January 22, 2013

Will Omniscient POV Ever Be Popular Again?

Close up of a face with text: Writing in Close-Up: Will Omniscient POV Ever Be Popular Again?

My recent post about avoiding “information dumps” prompted a conversation in the comments about omniscient point-of-view (POV) and its use of “telling” rather than “showing.” Serena Yung wanted to know why omniscient POV—and thus, telling rather than showing—are less common now than in the classics.

She’s certainly right about omniscient being uncommon in books now. Omniscient is still used in most Children’s books (up through chapter books) and a few Middle Grade books, but the numbers drop off fast as we age up to Young Adult and Adult. New stories just aren’t being told in an omniscient style except for a few pockets in selected sub-genres.

(And I’d guess the continuing use of omniscient in Children’s books has more to do with the emotional/mental ability of young children to put themselves into another’s shoes than anything to do with popularity.)

Some readers, like Serena, prefer the omniscient/telling style of storytelling. So I think an implied question, related to the one she stated outright, is “Will omniscient POV ever come back in style?”

Storytelling through the Ages

Compared to the breadth of storytelling history, from Ancient Greek theater to oral tradition, stories told in a deep or close POV style are a recent trend. For centuries, dramatic forms kept the audience at a distance.

The closer seats in a theater were the cheap seats (think Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the groundlings vs. the far away box seats for the elite). Even in the more intimate form of oral storytelling, the narrative was often worded as “this cool thing happened to a friend of a friend” or to an ancestor, lessening the immediacy of the experience.

So what changed? Why did we abandon a millennia (or more) of storytelling tradition in the last century?

“I’m Ready for My Close-Up”

For an educated guess, I’d say it began to change with the introduction of movies and their “you are there” immersion into the story. Movies initially started with a single camera capturing the scene like an audience member would see it in a theater. But they quickly evolved to take advantage of multiple cameras and camera angles, which led to close-ups.

The advent of the close-up forever changed the connection the audience formed with the characters. Now the audience didn’t have to guess at how a situation would make someone feel, they could see it for themselves in the tiny emotional cues on the actors’ faces. That intimacy creates a stronger connection, similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy.

How often do we read reviews praising actors for their ability to convey emotions with just their eyes? A flicker, a twitch, a thousand-yard stare. Those details require a movie close-up.

Skim the reviews of character-based dramas versus plot-based action movies. Most movie critics often save their four or five star reviews for dramas while dismissing action movies as three-star fluff. Those who view movies as an art form value character-driven storytelling over plot-driven storytelling.

How the Written Word Handles Close-ups

A similar preference is often found in written word storytelling as well. The bias against genre stories is often really about the incorrect assumption that plot-driven storytelling dominates all genre work. (We’ll leave the argument of just how incorrect that thought is for another post. *smile*)

Regardless, the preference for strong character-driven storytelling remains. How do we elicit a connection to the characters in the written form? How do we force the reader to feel the same visceral reactions as the characters? How do we make the reader identify with the character in every way possible?

The overwhelming answer to all those questions is the same: Use a deeper POV.

By no means is that the only way to create a strong connection to a character. But it is the most common, and many would argue, the most effective method. Deep POV is the written word’s version of the close-up.

A written close-up means using deep POV not omniscient, and similarly, showing and not telling. Those readers looking for an immersive experience want to live as the character. They want to notice problems, think things through, and realize solutions right along with the character.

Deep Point of View Is Here to Stay

So does that mean writers who prefer the omniscient style are out of luck? I don’t know. The publishing industry is so subjective that it’s possible an editor might have a similar preference. But I do think it will be an uphill battle for the author unless they decide to self-publish.

Not all readers enjoy that immersive experience, so there will likely always be some who prefer omniscient, telling-style stories. However, I doubt the pendulum will ever swing back to make distant storytelling more popular. Even if we begin to value plot-driven stories over character-driven stories, our expectations of tension, pacing, and page-turning books are unlikely to chill to such an extent that omniscient would once again be “good enough” to grab our short attention spans.

Personal storytelling is taking over every facet of communication. Even with hard news, people are frequently turning to blogs rather than sticking to mainstream media’s reporting. We want the inside scoop of how the news will affect us, not the just-the-facts write up.

