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?Pin It
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 »
Yes, I also picture a story playing out in my head as a movie while I write (and read). If I didn’t have those images, the story would be less exciting for me to write. 🙂
Great point about Deep 3rd POV vs. 1st POV. Deep 3rd POV does provide more versatility. Alicia Rasley talks about how we can vary the depth of the 3rd person in her book The Power of Point of View. When we’re giving descriptions or doing straight narrative, a shallower 3rd might make sense, but that’s hard to do in 1st. Thanks for the great comment!
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).
So true! I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen head-hopping defended as omniscient. *sigh* That’s what I wrote about in that old post I mentioned at the top of this one.
Really? I’ve heard of Night Circus and I had no idea that was second person. Ugh. I have yet to read anything in that style that didn’t drive me nuts and strike me as an overly-writerly affectation. Thanks for the heads up and the comment! 🙂
Can I take that bet and e-mail you a short story? >:D
LOL! How short is short? 🙂
About 2k words? A little less, I think.
Okay, I could probably handle 2K without wanting to tear my hair out. 🙂
I haven’t read The Night Circus, but let’s not make too many stark statements about POV, in general. I didn’t know when I first read it, but isn’t “The Tale of Despereaux” in 2nd person? I never found that jarring to read, and since it was evoking a fairy tale feel (Lots of the old fairy tales are written in 2nd person, BTW), that worked to the book’s benefit, in my opinion. I’m just saying, it can work, it just depends on the book, and the writer’s ability, not just reader preference. Speaking of reader preference, the reason I love historical fiction as a reader is also what turns me off as a writer, and that’s successfully weaving in the facts, events, and social norms of the time with the fictional character’s story. As a writer, for me personally, that’s NOT as easy to access as it is for me as reader. As far as readers preferring 1st person over 3rd, as writers we need to remember that we shouldn’t let common practice overly dictate what we feel the story we’re writing needs. While lots of YA books seemed to be in love with first person, there are plenty of books that still use third person, especially when you need to move from one character to another. This is part of why I feel conflicted with many classics of literature, not just because of attention span, I just can’t read it as straightforwardly, which is not to be confused with… — Read More »
Hi Taurean, You’re certainly right about all POVs having their pros and cons. 🙂 However, The Tale of Desperaux is 3rd person omniscient from what I can see in the Kindle sample, just as the old fairy tales are typically in 3rd person omniscient. Similarly, other than the 8th paragraph or so of the introduction, The Night Circus‘s Kindle Look Inside sample is actually omniscient as well. Interesting. Everything else is omniscient, but that one paragraph is clearly 2nd person: “You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.” I wonder if 2nd person returns again later in the book, or if that one 2nd person section is all there is? As I mentioned to Serena, it is interesting to see the different approaches authors can take. Especially when they work. 🙂 I can definitely relate to the difference between enjoying certain stories as a reader versus as a writer. I write paranormal romance typically, but I love to read historical romance. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t write a historical romance to save my life. LOL! (Actually, I have an idea for one that I hope to never have the burning urge to write. 🙂 ) And I know plenty of readers who… — Read More »
Well, I thought Despereaux was 2nd person since that POV addresses the reader at points, that was the only book I’d read that wasn’t in 1st person POV that addressed the reader in a similar manner.
The only 3rd person omniscient narrator I can think of is from A series of unfortunate events, and while I’ve never read the whole series, I’ve read bits of the first one (Not my usual reading when it first came out) but that was clearly omniscient.
How do you tell the difference between omniscient 3rd and the 2nd person POV?
Hi Taurean, Ah, yes, that’s a 3rd person style that breaks the fourth wall (as they say in TV land) of addressing the audience. The technical term is apostrophizing, where the narrator wants to include the reader. I think the Narnia books might have some of those “dear reader” passages as well. 2nd person means that “you” are the protagonist/main character. All references to the protagonist/main character use the 2nd person pronoun of “you.” That’s why it’s so disconcerting to many readers–it’s all “you did this” and “you did that”–especially when the “you” character does things repellent to you as a reader (Book: “You slide the knife into his chest, enjoying the slippery blood ooze down your arm.” Reader: “Ack! No, I don’t!” *slams book closed* 🙂 ). The common example for a 2nd person POV story is Bright Lights, Big City (click on the link to see the Kindle sample so you’ll know how it differs from a “dear reader” passage). The first few lines: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.” I can’t emphasize enough how helpful I found Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View to understanding all the pros, cons, and differences between POVs. Maybe see if your library… — Read More »
The Night Circus regularly returns to that second person “you enter the circus…” style.
