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.

The Beauty of Omniscient Viewpoint

A telescope and compass sitting on an old-fashioned map.
Omniscient viewpoint is like the person with the telescope, seeing everything.

Ever since I’ve been writing

I’ve read over and over that omniscient viewpoint is old-fashioned, no longer used, that publishers won’t take it, too distant, etc.

It’s not true.

I found that out when I took on viewpoint. At the time, I felt like the viewpoint for Miasma was not right (it was in third), and I couldn’t pin down why. The instructors of the class went into all the viewpoints, but even they didn’t really understand how it worked.

The concept of the all-seeing narrator is difficult to understand, especially when trying to frame it from the perspective of third person. So I went out and hunted down books in omniscient.

What I discovered was quite unexpected

My favorite re-read books were in omniscient.

Every single one of them.

Omniscient viewpoint has this wonderful and warm storytelling quality, like you’re sitting in front of the fire being told a story by a storyteller. In fact, when it’s done well, most readers probably have no idea they’re reading omniscient viewpoint, and writers (and even agents who should know better) have mistaken it for third person.
It’s a beautiful viewpoint to read and work with.

This week’s post was for a prompt from the WANA folks (though I conveniently had a topic that fit right in):

Second Time Around – Tell us about a book you can read again and again without getting bored — what is it that speaks to you? ~ Ellen Gregory

Check out everyone else’s:

  • Will post these for you as they become available.

And don’t forget to drop in some of my other posts on omniscient viewpoint.

Slashing the Myths About Omniscient Viewpoint

I’m a little behind this week — I hopped over to Wisconsin for my grandmother’s memorial this weekend and am playing catch up, though I figure that’ll be at least another week.  Next weekend is a con!

Meanwhile back in the land of politicians, it’s about time for another look at omniscient viewpoint.  When I first began experimenting with it, I was absolutely amazed at the myths circulating on the internet, and even in the craft books.  It was like everyone was ganging up against the viewpoint.  What’d it do to them?

No doubt some it is people passing along information without really understanding what they were talking about — the internet is really bad at that.

Must be suffering from jet lag since I just typed viewpint.  Oh, dear.

So let’s get the three biggest myths out of the way before the pints catch up with me:

No one uses it any more.

This one astounds me.  If omniscient viewpoint is no longer being used at all, then why is everyone writing about it to say that it’s no longer being used?!  The fact is that you can find books in omniscient viewpoint that have been published in the last year on the bookshelf.  Like this one I saw The Tombs at Target today.

Omniscient Viewpoint is multiple viewpoints.

Yup.  Saw this one in a craft book.  It kind of ruined the credibility of the author, but I’ve seen writers come onto message boards and proclaim the same thing.  * Sigh * Omniscient is an all-seeing narrator who tells the story — one narrator.  Where writers get confused is that they don’t understand about the single narrator because they keep thinking character viewpoint.  So they see the narrator dip into the heads of the characters, and suddenly, omniscient viewpoint is interpreted as “multiple viewpoints.”  Check out Writing Excuses’s podcast for a discussion on this.

Omniscient is the head hopping viewpoint.

One of the first things I asked myself when I started writing in omniscient viewpoint was what was the difference between it and head hopping.  Because I had read the viewpoint and it definitely wasn’t anything like critiquing a story where it headhopped enough to make me feel like I was going to get whiplash.  Since omniscient viewpoint is only one viewpoint, it doesn’t head hop.  However, writers who think of it as multiple viewpoints end up head hopping when trying to write it.  Rebecca LuElla Miller has a post with some really great examples of headhopping versus omniscient viewpoint.

Okay, I still don’t have any explanation as to why people keep ganging up on the viewpoint.  But back to the pints.  If you were to bottle a viewpoint in a pint, what would you call it?

Linda Adams, Soldier, Storyteller.

I have an article on Vision: A Resource for Writers on Critiquing for Omniscient Viewpoint.  No pints were involved in the making of the article.

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.

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?

