Writing POV

Below is an article reposted from Helping Writers Become Authors. It explains the differences in writing points of view and provides examples. For our RPGs, we tend to write in deep 3rd Person POV with some Head-Hopping since each character is written by a different person. That means the end result of the post reveals the thoughts and actions of each character from each writer’s unique perspective. Confused now? Read on!

What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV

Writers don’t only have to decide which character’s point of view the story will be told in, they also have to figure out whether to then share that character’s narrative in first-person, third-person, second-person, or (*cue ominous rumbling*) omniscient POV.

The point of view (or POV) in which you tell your story’s narrative is arguably the single most important decision you can make about your book. POV will affect every single word choice. It will decide which scenes are included and which are not. It will influence your readers’ perception of your characters. It may even dictate the plot itself.

I get a lot emails from authors who are confused about omniscient POV. Most of them are getting slapped on the hand by editors for using it. Some are astonished to learn there even is such a thing, much less that it’s frowned upon. Omniscient POVs have a grand tradition going back to the beginnings of literature, and it’s no wonder many authors default to omniscient POV, since this is the narrative voice in which most of us humans tend to verbally share stories.

Why All the Fuss About the Omniscient POV?

So what’s the problem with the omniscient POV? Why are so many authors confused about it? And why are so many editors delivering digital hand slaps because of it?

Omniscient POVs are tricky. I have to admit, I always wince (just a little) whenever authors tell me they’re writing in omniscient. I’ll admit this upfront: not a big fan of the technique–if only because there is so much more intimacy to be found in the tighter POVs of first-person and deep third-person. Furthermore, because omniscient is a POV that has largely fallen into disuse, it can be a harder sell to agents and editors.

However, that isn’t to say the omniscient POV can’t be wielded effectively. We definitely do still see a book here and there that uses it (usually in the literary genre). But the omniscient POV can be challenging to get right. Authors often struggle to maintain a consistent omniscient voice and figure out how the omniscient POV differs from random head-hopping (which dips in and out of multiple characters’ tight narratives without warning).

Perhaps you’re one of those authors who is considering an omniscient POV for your story, or perhaps you’re already wielding an omniscient POV and struggling to understand why you’re taking flak for it. Today, we’re going to explore what makes the omniscient POV tick and how you can figure out if taking the chance on it is the right choice for your story.

What Is the Omniscient POV?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a quick exploration of the differences between the four major types of POV used in narrative fiction.

Omniscient POV

As its name suggests, the omniscient POV is one that tells its story from the perspective of a narrator (usually–implicitly–the author himself) who “knows all and sees all.” This narrator is rarely characterized or explained, and readers accept this without ever wondering who is telling the story. This narrative functions on the idea that the author/narrator already knows how the story will end. He is able to observe the thoughts and motives of all the characters (although still within certain limits, as we’ll discover in a minute). The omniscient narrative does not tell the story from the perspective of any particular character; rather, it observes all the events in an unbiased fashion and reports back to the reader.

EXAMPLE:

Excerpt from Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Who happens to be in the Lord Chancellor’s court this murky afternoon besides the Lord Chancellor, the counsel in the cause, two or three counsel who are never in any cause, and the well of solicitors before mentioned? There is the registrar below the Judge, in wig and gown; and there are two or three maces, or petty-bags, or privy purses, or whatever they may be, in legal court suits. These are all yawning; for no crumb of amusement ever falls from Jarndyce and Jarndyce (the cause in hand), which was squeezed dry years upon years ago. The short-hand writers, the reporters of the court, and the reporters of the newspapers, invariably decamp with the rest of the regulars when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes on. Their places are a blank. Standing on a seat at the side of the hall, the better to peer into the curtained sanctuary, is a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet, who is always in court, from its sitting to its rising, and always expecting some incomprehensible judgment to be given in her favor.