I’d expect that as cameras become both smaller and more durable, televised sports will eventually include close-ups and add more of a storytelling experience. Imagine seeing the expressions the (American) football teams make to each other when at the line of scrimmage.

I’ll never say never, but humans have always thirsted for knowledge, for experiences, for more. Deep POV is simply a method for the written word to deliver a whole lifetime of our characters’ experiences into our readers’ heads. Our storytelling abilities are evolving to match what most people have always wanted, even if they didn’t realize it. Who knows, maybe the next stop will be Matrix-style downloading or Star Trek-style holodecks. *smile*

Do you prefer the omniscient/telling style or the deeper/showing style? What do you think of the theory of movie close-ups changing how we judge storytelling? Do you agree that deep POV is the written word’s version of a close-up? Do you think this need for deeper experiences will eventually make first person POV the preferred default?

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Melinda S. Collins

Hi Jami – Personally, I really dislike the omniscient story-telling style. It’s not personal, it’s not deep, and I honestly get bored reading these types of stories. I just had to read a book for my day job, and while it was great in teaching leadership techniques, it was written in the omniscient/telling style, and it was quite confusing at times because the narrator would tell you what one manager thought, then in the next sentence, what the other manager though (and didn’t tag it as a different character’s thought until the latter portion of the sentence). I do agree that deep POV is the writing version of close-ups. This goes along with how I put a MS together – I think of it as a movie, and I choose to focus on a particular character for each scene by how I would want to see it on the movie screen. And thanks to the movies and how their filming and editing has changed, I totally believe that those techniques have bled into the way we read/write novels. As a reader, I like to envision the novel in my head, much like a movie-version-by-me. 🙂 And because I read this way, I also write that way. I think a lot of writers are like this also…and definitely a lot of readers. Remember how much flak The Hunger Games franchise got when they first casted Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss? Every fan had a certain image of her in their minds, and…  — Read More »

Janet Boyer

I read classics growing up, so I wasn’t aware of the omniscient POV until I got into college and then became a writer. Now that I “know” about it, I can’t bear to read it.

I have to wonder if TV and movies haven’t spoiled us for that “close up”, which is why 1st POV and 3rd close is so popular.

Plus, unless handled by a master writer, omniscient POV becomes garbled head-hopping. It’s aggravating for the reader, for one. But also, attention-challenged modern readers don’t/won’t have the patience to tease out who’s who.

Even WORSE than omniscient is 2nd person POV. To this day, I still can’t believe that THE NIGHT CIRCUS not only got published, but is also a beloved, acclaimed best seller (it’s in 2nd person POV and, in my opinion, poorly written).


How odd…I actually just finished a recently pubbed book (DELICACY) written in omniscient. It read the way some foreign films (usually comedies) are narrated, and since I adore foreign films, I didn’t have a problem with it.

I first heard about the book when I was perusing a table at my local indie bookstore, and saw a picture of Audrey Tautou on the cover. And now I have to wonder if knowing the book IS being made into a lovely little foreign film affected the way I’d perceive the book once I started reading. I felt like I was dipping back into Amelie’s world, and had no problem connecting with the characters because, in a strange way, I felt like I already knew them, even though Natalie (the heroine) was nothing like Amelie, the character everyone most associates with Tautou.

That said, I usually have problems with most books written before 1900, but not because of the omniscient POV that’s so prevalent. It’s because it takes them ten words to say what could be said (in modern language) in four 🙂


I guess it depends on the story for me, but I’ve always liked omniscient (or at least partially omniscient) style, although I suppose it depends upon how the writer handles it. As you said, it’s certainly more common in MG books where you often feel as though you’re being told a story. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine Harry Potter being as good as it was without it having been in the partially omniscient narrator’s point of view. Ditto for Artemis Fowl. During the more emotionally intense parts of the book, both authors did move into a closer POV, but for the most part, the narrator was right there, front and center, describing things not always knowable by the MC. Admittedly, Rowling tried to move away from the narrator and more closely to Harry’s POV as the series progressed, but she still cheated quite a bit, using phrases like “it seemed to Harry that…” whenever she wanted to tell us something that the narrator knew. I’ve often used her books to make the point that if a story is good, no one cares if there’s lots of telling going on. It’s funny, but movies remind me more of omniscient POV than deep POV. You’re never inside the character’s heads in a movie. You’re always sitting off to the side, just like in omniscient POV. Directors often use that fact to show you details that the MC never notices. And while I agree that closeups are the equivalent of deep POV in books,…  — Read More »

Stephanie Scott

I’m not a fan of omniscient POV; I think it would be tough for a new author to get published with that style story unless it was really remarkable. My two cents!

