O is for the Journey of Omniscient Viewpoint
Writing in omniscient viewpoint has been an interesting journey for me. Almost the entire time I’ve been writing, I’ve read numerous craft books that outright dismissed it by saying it was old-fashioned. So I never thought to use it, even when I was having trouble with big action scenes where multiple characters were involved. I repeated the mantra that every writer seems to say, “Omni isn’t used any more” because that’s all I knew.
Then I ran into a problem writing Miasma. I’d gotten about 100 pages into the story, and the viewpoint felt wrong. At the same time, a viewpoint workshop popped up, so I tried it out. We wrote scenes from every viewpoint, including second person. My work with first person got a lot of positive comments, so I changed the story’s viewpoint to first and wrote about 50 pages.
It was horrible! First brought out the worst traits in the main character. It did confirm though there was a problem with the viewpoint. Then omni came up in the workshop. None of us really knew a lot about it, and we were collectively having trouble identifying books in omni. But I had Clive Cussler, who I knew wrote in it, so I started out imitating him. On a hunch, I tried the next scene I was writing and the story sang in a way it hadn’t with the other viewpoints. The results amazed me.
But I wanted to learn more about how to do it. Great posts like Anna Stanisezwki’s provide insight and additional books to read, but the viewpoint seems to mystify many writers. So I hunted for books written in it and discovered that all of my treasured re-read books are in omni. It’s surprisingly versatile, and there was a lot of variety in how the narrator was approached. In one book, the narrator keeps us from getting too close to a story where third would way too much, while in another, it stayed with one character the entire book and gave us a warm story. When omni well written — and particularly when it gets close to the characters — it’s often mistaken for third person. We’ve all read books in omni and not known it because it was seamlessly done. When it’s bad, it’s pretty obvious, and that’s what gives it the bad reputation.
But in the U.S., it’s not an acceptable viewpoint, even though there are writers like Stephen King, Bob Meyer, J.D. Robb, Clive Cussler, and Tamora Pierce using it (and yes, someone will tell me these writers write in third. When it’s done well …). When I first tried a critique with an online forum, I was stunned at the reaction. Ten writers attacked my use of omni. Not the writing — they ignored that entirely — but that I used omni. I was told I would never get published, or the one that really outraged me: “I’m sure you know your story, but here’s how you did it in third.” As if I didn’t know what I was doing and was stupid. The hardest thing though was realizing that though I was angry, it would do little good. Instead, I thanked each writer for their time — and nothing else.
Since then, I’ve talked with other omni writers, and they’ve reported the same experience. Some changed to third because of the pressure. But I like the versatility omni gives me. The narrator is all seeing, so he (it?) can travel to any of the characters and show the reader what’s going on with them or pull back. I find it’s a natural thing for me to start out following one character to get something important into the story and then I slide over to the other character for something else. In third, I was constantly frustrated because I felt so limited and confined by only doing what that character could see. This was particularly a problem with action scenes with multiple characters involved. Instead of confining things, omni allowed me to do what the story needed.
Would I go back to another viewpoint? If the story required it. It is all about what the story needs.
QUESTION FOR YOU: What’s been your experience at picking a viewpoint?