Playing God

Monday, July 20, 2015

Omniscient point of view is a little like playing God.

Imagine that the leopard in the picture is actually outside the fence, looking in. She is not involved in the action of the story, which occurs on this side of the wire. She can see the entire plot from beginning to end, and even before and after. She can also see into each character’s thoughts. If she uses all her knowledge when narrating the story, that’s an omniscient point of view.

Omniscient POV does not require the narrator to see things through a particular character’s eyes, and head-hopping within a scene is allowed. The writer talks to the reader directly rather than through one or more characters, although she might not identify herself as the writer. This POV was popular in the “olden days” of Charles Dickens and George Eliot but is mostly out of style now.

I said “mostly,” because some modern writers have used it very effectively. But here’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. If the omniscient point of view is done wrong, it looks like a multiple-third-person point of view riddled with errors: a mistake rather than a choice.

As a reader in the 21st century, I find that the omniscient point of view works only if I am clued in immediately for a short story or within the first page or two for a novel AND before the first character in the story speaks. Here are some examples of what works. 

  • Fairytales and folk tales tend to be told in omniscient point of view, as are some modern-day fantasies. The classic “once upon a time” clues the reader in.
  • In Holes, Louis Sachar talks directly to the reader, and he makes sure you can’t miss it. After a short first chapter that describes Camp Green Lake but contains no dialogue and no defined characters, Sachar begins the second chapter this way:
     The reader is probably asking: Why would anyone go to Camp Green Lake? 

  • In this example from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, notice the clear author intrusion in the second paragraph. I’ll give you the opening paragraph as well.
     Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

     Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is less direct but equally effective. The first paragraph reads like this:

     Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

J.K. Rowling has planted at least two clues in that paragraph. First, it starts with “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley” rather than focusing on either of them, as is normally the case when using a third person point of view. (E.g., “Mr. Dursley liked to tell his wife that the Dursleys were a perfectly normal family, thank you very much.”) Second, the next sentence contains language they might use to describe themselves in appropriate circumstances but not before they knew something strange or mysterious was coming.

And if that isn’t clue enough, the fourth paragraph starts by addressing the reader (“our story”) and telling us something about the future—something that is clearly not within the Dursley’s knowledge at the time.

     When Mr. and Mrs. Dursley woke up on the dull, gray Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest that strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country. Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his high chair.

     None of them noticed a large, tawny owl flutter past the window.

The first paragraph could conceivably be a POV error, but when followed by the fourth, we know it was intentional. That’s why we don’t question the fifth paragraph, which tells us something outside the Dursleys’ knowledge. By now we understand that this is an omniscient narrator and we are not confined to anyone’s head.

Even when the author tries to clue the reader in, omniscient can still be a bad choice. Since head-hopping is allowed within a scene, many writers think they can use it whenever they want. But that can be just as jarring in omniscient as it is in multiple third-person. And the practice makes sophisticated readers wonder if the author is ignorant about POV.

While omniscient can seem like a godsend (pun intended) for a lazy writer, it actually tends to highlight that laziness. So unless you are an experienced author who fully understands omniscient POV, I don’t recommend it.

In the examples given above, the storyteller never identifies himself or herself as anybody other than a disembodied author, making it a purely omniscient POV. Another option is to use a sort of hybrid POV that combines elements of omniscient with elements of first or third person by providing a flesh-and-blood narrator who tells the story after-the-fact. This could be either one of the characters involved in the main action or a bystander who knows the story. As with omniscient POV, however, you need to start by identifying the POV for the reader, usually by introducing the narrator and making it clear that the story is being told after-the-fact.

Here is how Barbara Gregorich does it in Dirty Proof:

     She wrenched the door open as if doorknobs were disposable, nuisances rather than aids. I flinched, scattering a handful of index cards across my desk. Of course, I didn’t know it was a she when the doorknob clattered, so I’m not telling the story in its proper sequence. But what burst in was a she, very definitely.

It doesn’t have to be a conventional storyteller, either. In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the story is narrated by Death. When I said to make it a flesh-and-blood narrator, I used that phrase figuratively. The narrator needs a personality and a presence but not necessarily a physical body.

There is one other point of view that (barely) deserves mention, and that is second person. This is the story where the narrator is identified by “you.” I have read only one or two second-person stories in recent years, but that is more than enough. I found second person very disrupting, and I never read that author again. So if you want to gather a loyal following, don’t try it.

Next week I will cover psychic distance, which can be used effectively in both third person and omniscient POV.


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