Linda Maye Adams

5 Advantages to Using Omniscient (and 1 Reason Not to Use it)


One of my favorite memories of reading books was to find that one special one with an extra quality of warmth beyond the pages, an ability to pull me into the story in ways other books missed.  As I explored this is in my writing, I realized what all those wonderful books had in common was the viewpoint: Omniscient Viewpoint.

Girl lays on her back on a bed, reading a book.

There are some great advantages to using it, and one reason not to.  Reason not to:

Because you want to show what all the characters are thinking.  This is a common reason writers gave during critiques.  Writers will chose this viewpoint because they haven’t settled on a protagonist and using the “head hopping viewpoint” seems an easy choice.  Instead, because they don’t understand what omniscient viewpoint is, they don’t fix the original problem and head hop like crazy.

Onto the advantages of using Omniscient Viewpoint:

1. Storytelling Quality.  An omniscient narrator can have the feel of a storyteller sitting down by a fireside to tell you a story.  That’s what makes this viewpoint wonderful for books like Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone and The Golden Compass, and it’s also why many people mistake omniscient for other viewpoints.

2. Versatility.  This is a viewpoint that helps in manage large casts and complex storylines because the story is told through an all-seeing narrator, not through individual character viewpoints.  One of the things I tried doing was imagining a story like Clive Cussler’s Sahara.  Clive has six plots in his stories!  First person would be mashed under the weight of this, and third would drown.

3. When distance is required.  Omniscient can be a distancing viewpoint, and some stories need the distance.  For example, the book Perfume: the Story of a Murderer follows the life of a serial killer.  Even with the omniscient narrator, it was a tough book to read.

4. When other viewpoints make the story too one-sided. When I started Miasma, it was in third person.  But the viewpoint felt wrong, so I revised the first fifty pages to first person.  It was awful!  And revealed the problem: I wanted shades of grays in how things were viewed.  Both viewpoints skewed those elements in favor of the protagonist.  Omniscient allowed more ambiguity.

5. It’s your natural POV.  If you run a search of omniscient, you’ll find a lot of links that say it’s “old fashioned” and “no one uses it,” both of which are untrue.  So I refused to try it until I had the problem with my viewpoint, and I was surprised at how natural it felt to me.  It makes me wonder how many people aren’t trying it because of misinformation out there.

For you:  As a reader, what have been your experiences with omniscient viewpoint?  Where have you seen it done well?  Where have you seen it done badly?  Post your comments below.

7 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this: it’s good food for thought, and not something I had mulled over in some time.

    One additional advantage that isn’t exclusive to omniscient but that can be put to great use there is voice. This seems to me related to the “storyteller” quality you mention, but it can go further, for instance with Kurt Vonnegut or Lemony Snicket.

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  2. Linda,
    Thanks for sharing these reasons to use omniscient point of view. I am susceptible to head hopping because it seems every writer is using it. I tend to subconsciously reveal the inner thoughts of whomever POV character’s perspective. It’s a hard habit to break. These are great reasons for employing omniscient POV.

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    • I think one of the keys is to make sure there are transitions before the switch, and that the transitions work well. When I took a viewpoint workshop, one of the things everyone had trouble with was keeping omni from turning into head hopping. That’s where taking a book that shifts from person to person in the same scene and looking at it sentence by sentence can really help with figuring out how to to do it.

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  3. Aloha Linda,
    I like this post. Craft is short changed in current writing – it needs to be talked about more often.
    While the omniscient POV doesn’t serve the character driven romance stories I’m writing now, I have and will use it for more plot driven stories. The greater psychic distance it generates can be useful in moving ‘big’ stories along. I find that using omni does make writing easier, however, it also provides more ‘stopping points’ for the reader.
    Linda, I like this post – craft is important – keep at it.
    A Hui Hou (until next time)
    Wayne

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