures. Many of the greatest novels ever written move in and out of intimacy with more than one character, so much so that that movement becomes almost a moral, mind-opening act. What are the odds: other people too have feelings and desires and fears.
The catch is that omniscient POV is tricky to do, and easy to get wrong.
Omniscience vs. Head-Hopping
You’ve probably heard about the horrors of head-hopping. That’s when a writer carefully establishes third person close with one character, and then without warning randomly drifts into other people’s heads. This is extremely confusing to the reader—it breaks a sort of pact made in the opening pages. It’s also the kind of amateur mistake that will make agents and editors write you off.
Imagine that you’ve just started a book in which you’ve followed Karen for two or three pages throughout her busy day at the office and into an interview with a job applicant. Here we are on page four:
Karen stifled a yawn as she glanced again at the resume. It was all becoming so tedious, and she had paperwork to finish before lunch. She looked up at Steve, smiling a bright, false smile. Steve wondered if this meant he’d gotten the job.
Screeeeech. What? The reader is immediately disoriented—I thought we were sticking with Karen?
If you’re writing from the first person or third person close POV, the solution is simple: never, ever head-hop. But if you’re writing from an omniscient POV, you may move from one character’s thoughts to another’s. So how do you avoid the kind of head-hopping that’s the mark of a novice writer, one not yet ready for publication? These two rules of thumb are a start:
1) If you’re using an omniscient POV, establish it in the first paragraph or two.
2) Don’t try to give everyone’s thoughts and feelings. Especially in any single scene, stick with just one or two, three at most.
Learn from the Masters
Let’s look at an example of moving from head to head that works. I could have pulled from Dickens, Hemingway, or many others, but the real master of this form is George Eliot. Here’s the end of a brilliant scene from Middlemarch, in which idealistic Dorothea is giving her heart to the (rather tedious and awful) Mr. Casaubon, rather than to Sir James, whom she does not even notice is courting her:
Dorothea colored with pleasure, and looked up gratefully to [Mr. Casaubon]. Here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge, a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!
Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?
“Certainly,” said good Sir James. “Miss Brooke shall not be urged to tell reasons she would rather be silent upon. I am sure her reasons would do her honor.”
He was not in the least jealous of the interest with which Dorothea had looked up at Mr. Casaubon: it never occurred to him that a girl to whom he was meditating an offer of marriage could care for a dried bookworm towards fifty, except, indeed, in a religious sort of way, as for a clergyman of some distinction.
Let’s break down this classic omniscient POV:
- Paragraph 1: Dorothea’s thoughts
- Paragraph 2: Omniscient narrator comments drily on Dorothea’s thoughts
- Paragraph 3: Sir James’ words
- Paragraph 4: Sir James’ thoughts
Advantages of Omniscient POV
The omniscient POV gives you the option of taking some distance on your characters—you can move in and out of their heads, deeply feeling their feelings, and then zooming out to comment on them.
Also, your all-knowing narrator knows things the character does not, and things the reader does not. This gives you, as a writer, tremendous flexibility in dropping hints about backstory or foreshadowing what’s to come.
Here’s an example in which the narrator comments, gives new information, and offers foreshadowing. It’s from my first book, Summer and Bird:
So Bird slept in the forest with the birds that night, only a weak, flickering fire between her and the black cold. Summer slept under the stars, wrapped in Ben’s red sweater. But each of them fell asleep turning over the same questions in her heart: Where is my mother? Where is my father? Where are they, where are they, where are they.
The answer is that they, too, were in Down, but far apart, and far away.
Their father sat in a boat that sat on dry land.
Their mother lay deep in the ground, but alive.
And their father’s heart and their mother’s heart each longed for their girls, just as the girls longed for them. A full house of longing hearts, though a house split open and scattered, far from where it began. But even scattered as they were, the strands of longing from those four hearts met in the sky and twined in harmony, making one sad, silent song.
But another heart, a discordant heart, had thrust among them. This heart had spoiled the family’s music for many years, though they did not know it. And this heart’s ravenous longing sounded not like any music, but like the scream of a cat, or a hawk when it kills. This was the Puppeteer’s heart, and the Puppeteer’s long claw was coming very near one small, cold, sleeping girl.
Using omniscient POV here allowed me to do three things:
- Provide tantalizing bits of information to the reader that the characters themselves do not know (where the mother and father are; that the Puppeteer has been messing with this family for years)
- Show that the two sisters, though far apart and angry with each other, are emotionally in precisely the same place
- Foreshadow that the Puppeteer has her eye on one of the girls.
I could not have done any of that using any other POV.
All About That Voice
For me, as much as a first-person narrator, the omniscience narrator is all about the voice. Who is telling you this story? Why are they choosing certain elements to focus on? What attitude do they have to the characters and the story they are telling? Ironic and distant? Flat and emotionless? Merry and wry? Sad and philosophical? Bitter and snarky? Slightly insane? Trying to scare you, trying to make you cry?
How you answer those questions is how you weave a voice.
Some people talk about narrators that have an “objective perspective.” I say that’s nonsense—there’s no such thing. Your narrator will always have a perspective, a stance— that’s what POV means. Sometimes it may be a quite cold, distant perspective, but that is still a perspective.
Omniscient POV can definitely be a challenge, and it takes even more work in the writing and revising to get it right, compared to other POVs. But just because you’re not George Eliot or William Faulkner, you don’t need to fear it. Explore this technique in a short story, perhaps, and see what it has to offer you.
Katherine Catmull is a novelist, arts writer, playwright, and business and political writer and editor. Her first novel, Summer and Bird (Dutton Juvenile/Penguin), was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She is also a co-author of a collection of scary short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014). Her next book with Dutton comes out in Winter 2016. Katherine has worked as an editor with a whole range of people, from novelists to college students to members of Congress. She spent twenty years in business and politics, working with politicians and CEOs to help them find just the right words to get their message across.
AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Literary fiction, historical fiction, memoir, YA and MG, urban fantasy, magic realism, comic novels, history and criticism, mysteries, narrative non-fiction.
AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, developmental editing, content or line editing, writing coaching for adults, writing tutorials for kids, and first chapter critiques.