Thursday, January 26, 2017

Know-It-Alls Telling Stories: Writers on Omniscient Narrators

For this week's writers roundtable, let's look at the Omniscient Narrator. For years, it was the standard, but now it's fallen out of vogue for Third Person Limited. But why? And should we writerly types be ready to re-embrace this ol' standard?

Do you still write in omniscient POV? If not, when was the last time you did? Why do you keep using it or why did you stop?

Rebekah McAuliffe: While with omniscent POV you can get inside the minds of all of your characters, it can be difficult to keep up with because, again, there are so many characters. At least for me, I feel like first person is where it is much easier to "show, don't tell."

Robert Kennedy:
I can't think of an instance where I've used omniscient narration. In my own writing I tend to tell the story in the First Person. I generally do the Voice that way. That often leads to "I didn't know that this was happening until later…" interjections to the readers. (The only time the Voice has appeared in the third person is in "Voice to a New Generation" that appeared in the first anthology of The Pulptress.)

Jeff Deischer: I always use omniscient. I want to jump around and make each character personal for the reader.

Ron Fortier: Never used it. Always preferred 3rd person…even the few times I wrote 1st person, I purposely avoided the omniscient factor.

Lance Stahlberg: I'm not sure if I've ever written in true third person omniscient. At least, in my mind, I'm always seeing the story through a particular set of eyes, even if that set of eyes changes.

When a friend read my GI JOE Kindle Worlds story, they commented that they normally hated third person omniscient, but I made it work. I think it's because it was actually third person limited, just with multiple third persons.

When you have an ensemble cast, it's hard to stay focused entirely on one character. Most of the breaks would be obvious (separated by ***) but in some scenes, I might have to shift from one set of paragraphs to the next because a hard break would be too jarring to the flow of the action. I'd never bounce back and forth too much, though. If I was focused on a particular character, and wanted to get the thoughts of another, I'd go with visual cues and expressions, not their actual internal dialogue.

Break Mwango: I write in whatever POV I feel suits the style of the story I'm writing, and which suits the characters too. Like, do I want to be able to expose ALL the characters' thoughts and emotions? Or do I want to limit it to just one character in order to possibly deceive the reader into thinking one thing when it's the other thing?

C.E. Martin: For me, I like to tell the story the same as if I'm doing a screenplay. I follow one person around, but don't limit the description for the reader to just what the character I'm following is aware of. Then, at a chapter break or a time break, I like to switch to another perspective, creating a mini cliffhanger with the first part. I think it works well for building suspense and mystery--just like it did in the film Pulp Fiction.

Robert Krog: This is, again, one of those questions I rarely ponder but intuitively answer regularly.  When I first read it, I had to stop and ask myself what point of view I use anyway.  It’s usually third person, sometimes first, and only once second.  I wrote in second, because I was asked to do so.  I normally gravitate to third but occasionally fall into first without really thinking about it.  Which third person do I use though?  It’s a question I don’t usually ask myself.  Looking over my work, it appears that I write in third limited with rare occasions of omniscient.  Most of my work is short fiction from novelette to short story and follow the actions of just one character.  There is sometimes head hopping (a sort of level in between omniscient and limited).  There is often insight into what the characters think and feel on top of what they say and do.  Sometimes, however, there is no precise insight into any one character’s head or heart.  The reader is witness to a scene and the narrator, if he is there, reveals nothing beyond what is witnessed.  The narrator comes across as a very ignorant tour guide, knowing locations, names, and basic relationships.  After that information, the reader and he are in the same boat, witnessing an event as it happens.  

I’m working on a novel that is written in periodic episodes of third omniscient, but in which the all-seeing narrator is primarily interested in relating the story of one, particular character, and the story comes across often as third limited.  The reader, after all, doesn’t have the time and the patience that an omniscient narrator has.  The narrator could go on forever, revealing all, but frankly the reader would never bear it.  The narrator stays chiefly in the head of the main character, but does visit the experiences of others as the story demands.  Who could read a book that delivered all the available information in a story at once?  Who could read a book that revealed every character’s, individual experience separately?

