Linda Maye Adams

Is Omniscient Viewpoint that Bad?


I recently spotted a post on omniscient viewpoint.  It was a fairly generic post on the subject, but a few of the commenters took to bashing it.  They cited the usual stuff you’ve probably seen like no one uses it in genre fiction any more and that it lacks intimacy.  Prudence MacLeod also addressed the same issues.

I think a lot of the rap it gets is really because many writers are rules-based.  You follow X and agents won’t reject you.  Just about every writing magazine, book, and blog post talks about some variation of this.  But omni’s a strange creature.  It doesn’t fit the standard rules.

Consider third, which is through a character’s eyes.  That’s easy because you can pretend like you’re the character seeing the world.

Then there’s omni, which is the all-seeing narrator.  That seems to be a really hard concept to get.  The tendency is to default to what the writer knows about third person and apply it to omni.  Then they run into trouble with the all-seeing narrator shifts from character to character:

“This writer broke the rules!!!  He head hopped!!!”

Usually said with a lot glee had having caught a published writer out for breaking the perceived rules.  Anyone daring to venture down the same pathway is greeted with a stern admonishment about the risk they are taking.

Honestly, writing a book is a risk.  You spend a year writing it, and then send it out to 80 agents.  Maybe an agent sends a personal comment back that it’s the worst thing he’s read, and everyone else sends form rejects.  Omni is more risky than that?

And yeah, omni is harder to master.  It’s easy to go too distant and push the reader away.  And yeah, there are some readers who won’t like it.  Like some readers don’t like present tense.  Like some readers don’t like mysteries.  I don’t care much for first person.  Should I make sweeping condemnations of first person and tell people never to use it?

Just something to think about.

4 Comments

  1. I love the Omni viewpoint. It’s the most natural mode of storytelling, and has a very long history of success. Whether it’s intimate or distant depends upon the writer’s choices and abilities.

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  2. you know I would really love for people to read a story for the story and enjoy it for the story, not a set of arbitrary rules, set by a few people in an industry that is concerned with bottom line not the story.

    some of the most acclaimed books are the most boring and badly written, but follow the rules, stories I have ever read.

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  3. Diane Carlisle

    I think omniscience is okay when done well. I think of the voice of the omniscient narrator and I’m feeling things like Lord of the Rings, dream-like, beauty, nature, etc. I’m also thinking as I felt when listening to the Gods speak of mortals in Clash of the Titans.

    Like I say, it can be done well, but don’t try it if you can’t mesmerize the reader on some level. I’ve read some disastrous attempts of the omniscient narrator in the past, enough to make me cringe, but I’ve also read some really poetic and beautiful stories written as such.

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  4. Good post!
    I was quite anti-omni for a long time. I sure as hell couldn’t write in it (always 3rd prsn limited), and I think I was a little bit afraid too. Now I’m writing a short for a competition, and I decided to face my omni fears, and to tell you the truth, I’ve become pretty good friends with it.

    I’m surprised that many novice writers (like myself) say first person & first person PRESENT are the easiest to handle. I have more trouble controlling 1st person than omni — I start meandering and lose focus more easily.

    I always thought headhopping is what happens when the writer is supposed to be writing in 3rd prsn limited but then accidentally shows some other character’s thoughts. That’s a faux-pas. When you are supposed to do omni, it should be ok to reveal several characters’ POVs within the same chapter. I don’t quite get what’s the big deal, unless, of course, it’s done really clumsily, but that goes with everything.

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