3 Differences Between Omniscient Viewpoint and Third Person

I’ve been writing in omniscient viewpoint now for at least a couple of years, and it’s been a real learning experience.  When I started Miasma, there were some things I didn’t know, mainly because the information isn’t available, or worse, just plain wrong.  When I a search on the viewpoint, I got a lot of sites giving quick examples — but the writers not really understanding what it is.  Writers can easily compare third to first — just change the “she” to “I.”  Admittedly, I think that’s overly simplistic and doesn’t get into the benefits and pitfalls of each.

But omniscient viewpoint is the strange bird — it’s actually a category under third, but it doesn’t work the same way as third.  Writers often have trouble with it because they try to  make it fit into their knowledge of a traditional third person, and it’s like trying to fit a peg into a hole that isn’t even there.

These are the things that cause conflict when omniscient is compared to third:

Eyes in the story

THIRD: The viewpoint of a character who is in the story.  That character is making decisions that directly affects the story.

OMNI:  The viewpoint of a narrator is who is outside the story, telling us what’s happening.  This narrator can choose what it wants to tell us about the story or omit, but the narrator doesn’t have any impact on decisions being made in the story.  If it helps, imagine a storyteller sitting down to tell us a fairytale.

Who Sees What

THIRD: The world is seen through the viewpoint character’s eyes.  We only see what he/she sees, know what only that character knows.  So the viewpoint character may have a reaction to what someone looks like, but they aren’t going to describe themselves.  This particular problem of trying to describe the viewpoint character often ends up with the mirror scene — character looks into the mirror and assesses what they look like.

OMNI:  The world is seen through the narrator’s eyes.  The narrator can see everything, and knows everything.  So the narrator can show us what the main character is doing, or what other characters in the same scene are doing.  Because the narrator is telling us the story, it can move from one character to another in the middle of the scene.

Changing Viewpoint

The above two categories cause writers to have a lot of problems with this next one.

THIRD:  More than one character can have a viewpoint in the story.  Often, this can be used for subplots.  When a viewpoint changes, a new scene starts, which is pretty standard.

OMNI:  It’s one narrator telling the story.  That’s it.  That narrator may move from one character to another in a single scene and let us know what that character is thinking — but because it’s one narrator, it never changes viewpoint.

What writers often do when they first try to understand omniscient viewpoint is they put third into it and try to make third fit.  It doesn’t work because the omni narrator isn’t a character in the story, nor is it more than one viewpoint.  We also hear all about head hopping from message boards, so when we see an omni book, we don’t have any other frame of reference other than, ‘Start a new scene for a new viewpoint” — instead of realizing the viewpoint never changed.

So omniscient viewpoint isn’t just about changing pronouns, but really, it’s about changing how we think about the approach for a story.

Why I Chose Omniscient Viewpoint

When I first started my contemporary fantasy Miasma, it was in a traditional third person.  I’d written most of my stories in third, so I went with because that was what I knew.  But as I writing the first fifty pages, something didn’t feel right.  I couldn’t quite identify what it was, except that it appeared to be the viewpoint.  It wasn’t the viewpoint character.  He was right for the story.

Along came a viewpoint workshop.  I took it, and the exercises had us write a scene in different viewpoints.  Some were from different characters, but we tried third, first, second, and omniscient.  Based on comments I got, I switched the story to first person.

Hated it.  First was soooo bad for the story.  It brought out the worst traits in the main character, put a magnifying glass on them, and waved a red flag.  First was definitely not a good choice.

Then came omni.  I went out and got the only omni author I could think of: Clive Cussler.  How did he make the transitions when moving from person to person?  How did he approach scenes?  This time, I picked a scene I was about to start, where first and third weren’t giving me what I needed for it.  By its use, the implication was that the main character was right, and that wasn’t exactly the case.  Tried omni, and the story was magic.

Before I started to switch the story over, though, I came up with about eight reasons why I should use it.  Over the years, all I’d heard was “omni is not used today” (an urban legend); that publishers aren’t taking omni (several agents said in the craft books, “Don’t even try omni.  We’ll reject you.”); and omni is old-fashioned.  So it was a risk when it came to submitting to agents.