Third-Person POV

The third-person POV tells the story in the third-person, referring to all the characters with the third-person pronouns “he” and “she.” Technically, the omniscient POV is also told in third-person, but the distinction is that a deep or tight third-person POV restricts itself entirely to the perspective of a single character within any given scene. Usually, the protagonist is the primary narrator. Only details observed by the POV character or knowledge he has personally gleaned or assumed can be shared (i.e., if the narrator doesn’t know another character’s mother died, then the narrative can’t share that information with the readers).

EXAMPLE:

Excerpt from Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

Stepping out from the niche he’d been standing in, Azoth looked down the street toward the guild home, a hundred paces away. Maybe he didn’t need to go with Blint now. He’d killed Rat. Maybe he could go back and everything would be all right. Go back to what? I’m still too little to be the guild head. Ja’laliel’s still dying. Jarl and Doll Girl were still both maimed. There would be no hero’s welcome for Azoth. Roth or some other big would take over the guild, and Azoth would be afraid again, as if nothing had happened.

First-Person POV

In a first-person POV, the protagonist himself is telling the story directly to readers and referring to himself by the first-person pronouns “I” or “me.” Like deep third-person, first-person is entirely restricted to the thoughts and observations of the narrator. He can’t dip into the thoughts of other characters for the obvious reason that he can’t read their minds (unless, of course–he can).

EXAMPLE:

Excerpt from Cat Lady’s Secret by Linda Yezak

From the bus station to the hospital is a long five blocks–a miserable walk anytime, but especially in the mid-morning heat. My net is too short to use as a staff, so the best I can do is just limp along. The hospital entrance doors slide open. Frigid air from inside blasts out, evaporates the sweat on my face, and feels heaven-sent. People stare as I cross the polished gray floor to the elevator bank, same as they stared while I walked over here. I greet them head-on. I know I’m a sight. Who wouldn’t stare at an old woman in a bright green t-shirt and baggy plaid pants? Can’t blame them for that.

Second-Person POV

The second-person POV is used only rarely. It tells the story using the pronouns “you” or “your” to refer to the protagonist–in essence, making the story about the reader.

EXAMPLE:

Excerpt from If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Omniscient POV: Authorial Observation

The key to wielding an effective omniscient POV is all about maintaining a uniform narrative voice. The omniscient POV allows you to dip into multiple characters’ heads, but you will be acting more as an observer than a reporter. As a result, the omniscient POV is much more prone to telling, rather than showing—which means it’s (ironically) a much less immersive style than deep third-person or first-person.

The omniscient narrator observes the characters and draws in-the-know conclusions about their thoughts—rather than reporting the blow-by-blow, in-the-minute firing of their synapses. An omniscient narrative is sort of like you telling your friend about the plot of a movie you watched. Because you’ve seen the movie, you know how the story’s going to end and you can make educated guesses about the characters’ actual thoughts during the story–but you’re not in their heads as you’re re-telling their story.

What’s the Difference Between the Omniscient POV and “Head Hopping”?

A lot of authors who attempt the omniscient POV get shot down on accusations of “head hopping.” Head hopping is the common gaffe that occurs when the narrative breaks “out of POV” and jumps without warning from the perspective of one character into the perspective of another.

The key to understanding how omniscient POV differs from head-hopping is in our definition of  character “thoughts.” In a deep POV, every word of the narrative is technically going to be taking place inside the narrator’s head–and therefore is part of his thoughts. That’s not the case in an omniscient POV.

Rather, in the omniscient POV, the narrative is free to observe the mindsets of various characters. What it’s not free to do (at the risk of confusing readers) is portray those thoughts in the unique and personal voices of the individual characters. Basically, what that means is that direct thoughts are pretty much off-limits (although there will always be the occasional exception to confuse things).

For example, you might write:

“Jeb wanted to go home, Sally was happy to stay where she was, but Billy just wanted them to stop arguing.”

But you wouldn’t write:

Jeb stared out the windshield. Man! I just want this stupid vacation to end, so we can go home.

Beside him, Sally studiously flipped through her magazine. I don’t care what he says. I’m staying.

In the backseat, Billy covered his ears with his hands. Even when they’re not fighting, they’re fighting!

Credit: This article can be found at: Helping Writers Become Authors.