I keep to a fairly tight and near perspective, the then and there, only straying from that from time to time, leaving foreshadowing out or keeping it very subtle.  The omniscient narrator may know a great deal about the world through which he guides the reader, it’s history and geography, but he does not know its future. The ending seems to be mystery to him as well as to the reader.  He can’t give it away.  Anyway, he isn’t telling his story, but someone else’s.  He stays as true as he is able to the story he has taken upon himself to tell.

I think I write this way in order to keep the suspense in the story and to enable to the reader to identify with the characters as much as possible to walk in their shoes.  At times, when I think the story on which I’m working requires greater objectivity, I pull back and write from higher up, so that the reader will be able to witness the events from outside rather than as one inside, holding the main character’s hand or riding around in his head.  I use the methods that seem appropriate to the story.  I don’t consider either one more modern or more old-fashioned or outmoded.

Ellie Raine: I’ve tried writing in omniscient, but every time, I unintentionally slipped into 3rd limited. What can I say? I like not knowing anything outside of what the character sees.

Bev Allen: Interesting and I imagine extraordinarily hard to write if you are going to maintain the reader's interest and not burden them with detail.

Lee Houston Jr.: I'm not sure I have ever intentionally written in the omniscient pov. There have been times proofreading when I've discovered that I either foreshadowed too much or revealed too much too soon in the narrative, but those instances were quickly rewritten long before the final manuscript was submitted for publication.

Bobby Nash: Sure. I guess. Is it sad that I don't really think about it before I start writing? I use the narration to set the scene, tell us what is going on, what people look like, how they are dressed. I do try to stick to the POV of one character at a time per chapter or per section of the chapter. I have been known to head hop a few times here and there though. Whatever works best to tell the story or whatever the publisher/editor will allow.

What do you feel are the strengths of the omniscient POV? What are it's weaknesses?


Ron Fortier:
It has no strengths. It’s weakness is the temptation to foreshadow an event, which is a cheap trick to play on the writer. Example: "Sam left Irene’s little realizing he would never see her again." Stephen King is notorious for this playing God. I hate it.

Bobby Nash: Strengths -- you can get into the heads of multiple characters and see everything from a big picture standpoint.

Weaknesses -- sometimes I have to rephrase things a certain way that would work better if one of the characters was the narrator.

Lee Houston Jr.: If done right, the Omniscient Narrator can serve as an extra character, so to speak, to tell the story from a viewpoint that none of the other characters in your tale/novel have. Done incorrectly, this "extra character" overshadows the main cast so the reader wonders who the book is actually about.

Bev Allen: I see the possibility of creating a rich texture to the descriptive narrative, and the possibility of including subtle layers of visual experience, but do I, as a reader, really need or want that?

Robert Krog: I suppose the strengths and weaknesses of the differing third person points of view depend on the way in which they are implemented and on other factors as well.  One doesn’t want to reveal the end of a mystery at the beginning, generally, and one doesn’t want the reader to think that the narrator knows but isn’t telling, just because he likes to keep the reader in suspense.  Mind you, many readers do like to be kept in suspense, so there is that to consider.  In fact, the main problems with omniscient may be nothing more than reader expectation and writer execution.  Terry Pratchett wrote primarily in omniscient and is a beloved author still read by many, so I’m not ever sure why some today suggest that the omniscient point of view is out of date.  Readers loved the voice of the narrator and didn’t mind that he knew everything and only revealed what he wanted to in the order that he liked.  They liked the manner and order of his revelations and delighted in them.  Is Pratchett’s work already that out of date?  Perhaps what is passing for conventional wisdom on the subject is what is sadly out of touch.

Another more recent best seller using omniscient is the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  Again, I suggest that omniscient not really all that out of vogue anyway.  I think the question with the strength and weaknesses of the omniscient point of view is whether or not the narrator of the story is in and of herself an engaging storyteller telling an engaging story.  This is the question with every other point of view as well.  Are the characters and the story ones that the readers will find engaging?  If the narrator is dull, the story however exciting it should be, will come across as dull as well.  This is why so many people do not read History.  It is not that History is boring, it is that it is told by Historians, and they are, as a lot, not very good storytellers.  Individual Historians do shine through, from time to time.  Thomas Costain comes to mind.  On the other hand, a really good story teller may get away for some time by finding some amusing way of presenting what is essentially a dull event.

