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