Interesting! That makes it seem doubly odd that I hadn’t heard about the narrative style or POV in all the hoopla about the book, as 2nd person is unusual enough, much less switching back and forth like that. Good to know. Thanks for the clarification! 🙂
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 🙂
LOL! Great point about how older books can be wordy compared to today’s tight writing. 🙂
That’s interesting about the book you just read. In the conversation Serena and I had in the comments of the Info Dump post, I mentioned that a strong voice can carry even the most telling of passages. Some omniscient stories have a narrator (think Lemony Snicket) or a strong voice (Jane Austen) that can hold readers’ attention. We can probably think of some friends who could tell us a story about paint drying and we’d still sit enraptured. 🙂 Some people are great storytellers, no matter the techniques used. Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Yes, great example of Harry Potter for a series that slides from objective, omniscient 3rd to subjective, close 3rd as needed. 🙂
Actually, in many ways I’d agree with you about movies being omniscient in nature. I’ve probably called them that myself. 🙂 However, when we look at the full, “you are there” immersive nature of movies, we experience visceral reactions (startles and elevated heart rates) that makes our connection to the story more like empathetic emotions rather than sympathetic emotions. So while I’d agree that movies are told in an omniscient manner, I think from the audience perspective–with the strength of the connection to the overall story–they have much in common with close 3rd, especially those close-ups. 🙂
Great point about how movies don’t stay in close-ups the whole time. I think that relates back to the discussion Melinda and I had above about the limitations of 1st person. Both close-ups and 1st person can be claustrophobic after a while. So the ability of close 3rd person to slide closer or further as needed has more in common with movies as well. Fantastic observation! 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!
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!
I don’t disagree. I know of some pockets that still lean more omniscient (I think hard sci-fi might), but they are few and far between. Thanks for the comment! 🙂
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.
Great analogy. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
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 »
Great point! Yes, I tend to break many “rules” as well. 🙂
I’m not against omniscient or head hopping or anything because of “the rules.” Rather, I pay attention to why the rule exists and figure out if I have a compelling reason for ignoring that rule. I’ve seen omniscient stories work because of the storytelling or the voice. I’ve seen head hopping work mid-sexy scene because the two characters were so connected it didn’t break the flow to get input from both of them. But I’ve seen way more examples where those attempts didn’t work–where I felt distanced or taken out of the story (that’s the real reason I’m “against” head hopping 🙂 ).
I’m certainly not one to advocate rules just for the rules’ sake. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 😀
I wonder if what a new writer would be good at depends on how deeply they’ve read in certain styles? I could see someone who reads only the classic omniscient books being able to start off with that style, while those who read across genres and styles might need to start with a limited POV. Interesting. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Oh I forgot to comment on this.
That’s a good point you made, Jami. I just realized yesterday that I spent a fair amount of time reading these Chinese martial arts stories by Jin Yong (read all 15 of his series–where each series can be from one to five books long—lol, I was quite obsessed with his books then), and this Jin Yong uses the 3rd person omniscient very effectively, i.e. I never got confused and all the “head dive-ins” felt so natural, quick, and effortless.
So it’s possible that I got really used to this style already and had it absorbed deep into my unconscious, and that’s why this style came out in my Nanowrimo! (Since, as you know, Nano reveals what’s been hiding in your subconscious, lol. ^^)
LOL! Yes, very true about NaNo and Fast Drafting tapping into that subconscious more. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all about that depth of reading affecting your writing. I often avoid reading when I’m in the midst of drafting because I don’t want other authors to affect my voice/style. Thanks for the comment!
Yes! Here’s for trying new things and experimenting. 🙂 I just read a post at Kirkus Reviews with their list of 2012’s teen books that adults shouldn’t ignore. Many of them have unusual narrative structures, so I think that goes to show that when experimentation works, it can really work! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Hi Carradee and Jami,
Nice cake decoration analogy! It reminded me of Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games, lol, I love him. ^^ Thanks for the advice!
Teen books that adults shouldn’t ignore.. 🙂 Thanks, I’ll check them out sometime I’m a little less flooded with schoolwork. =_=
Ooo, nice list! Some of those were already on my to-read list, but not all.
I absolutely loved Chime. Fantastic example of characters having unique voices—and of unreliable narration, for that matter. (If you’ve read Franny before, it shouldn’t be a spoiler that the narrator’s not quite right about what she thinks is going on…)
Yes, I thought that was a really interesting list too. I need a pause button for life so I can read some of my TBR pile. LOL!
Hi Jami! I am reading The Hobbit for my MFA class right now, so its a great review in omniscient POV. Perfectly timely post! 😉
Oh yes! Thanks for sharing that example. 🙂
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
Exactly! That’s why I like paying attention to the rules–so I know when I can ignore them. 😉
And yes, you’re right. Often other writers are much harder on POV changes than readers. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
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.