Yet, I’d never seen an agent put “story written in omniscient” on any of their top ten lists of what not to do.  Except for the two who published craft books quite some time ago, I’d never even seen any agent discuss omni.  But it was best for the story, so my choices were:

  1. A viewpoint that worked well with the story and have a great story
  2. A more “acceptable” viewpoint and have a not so good story.

The choice was obvious.  Other writers were not happy.  I tried a critique to see if I was on the right track.  I didn’t ask for a critique of the omni, but merely mentioned it was in omni.  Bad.  Very bad.  The writers jumped all over me for use of the viewpoint.  No one said it did it badly or did it well — they just plain hated omni.  They made dire predictions and said no one was using it any more.  One person even said, “I’m sure you know your story, but here’s how you’d write it in third.”  The critique was so negative that I took six weeks off the story to reassess, and still felt omni was the best choice.  All the reasons I’d picked it were still valid.

Now that I’m in final draft of Miasma, the reasons are now blurred.  But I’ve found where other writers naturally jump to first person as their first viewpoint choice, omni is mine.  I feel like I’ve always been writing in it and considering it for my next project.

I hope you’ll check on my article “Critiquing for Omniscient Viewpoint” on Vision: A Resource for Writers.

Key to Understanding Omniscient Viewpoint

The first thing writers invariably talk about when discussing omniscient viewpoint (OPOV) is “multiple viewpoints.”  They see it dipping into this character’s head and that character’s head and apply what they know already from Third Person or First Person.  Then they usually identify it as head hopping, because their frame of reference is Third Person where they’ve been told not to head hop.

It can look confusing from this perspective.

Especially since OPOV doesn’t see the world through any character’s eyes.  It’s a single narrator who tells us what the character is thinking and experiencing, and at the same time, can see things the character can’t.  Writing is taught to go from the parts to the whole, and most of the viewpoints follow this same direction.  The viewpoint character — and reader — only know what’s happening in the story at this point, and discovers things as they happen.  On the other hand, OPOV goes from the whole to the parts — the reverse of how things are normally done.  The narrator knows everything that’s going on and may slip in things that the characters won’t know.

When you’re trying to learn about OPOV, start with thinking about the story being told by a single outside narrator, not the characters.

Omniscient POV: Watership Down

I’ve been working my way through a list of “Must Reads,” and this last week, Watership Down, a children’s book by Richard Ellis,was the book I picked.  It’s about a group of rabbits who leave their warren to find a new home, and one of themes is leadership.  The Omniscient POV (OPOV) is common in children’s books, and it’s used here to great effect.

A more traditional third person would be a challenge for this type of story.  Though it does have a protagonist, Hazel, the story is about a journey of a group of rabbits who are together most of the time.  In traditional third person, you can only see what the viewpoint character sees, so some characters would naturally be out of sight.  The OPOV narrator always gave me a sense of the presence of all the characters.

Omniscient is One Point of View

When I started writing in omniscient point of view (OPOV) three years ago, there wasn’t much available on the subject, then either warnings not to do it or tacit discouragement (i.e., listing all the pros of first person and all the cons of omniscient).  Lately, there’s been a lot of interest. 🙂

But with it comes the big misunderstanding about OPOV–that it’s multiple viewpoints.  All most people know about it–erroneously–is that it’s the head hopping POV.  That’s partially due to poor examples from people who don’t understand OPOV’s basic concept, and writers who are looking for head hopping mistakes without understanding what head hopping is.


Only one.

Yes, it can touch different characters so the reader can see what they’re thinking, but that’s filtered through the OPOV narrator.  NOT through a character’s eyes.

The single narrator seems to be a difficult concept to get.  It’s usually not a named character in the story–just a narrator in the background controlling the telling of the story.    Nancy Kress notes:

You can’t just jump around for no reason and stick in any old thoughts you happen to have. The authorial comments and the leaps from character to character should all create a single, strong impression.

The best way to gain an understanding is to read books in OPOV and study how the narrator works.