Writing Third Person Omniscient Point Of View.

Omniscient pov isn’t well loved by many (including myself), and that’s for primarily one reason: most people who write in omniscient pov have no idea what makes omniscient pov worthwhile or how to utilize it. 

Many writers use omniscient pov as an easy way to get out of writing a good limited third person pov. This is absolutely terrible, and it results in a lot of omniscient pov stories where:

  • The narrator has no voice.
  • The story has no focus.
  • The suspense is lost.
  • The writing is just plain sloppy.

These aren’t characteristics of omniscient pov though – they’re characteristics of bad writing.

Tumblr user prokopetz posted a great explanation a few years ago:

My advice when folks are struggling with writing in the third-person omniscient is to Lemony Snicket it up. Give your omniscient narrator strong opinions about what’s going on. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the third-person omniscient perspective must also use the objective voice; those are two separate things, and many of the most popular and successful writers who’ve written in the third-person omniscient do not, in fact, use the objective voice.

Writers often believe that omniscient pov tells the whole story like it is, giving a broad picture of the world and letting the reader decide for themselves what it’s all about.

But that bulldozers over a large part of the why we tell stories to begin with.

Every good, engaging story, even an omniscient one, needs to be telling a specific account, with a specific focus, and specific themes. Either the narrator or the story must be saying something meaningful to the audience, or the story won’t be worth anything to its reader.

But how do we actually do this?

Sometimes you can make your narrator be a literal Lemony Snicket – another character who exists outside the story and is telling the story to the reader – but even if your narrator’s ‘existence’ is never revealed, you can still treat them like a character, with bias and personality and voice, and this will shape the narration into something intriguing and consistent.

Try asking yourself these types of questions:

  • What is this story about on a thematic level? (Lemony Snicket doesn’t just tell a story about some orphans who’s uncle wants their fortune; he tells an unfortunate series of events.)
  • Who is telling the story and why? (What type of person is this narrator, and why did they chose to tell this particular story?)
  • What does this storyteller focus on and what do they believe about the story?
  • What knowledge and general understanding do they have of the story and characters? (This includes your narrator’s knowledge of things outside what’s happening in the story, like science and history and so-forth.)
  • What quirks does your narrator have in their voice? (How do they communicate, what do they communicate, what words do they prefer to use?)

In the end, your narrator should have a voice and personality as vibrant and interesting as your main characters. Which means: If you don’t know how to write a good limited third person point of view, it’s incredibly useful to learn to write that first.

Understanding and pulling off good omniscient pov often requires knowing why third person limited functions and works, because good omniscient is, in many ways, just a more complicated third person limited in which your narrator is a complex concept you have to set and manage instead of a simple person you can easily determine the boundaries of in any given point.

Moral of the story:

Omniscient is not an easier third person pov that lets you get around all those icky third person limited rules. Omniscient is a highly complex and difficult to pull off pov which requires a lot of thought and skill on the part of the writer.

Omniscient is not a pov that lets you get away with telling everyone’s story at once without bothering to actually be in any of their stories. Omniscient is a pov in which your narrator is essentially their own complex character you have to manage and understand, who is telling a specific story for a specific reason.

Now, does this mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule? Certainty! But if you aren’t a five time best seller, you probably aren’t the exception.

And now for the mandatory self-promo: You can support me and my advice giving capabilities by reading my sirens and pirates debut novel, Our Bloody Pearl! 

One Comment on “Writing Third Person Omniscient Point Of View.

  1. Good point! I have tried experimenting with POV and even with changing it in the course of a story. I think the overall “rule” is not to confuse the reader. To me, changes can occur, if signaled or in large enough chunks with transitions. The problem is, it’s hard for me to know what is or is not confusing for a reader who doesn’t have the story as a whole in mind the way I do. I recall being completely lost at the beginning of Watership Down, e.g., because I assumed at first that the story was being told from the viewpoint of a human being. Anyway, you might enjoy these articles on stories and storytelling as well. https://petersironwood.com/2019/01/18/the-story-of-story-4-character/

    Liked by 1 person

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