So glad this helped! And yes, when I want to make a section deeper POV, I’ll sometimes figure out how I’d word it in 1st person and then change to 3rd person pronouns. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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 »
You’re absolutely right–all POVs have their pros and cons (even 2nd person, she says while waving to Carradee 🙂 ).
As far as omniscient, yes, there are many different ways to handle omniscient. Some have a non-character narrator (like Lemony Snicket), some have a strong narrative voice (like Jane Austen), and some are more just-the-facts. Each of those will fit with different tones, moods, and themes, so there’s no “one right way” to do omniscient.
That said, there’s a real danger of authors doing close 3rd POV and head hopping, but calling it omniscient. As I mentioned in my earlier post I linked to above, there’s a difference between giving interior thoughts of multiple characters in the characters’s voices versus in the story’s voice. True, non-head-hopping omniscient stays in the story’s voice as it presents the inside scoop on the different characters.
So our connection to omniscient stories depends on our connection to that story voice (whether expressed through a narrator or just an attitude). And that means we might be connecting to the story overall but not to the characters themselves. Some people are fine with that, and some would rather connect directly to the characters. I hope that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Yes, after thinking about it for a while, it made sense. 🙂 By the way, my favorite narrator ever has got to be Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. 😀 The funniest narrator ever! I couldn’t stop laughing and eventually had to remove myself from the library because I was disrupting other people with my laughter (I was stifling it, but you could still hear the stifled laughter.) XD Hmmm, let me think about what I’m doing. Honestly, I’m not really sure what I’m doing in my Nanowrimo story. To be even more honest, I suspect my narrative voice has a personality crisis–she can’t decide what she wants to feel! LOL. Sometimes she wants to be dead formal, sometimes more informal; sometimes she wants to be more sympathetic or empathetic but sometimes more detached, aloof, or even mean; sometimes she just wants to satirize and mock people or just make fun of everyone. And of course, sometimes she wants to dive deep into someone’s head and sometimes she wants to skate over everyone’s heads. I mean, what….what on earth is she doing and what on earth does she want??? Why can’t she make up her mind? Lol. The narrator might be one of those who were “ambivalently (and insecurely) attached” as a baby. (Psychology again, yay!) She’s the kind who wants to get close but when she finds she’s too close to a character/ person, she gets scared and wants to pull away again. The type that craves intimacy… — Read More »
LOL! Yes, it’s fun to psychoanalyze our characters/narrators. 🙂 I struggled with the right voice for my first book, and every time I start a new book, I worry I’ll have that same problem. So I’m never sure if my beginnings have not enough voice or if they have the right amount of voice and it’s just that I don’t recognize it yet. I’ve learned to press on (as you’re doing), figuring that by the end, I’ll know if it works. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
Thanks, you too!
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.
Thanks for sharing those great examples. Omniscient is certainly more prevalent in some genres/sub-genres/categories than others. Between the “epic” and the “historical” aspects, it’s not surprising that epic historical fiction would still use omniscient. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Interesting theory! Especially because 1st person POV is more common in YA. 🙂
Yes, I write deep 3rd so my characters’ voices are telling the story. Otherwise all my stories might sound too much the same because the story voice would be my voice. 🙂 And I love hearing about these pockets of omniscient out there. Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, thriller and sci-fi were two of the genre pockets of omniscient stories I could think of off the top of my head. 🙂
I agree, when omniscient is done well, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the POV. My point with this post is more to discuss theories for why it’s less popular now, not to state omniscient is “bad.” 🙂
And I hate to repeat myself, but Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View really is phenomenal at explaining the differences, pros/cons–and in giving tips for how to do each POV method well. 🙂 So for anyone who wants to experiment with different POVs, I highly recommend her book. Thanks for the comment!
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.
LOL at your description of young people! 🙂 And I agree–again, not in a bad way. But as we get older and move into the working world, our sense of the world around us grows. That’s just human nature.
That’s an interesting point about Hamlet vs. Macbeth. You touch on some of the reasons I tire of YA every once in a while: a) I’m not a big fan of emo angst and b) the 1st person POV can be claustrophobic.
I’m with you that we should write the story the way it wants to be written. I have one story that’s urban fantasy and sitting in a metaphorical drawer because UF is often 1st person, but that’s not the voice of this story. I’ve thought about trying to switch it over, just to see if it would work, but haven’t had the time/inclination to do it yet. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
LOL! So true about the difference between non-fiction and fiction writing. Thanks for the comment! 🙂
[…] Gold: Will Omniscient POV ever be popular again? Excellent look at this […]
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 »
Great point about the “found” narratives. And you’re absolutely right about how some genres encourage more experimentation than others.