Davonne Burns
Davonne Burns

I grew up reading a wide variety of genre and writing styles. There are many older novels with the omniscient POV that pull it off beautifully with lush descriptions and deep character development.

I like to think of it as the difference between a seven course meal and the simpler, while no less nutritious, meals we eat today. Very few of us have the time to sit down and enjoy a meal that lasts over two hours. If we do, it is a luxury, one that is savored and enjoyed sparingly. The same with a novel from the 1800s. It is something to be lingered over and savored and few of us have the time to do so.

Which brings me to today’s tastes. Our meals today usually consist of the main course and two sides and can easily be eaten in under an hour. They can be every bit as delicious and enjoyable as the seven course meal. They have been pared down to fit into our busier lifestyle. As have our books. Instead of paragraphs (or in some cases, pages) of description of the countryside or what the women were wearing, we get maybe a paragraph or a few sentences.

Either style can be intensely satisfying or not, depending on the writer, just as a good meal depends on the cook/chef.


Omniscient POV and tell-heavy styles are tough to pull off well. For most writers, particularly when new to writing, those styles are tougher to write than limited deep POV or show-heavy styles. A “close” POV that’s more on the “show” end than the “tell” end can help a new writer avoid or hide a lot of common newbie mistakes. So new writers have been told, “Show; don’t tell,” and that omniscient POV is BAD. Problem is, those rules get taught and perpetuated as be-alls, end-alls, like the “No head-hopping”—when head-hopping actually can be done well, in ways that work. Sometimes, it can even be what’s best for the story. But! But due to the way those rules of thumb have been taught as RULES, folks with any type of education about writing believe that things contrary to those rules of thumb are necessarily bad writing, by definition, because they violate those rules of thumb, even if those violations are necessary for the story being told. Frankly, I think self-publishing will ultimately bring a resurgence in those styles, as folks who read the classics and idolize them will be able to be published regardless of what some RULES-educated editor thinks. I admit it—I have some titles that break the RULES. Actually, now that I think of it, most of my titles could be thought to break some RULE. I’ve done second person narrative, passive narrator, insane narrator, head-hopping, partial omniscient, POV changes within a story, two short stories that are 95%…  — Read More »


I like this comment! ” So new writers have been told, “Show; don’t tell,” and that omniscient POV is BAD. Problem is, those rules get taught and perpetuated as be-alls, end-alls, like the “No head-hopping”—when head-hopping actually can be done well, in ways that work. Sometimes, it can even be what’s best for the story. But! But due to the way those rules of thumb have been taught as RULES, folks with any type of education about writing believe that things contrary to those rules of thumb are necessarily bad writing, by definition, because they violate those rules of thumb, even if those violations are necessary for the story being told. Frankly, I think self-publishing will ultimately bring a resurgence in those styles, as folks who read the classics and idolize them will be able to be published regardless of what some RULES-educated editor thinks. ” And I agree wholeheartedly with your point about self-publishing. I am one of those people who idolize the classics (lol) and keep trying to emulate their styles, so I will have to self publish or else never get published at all, lol. Not saying that the omniscient POV will be easy for me, just that self publishing will give me the freedom to try any style I like without the fear of failure. (Even though we would still try our best to make our stories work as effectively as we can.) And personally I think it would be quite boring if we were not…  — Read More »


Thanks for the compliment!

If I may make a suggestion? Focus on writing limited POV until you’re comfortable with how POV works. Then start playing with omniscient. 🙂

It’s like cake decorating. You learn on cupcakes or small cakes, and you get comfortable with that before you attempt a wedding cake. I’m sure some folks can jump right into making wedding cakes, but they aren’t exactly the norm.