Given all that, readers who enjoy the plot most will probably like omniscient better than limited, but no always, whereas readers who enjoy characters more than plot will generally like limited better, since it usually is a more intimate way of telling a story.  These are only strengths and weaknesses depending on reader expectations, and they are not hard and fast rules.  A good, omniscient narrator, who feels for the character whose story is being told will supply the necessary intimacy, I think.  The reader will sympathize with the narrator and therefore with the character in question.

Lance Stahlberg: I am sure there are times when you would want to get in everyone's head at once. This makes me think about a common trope in older comics when you have two characters in the same panel looking at the same thing with opposing thought bubbles over their heads. But this isn't done so much anymore for a reason. It breaks the cardinal rule "show, don't tell".

In the story I'm working on now, I get to cheat because the main character is a telepath. Though not knowing exactly what everyone in a scene is thinking is more interesting to read and a fun challenge to write.

Ellie Raine: The strengths are definitely knowing what everyone and everything is doing/seeing/thinking/feeling. But that in itself feels like a weakness to me; there’s no focus.

Jeff Deischer: I don't think it has a weakness, per se. It's a matter of taste. Some stories -- mysteries particularly -- work very well told first person.

Rebekah McAuliffe: I don't think I've ever written in omniscent POV. First person is just easier for me.

Robert Kennedy: Often the viewpoint is generated by the publisher/producer of the end product. Take the TV show Adam-12, for instance. A number of writers, who have more recently been TV producers, apparently did not like Jack Webb's command that they could show "Only What the Cops See!"

When writing in the third person I tend to mostly stick to the protagonist's POV. Or, to the hero and his team's viewpoint. Sometimes, usually near the end of a story, I jump around like crazy when the "Plan is Coming Together."

As a reader (not as a writer this time) do you enjoy reading the omniscient POV? Why or why not?

Rebekah McAuliffe: As long as it is a good story, and is written well, I don't really care whether it is in omniscent or first person or whatever.

Lee Houston Jr.: No. While you need set ups, introductions, etc. that require a narrator; I want to read what happens next, not be told by "someone" not even involved in the tale what happens.

Bobby Nash: I don't mind as long as I'm enjoying the story

Jeff Deischer: I still like reading it, yeah. That was about all there was when I was growing up (I mean readily given to teens). I don't know when I read my first first-person story but it was probably in my twenties. First person is hard to write well for most people.

Ellie Raine: When I read, I like to feel like I’m experiencing the story, not hearing about it. I feel like omniscient POV (at least for me) solidifies that line between fiction and reality to the point where I don’t believe anything that’s happening in omniscient. But that’s me.

Robert Krog: I enjoy a story that is well told, whatever the point of view.  That inevitably includes the omniscient one.  Having read the works of Terry Pratchett and Susanna Clarke, I can point you to current examples I enjoyed.  I suggest you give them a read and see what you think.

Lance Stahlberg: The reader wants someone or something to follow. If the perspective bounced around too much, it could get confusing quickly. A big part of this could be thanks to movies and TV. People are more visual than ever. We've become conditioned to "see" a story play out from a certain perspective.

Robert Kennedy: If somebody writes well in the Omniscient Narrator style, I have no problem with that.

(For publishers only) Does your company solicit or seek stories in the omniscient pov? Why or why not?

Ron Fortier: Nope, save for rare occasions that demand first person such as our Sherlock Holmes or Quatermain tales, we only want third person. A writer should bring his readers along with him or her in the story’s journey and allow for genuine, organic surprises to them both.

Debra Dixon: I don't actively solicit any particular POV. However, deep limited third (multiple deep limited, too) or first person generally deliver the most immediate, emotional reads. Including the feel of the action in a plot dependent upon battles, fights and fisticuffs.

Tommy Hancock: I don't discriminate.

Joe Gentile: We do not ask for specific POVs, however, that being said, sometimes when working with licenses, they will prefer a POV type.