I think that’s one reason I was surprised to see so many non-standard narrative structures on that YA list I linked to in a comment above. Maybe that’s because as a category, YA can incorporate those other genres like literary or magical realism.
I’ve seen some romances stick with just one POV, but you’re right that they’re very rare. In some of the exceptions, the story has been in 1st person POV, which might help them “get away with it.” Interesting! 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!
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.
I see the media go crazy over books like 50 Shades, and I can’t disagree with you that they’re helping create an audience for fluff books.
However, I strongly disagree that POV has anything to do with the depth of the story, issues, concepts, characters, etc. I’ve written stories in every POV but 2nd, and they all explore deep themes, issues, and concepts.
In many cases, a closer POV can improve an author’s ability to explore complex subjects. Engaging the sympathy/empathy of a reader can improve the chances of getting them to listen to ideas beyond their (your words) “small mindedness.” POV itself is not a “sign” of dumbing-down.
I also find it disheartening that in a post published in the same week as my friendly reminder to avoid making insulting political or religious statements that you choose to come here as a first-time commenter and make an extremist (not to mention inaccurate) claim about a) who’s in power in America (especially just a week after the inauguration) and b) connecting politics to reading preferences. *shakes head at the ridiculousness*
*wonders which political party is to blame for those who make toilet paper go under rather than over the roll* 😉 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Great point about the importance of Henry James to the development of different POV styles! I agree that he was likely the spark igniting the use of closer POVs. However, the timing of when closer POV styles really became popular (to the point of crowding out or “killing off” to some extent the omniscient POV) is much more recent than Henry James’s work.
Again, I’m not saying that Henry James wasn’t the inventor/instigator of closer POV usage, but something pushed that closer POV style into the general consciousness of popular culture many years after his death. Movies affect the popular culture more widely than any single author can. So as far as the scope of this post in concentrating on the acceleration of the popularity of closer POVs, I kept my (already long) theory limited to movies. 🙂
Thanks for adding to the discussion by bringing up where closer POVs started. Without that innovation, we might not be having this conversation–even with the presence of movies. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!
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 »
Great observations! Yes, I try to have nuanced villains as well. They’re much more interesting.
I also completely agree with you about the character development in many of the new superhero action movies. I did a whole post about the latest Spider-Man movie and its subtext/character development. 🙂
As for football, by no means do I think those close-ups would be preferable. I often fast forwards through those story segments during the Olympics. 🙂 I was just sharing the example as a potential camera shot we might see in the future. Thanks for the comment!
[…] 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 »
Great observations! Yes, narrator-driven omniscient (like the Series of Unfortunate Events books) stories have an entirely different feel to them than non-narrator-driven omni stories.
That’s interesting about the writer you know and his teachers’ instruction. Actually, I just tweeted a link a couple of weeks ago about how first person stories can have too much of that internal chatter–which is essentially telling. So on some level, I agree with the concern, just not the absolutism. 🙂
Yes, I’ve seen that “omni is easier” attitude, and you’re right that it usually results in head-hopping galore because they don’t actually understand the do’s and don’t’s of omni. Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Ooo, great example! You’re absolutely right that the best TPO (love that!) would need the author to act like a talented movie director, shaping the story through the shots they choose to focus on. And maybe in the case of TPO, that strong sense of focus is like another form of the “voice” quality that carries readers through the story. That feeling of settling in with the author because you know they’re going to tell you a great story. 🙂 Interesting! And you’re right too, that the “director skill” is probably harder to teach as well. Thanks for the great comment!
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.
Hi Manifan, That’s the thing: It wasn’t a WHOEVER who decided that omniscient POV is bad. It’s the readers in general. That’s why it’s a popularity issue. You’re right that not everyone likes the close POV style, however, and for those readers, I hope omniscient hangs on. But for those readers who do like the close POV style, that limitation of information is exactly why they like it. They like experiencing the character(s) lives from the inside-out, rather than experiencing the story from the outside-in. It’s a preference. It’s neither right or wrong. I do agree that it’s completely different from the long history of storytelling around a campfire. Maybe that long history will mean the style will come back in time, but it might take generations for it to overtake close POV in the popularity contest–just as it’s taken over 100 years to reach this point in close POV’s popularity. Those writers who have a natural omniscient voice should write in omniscient if they feel their genre and readership will support them to the level of success they want. Some writers might struggle finding the level of success they want just because of omni’s lack of popularity. Those authors could settle for less success, they could adjust their writing style, or they could look into other more-omni-friendly genres. There’s no right or wrong answer there–just a decision that each author has to make for themselves based on what’s going to best meet their individual goals. I know you’re not… — Read More »