Not that I decorate cakes. My mother does. I can look at a cake and know “Oh, that frosting was too soft,” or “Oh, gum paste flowers.” (I like the look of gum paste lilies.) But I’ve never been interested in getting good at cake decorating, myself. I’d rather work on perfecting my recipe for all-purpose cleaner. 😀


Hi Jami! I am reading The Hobbit for my MFA class right now, so its a great review in omniscient POV. Perfectly timely post! 😉

Kassandra Lamb

Couldn’t have said it better, Carradee. When rules of thumb become hard and fast rules, they get in the way. Can’t remember who said it but someone did (Ben Franklin maybe): ‘Know the rules, so you can break them properly.’

I write in multiple POV (which is not the same thing as omniscient, Jami just confirmed to me on Twitter). I don’t feel that I can tell my stories properly without being inside the characters’ heads. But I try hard to only change POV when necessary, and make a smooth transition when I do. The only readers who have ever objected to my POV switches are other writers who’ve been trained to stick to one or two POV’s. My non-writer readers often comment on how smooth my writing is. LOL


Quite right! That quote about rule-breaking applies to grammar, too. 🙂

And correct, omniscient viewpoint ≠ multiple viewpoints. Omniscient reads as if some all-knowing observer is conveying the story, like one of the old ballads wherein the storyteller knew everything about all the characters. Multiple viewpoints just means you’re using different POVs in the selfsame story.

Heather Day Gilbert

Hi Jami, just getting caught up on #mywana posts and stumbled upon this. You highlighted the differences b/t omni and deep POV for me! I write 1st person (which is FAR from omni–you can only see through that character’s eyes!), but I have a friend who writes 3rd person and it FEELS like 1st, b/c I’m so into the MC’s head. I LOVE this style. Yet I still love ye olde classics…but ones that do get sort of into the MC’s heads, like Eliot or Hardy.

Great post!


Yay I got mentioned! XD Oh I just want to clarify that I don’t *really* have a favorite kind of POV. Omniscient, 1st person, 3rd person limited, even 2nd person…I think they all have their strengths so I don’t want myself to develop prejudices against any of them, lol. The reason why I was clamoring for the omniscient, was simply because it was getting so ignored and disliked. If it was the 1st person that was being neglected, I would fight for the 1st person instead, haha. (I have a right mind to fight for the 2nd person too, now to think of it 😉 ) So, in my opinion, the omniscient isn’t really shallower. My impression of this kind of POV is that it has both the 3rd person limited PLUS extra stuff that the characters aren’t aware of. So for example, instead of just seeing how A is thinking and feeling, we get to see inside both A and B’s heads. Thus to me, the omniscient can be seen as even deeper than the 3rd person limited because you get the “insider’s view” of more than one character, so it’s like two or more 3rd person limited POVs combined. 😀 And each time the omniscient dives into a certain character, you can see and feel through his or her perspective just as intimately and insiderly (woo hoo made up words) as a regular 3rd person limited of that character. Actually, I think maybe you were talking about the…  — Read More »

Debra Eve

Fascinating post, Jami. Looks like I’m one of your few readers who enjoys the omniscient POV, but that’s because I love epic historical fiction. A well-done omniscient POV can sweep you away in that genre. Some favorites: James Michener’s The Source, Frank Delaney’s Ireland, Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum. (Rutherfurd can be hit and miss. Sometimes he’s too academic.)

Your point is so true. The story voice IS, in a way, another character and whether we connect to the story depends on if we like that voice.


My theory is that 1st person became popular with the Me Generation–it’s all about me, me, me! Frankly, 1st person POV writing is starting to grate on my nerves. I’m getting bored with the sameness of it. After a while, all the MCs start sounding like, well, me! (Ha!) You know how the publishing industry is–they find a formula that sells and then beat us over the head with it for the next 10 years, afraid of altering the magic. Maybe that is what will eventually swing it around to 3rd again–all this sameness making readers yearn for something “new,” something different. I devour every book that Lincoln & Child puts out, and they are all written in 3rd. I love knowing what is going on behind the scenes of some seemingly insignificant character–what they are thinking, what they are plotting, the secrets they are harboring. Maybe I’m in the minority, but oh well.

Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller

The book I’m working on is in omniscient. I was having trouble with it in third and switched it over, and it fit the story. I’ve found since then it fits me, too. But I got hit with the “Omniscient is bad” rule at one point. I’d submitted a chapter for critique and mentioned it was in omni because, really, I didn’t want everyone to jump on me and accuse me of headhopping out of ignorance of the viewpoint. Instead, ten writers never once critiqued the story; instead, they tried to rule me to death. “You’ll never get published if you write in omniscient,” or my personal favorite, “I’m sure you know your story, but here’s how you’d write it in third.”

I do think it’s more common than people think. It turns up in both Thriller and Sci-Fi. When it’s done really well, it gets mistaken as third; it’s when it’s done badly that it gets a bad rap. I have seen published writers at cons instantly declare, “I hate omniscient” and then later mention a book they enjoyed that was written in it — and have no idea that it was in the viewpoint. I thought it was curious that someone on a writing board thought omniscient had to follow multiple characters. Some of the best, most heart-warming stories I’ve read (and not classics, but modern fiction) have been in omni and followed just one character.

Kim Barton

Perhaps the rise in 1st person POV, especially with YA literature, is that young people tend to be really self-centered. I don’t mean that in a bad way–young people are supposed to be thinking about themselves and figuring out their lives. Reading 1st person books that take them deep into the thought process of another young person can be a way to help them navigate their own lives.

However, I recently taught both Hamlet and Macbeth to a small group of teenagers and found, to my surprise, that most of them liked Macbeth better. Hamlet was too full of angst and Hamlet talking to himself–Macbeth had more action. If written as novels, Hamlet would be a 1st person POV and Macbeth omniscient. The teens liked being in Macbeth’s room and then switching over to the witches. I think they all felt suffocated by Hamlet and his soliloquys.

I’m trying to imagine two of my favorite works, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, written in 1st person. They wouldn’t work. I also love historical fiction, and I think that works much better as omniscient POV as well.

We can’t let the publishing companies determine what kind of POV we write! We should write in whatever POV we prefer and whatever POV the story demands. I truly believe there is a market for both.

Val Muller

Interesting observation about how movies/TV have helped encourage us to enjoy the limited POVs that put us right into the story. As an English teacher, I think you are right: the kids I teach relate more readily to more modern POVs rather than the “old-fashioned” omniscient narration.

It’s also challenging teaching POV to student writers. When I teach essay writing, I tell them, “You must explain everything–TELL the reader what you mean!” And then when I teach creative writing, I tell them the exact opposite: “Give clues, and let the reader figure it out.”

Thanks for sharing!


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Diana Peterfreund

I think narrative trends come and go. Early novelists also used to have to pretend that their books were “discovered” documents or a true thing that had happened to them or a friend or a friend of a friend (see: Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, Herman Melville, Samuel Richardson, Sarah Scott, “captivity” narratives…) because fiction was thought as something rather distasteful… and stuff like that is occasionally still done in modern times (Go Ask Alice by Anonymous), but then James Frey gets in trouble for trying to pull that stunt off. It’s also really dependent on genre. Right now, certain genres really court narrative “tricks” that shake up the trend (like “literary”, magical realism, and SF) while other genres (romance, YA) are much more hidebound in acceptable POVs because there’s an expectation by those readers based on popular books. It wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, there was no expectation that YA would be in first person, so you woudln’t get people upset if it wasn’t. A few decades ago, romance novels would never feature the POV of the hero, whereas now, books that don’t are remarkable (as in, remarked upon) if they don’t give his voice equal weight. But I think all it takes is a very popular book to buck this trend and you will see the path open up. I compare it to a few years ago, when sitcom standard format was shaken up by the “faux reality show” look, and now there’s a good half…  — Read More »

Rachel C. Thompson
Rachel C. Thompson

The news industry isn’t playing into the reader’s preference; it is helping to create it. The dumb-in down of America is in full swing and it is by design. People need the close POV because they aren’t smart enough to understand and enjoy a concept driven story. The masses have been feed weak material so long they can’t deal with deep stuff. This is why idea driven sci- fi has fallen away. Big ideas have given way to small mindedness. How sad for the intellectual growth of our nation. The right is in power for a reason and the nation’s reading habits are indicative of our downward intellectual spiral.

