Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pros & Cons of the Omniscient POV

How many of you have tried omniscient point of view? That’s when the author can write how any of the characters are feeling, and what they are observing. Unlike first person POV, where the narration stems from one person, or third person limited, where the “I” becomes “he” or “she”, but is still limited to one POV, omniscient can wander, from one person’s POV to another, but also in camera scope, from an extreme close up to a cinematic long shot, which describes the action from a distance.

The omniscient POV, or OPV, was out of favor for a very long time, especially in young adult literature, which favored extremely close first person POV, in the style of Catcher in the Rye’s stream of consciousness rants. OPV is hard to write well, because in fiction for kids and teens you still have to make sure you are telling a story with a main character, who will remain the focus. Thus, you have to have a strong editorial sense of when to go into another character’s head—it must be crucial to the forward action, not simply because you want to “head-jump” as some editors derisively call OPV.

So, why use OPV at all if it’s so tricky? Will it ever shake its bad reputation? Or, on the other hand, is it coming back in favor? More and more YA books seem to be in OPV. Ursula K. Le Guin, a well-known fantasy writer defends the OPV when she says, “the voice of the narrator who knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters. It cannot be dismissed as old-fashioned or uncool.” Why then, has it been so discouraged in writing workshops, and even in MFA creative writing programs? Perhaps, because it is so easy to do badly! The downside is that we limit our options from our automatic negativity and fear of it. As Gwenda Bond says in her excellent Vermont College MFA thesis, “By rejecting the storyteller's (OPV) voice, we lose far more than we gain… The omniscient narrator is no more intrinsically artificial than a first-person narrator telling the tale, or of a third person limited perspective that comes from a vaporous invisible teller.”

Some authors swear by the OPV when writing multilayered fantasy, or where it adds to the story to have a scene, let’s say, in a wizard’s den where one has access to his plotting and planning, independent of the hero being there. Again, think of it as using three or four cameras in various locations, instead of being limited to one camera angle—the eye of the hero or heroine. OPV is also a way to delve deeply and quickly into the characters’ motivations, and bring out historic information.

More and more authors are using OPV, to great effect! A favorite of mine is Nancy Werlin’s Impossible. She exhibits masterful control over when and where she switches viewpoint, doing so only when it is crucial to the plot. Other examples are Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and Marcus Zusaks’ The Book Thief.

For more information on this subject, check out Gwenda Bond’s thesis, Eye for a God’s Eye: The Bold Choice of the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction for Young Adults:

For another good post on OPV visit Justine Larbalestier’s blog:

Or this helpful post from Five Editors & You:

Have you ever tried to write in OPV? Do you see evidence that it’s coming back in fashion? Any OPV novels you would recommend? What's your favorite POV to write in?


  1. One thing the OPV narrator can do is hover over the world of the novel and set its tone, or perhaps, mediate it to the reader: "THIS is the world you are entering."

    The omniscient narrator isn't necessarily non-specific at all. I'm thinking of a few different writers here: Edward P Jones, in The Known World and in some of his short stories--it's hard to describe the quality of almost regal dignity that his narrator imparts to the characters even before they do or say much of anything.

    The opening of The Known World: "The evening his master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins...When he, Moses, finally freed himself of the ancient and brittle harvest that connected him to the oldest mule his master owned, all that was left of the sun was a five inch long memory of red orange laid out in still waves across the horizon between two mountains on the left and one on the right. He had been in the fields for all of fifteen hours. He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself around him." There is already something monumental and significant in this scene, yet no events have taken place.

    And in children's literature, I have always loved E. Nesbit, who lived before it occurred to anyone to criticize the OPV narrator as a flighty 'head jumper.' From Five Children and It: "Now that I have begun to tell you about the place, I feel that I could go on and make this into a most interesting story about all the ordinary things the children did--just the kind of things you do yourself, you know--and you would believe every word of it; and when I told you about the children's being tiresome, as you are sometimes, your aunts would perhaps write in the margin of the story with a pencil, "how true!" or "How like life!" and you would see it and very likely be annoyed. So I will only tell you the really astonishing things that happened, and you may leave the book about quite safely, for no aunts and uncles either are likely to write "how true!" on the edge of the story. Grown up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grownups know this. That is why they will tell you that the world is round like an orange, when you can perfectly well see that it is flat and lumpy..."

    As a child, I knew of course that the world was round, yet this made perfect sense to me. It said something about the way adults killed the things of the imagination, and I loved the book for affirming it.

    This kind of intrusive narrator is extremely hard to pull off without sounding fey or controlling or cute or pompous. Maybe it helps if you're writing in England in 1905. But anything goes, I say, as long as you can pull it off.

  2. I like it but you're right, it's super hard to pull off well :)

    PS Thanks for visiting my blog :)

  3. I believe it's that story that must come first. If omniscient does it best, then that's what it must be. There are skills in storytelling and one of those skills is knowing the pov that works.

    Glad to read such an interesting discussion o pov.

  4. James Joyce used it in Ulysses and took it to the ultimate in Finnegans Wake where EVERYONE'S point of view is happening simultaneously, and it's almost totally unreadable, of course. It requires certain skills, decisions, to go for it, but the payoffs can be insanely good.

  5. Everyone's POV simultaneously? Sounds like a 3D nightmare! Thanks all for such pithy thoughts.

  6. Thanks for the overview on omniscient POV, Catherine. It's hard to stay in close limited through a whole book, but adding other POVs can get confusing when the characters finally meet - whose POV do you use? I've found character is king, and people seem to become more invested in close limited, even though it's hard to write. I think, particularly in Sci-Fi, omniscient is a workable alternative. I think you are more free to experiment and break rules in Sci-Fi. (I love Sci-Fi!)

    Thanks for the thoughtful and perceptive discussion. Great post!

  7. Yes, it's common in sci fi or big fantasies, but I keep hearing about more and more YA authors who are using it. Thanks, Laura for adding your thoughts. I love sci fi too!

  8. I think you hit the nail square on the head when you said OPV is easy to get wrong. It's easy for a writer to drift into another character's head to convey information that may or may not be detrimental to the story. I think many beginners end up doing this, and it reduces the impact of the story.

    But, when done well, this can add an incredible layer of depth to a story. The catch is that the reader still needs to connect with all the characters who narrate, and all those characters need to have their own growth arc. Not for the feint of heart. :)

  9. I like OPV, but it can be very hard to pull off. Great post, and some really helpful posts! Good luck with your project.