Renee Goudeau
Renee Goudeau

I won’t enter into this discussion in depth but I did want to remind you of two words: Henry James.

That’s where today’s obsession with POV began–not movie close ups.

And I for one don’t like Henry James. For whatever that says about my own writing.

Barry Hoffman

As an author who is just as interested in character development as in plot I can agree with this writer that some of the best books are those that delve in to character; that allows the reader to come to grips with the various characters in the novel. I, for one, spend as much time bringing my villains to life as I do my protagonists, especially in my adult novels. When I visited a school as a guest lecturer to discuss one of my YA novels a student questioned me as to who were the villains in my book. From her perspective there were no villains, just two groups of people wanting a different outcome. The class debated this for the rest of the time I was there. It was a particularly incisive question. With my adult novels some characters turn into villains. Except in one case (a crack baby born without a conscience) none of my antagonists were “born bad.” Their life experiences made them turn into the villains of the book. Some are even sympathetic. As far as I’m concerned we are all shades of gray. Why do some police cross that invisible line and accept bribes or do even worse while others refrain from crossing that line? It’s why it’s important to delve deeply into the main characters (and even some secondary characters) in a novel. I do disagree with the writer about the lack of character development (the close up, he calls them) in action movies.…  — Read More »


[…] Marshall lists 8 reasons she might hate your book, while Jami Gold wonders if omniscient POV  will ever be popular […]


Nice blog. I’m a fan of deeper narratives. But omniscient doesn’t have to tell. There are some great examples of omniscient narratives that provide sumptuous visual and sensory detail. There is also a style (most common in kids’ books and in some classics, like the Hobbit) where the narrator is very present as a distinct voice, almost a character. Like a favorite aunt or uncle sitting by the fire, telling you a tale about people she/he knows quite well. As a reader, you forge a sort of bond with this construct and see things, including the characters, through their eyes. It can work well. But I know some people who prefer omniscient, even objective, narratives. One writer I know has nothing but contempt for stories that put you inside a character’s head and insists his writing teachers always told him to “stay the hell out of your characters’ heads'” because it constitutes the worst kind of telling. He says a good writer can portray emotion in objective or omniscient by showing facial expressions and actions, and if a reader can’t figure out what’s going on inside a character from external showing, the fault is with them. And on another note, nearly every new writer in my fantasy group starts out trying to write omniscient, even though most fantasy novels (even traditional, second world fantasies) are in limited third, or even first these days. Why? Because somewhere along the line they got the idea that writing omniscient is easier, since you…  — Read More »


Very interesting post. I was most taken by this: “Imagine seeing the expressions the (American) football teams make to each other when at the line of scrimmage.” I agree. That would take sports to an entirely different level. And I’d love to see that! It also got me thinking. Because you are equating this with Third Person Limited. But let’s go one step further with this idea — You can’t show every single players face on the field at one time. You have to pick and choose. And that picking and choosing creates a context and its own story. The quarterback sweats. CUT TO: The center yelling obscenities. CUT TO: an opposing lineman’s scowl. This is actually closer to Third Person Omniscient than Third Person Limited. What would the next shot be? Probably the snap? Followed by a wide of the action, the scramble, the pass — then CUT TO: Receiver’s face — THEN maybe a mid of a safety sweeping across the field. BACK TO: The receiver and the catch/or tackle. Here’s my thought(s) on Third Person Omniscient (TPO for short. Tired of writing it long hand all the time lol). What makes TPO troublesome is that it can be truly terrible. Imagine trying to tell the story and broadcast the thoughts of each and every player on the field before each and every play — hell, you could do it every huddle, every play, every… you get the idea. It would be a mess. That’s TPO’s real problem.…  — Read More »


It’s called story TELLING, not story SHOWING. Whoever decided that omnicient POV is bad has done a great disservice to authors. Omnicient is actually the hardest to pull off, and conveys the most information. Relegating a book to only one or two POVs really limits what the reader can learn, and to me, it’s lopsided. Personally I don’t care what the main character smells or tastes. I want to read a STORY. That means I want to know it from all sides, not just the POV of one or two characters.

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