Save the Omniscience for Yo Mama and Big Brother
by Erin Brown
I work with incredibly talented
writers on a consistent basis (one manuscript per week is scrabbled
into tip-top shape, ready to ship out to agents and the literary
elite), and every so often, I like to report on writing trends that
have come across my desk.
I will compare this article to the
very hip Twitter “trending,” but from the much less high-tech
command center of Erin Edits (and much less hip; I’m typing
right now wearing acid-washed parachute pants).
My trend for the month is first-time
novelists who write in the omniscient perspective. These omniscient-philes
have been coming out of the woodwork like crazy lately, so I must
open up about why this perspective is very risky, usually completely
unnecessary, and ninety percent of the time, hinders your novel. And
let me begin by saying that most of the authors I’ve seen embracing
this perspective are naturally talented writers! They’ve simply
chosen the wrong storytelling technique.
As most of you know, the omniscient
perspective is a narrative
which a story is presented by a narrator with an overarching point
of view, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world
of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and
feeling. It’s often described as a
“god-like” perspective, also known in my home as a “Wife and Mother”
perspective. Both my husband and toddler son tend to wonder: “How
does she always know what I’m thinking/am thinking about getting
away with?” Yes, I am that good. But no matter how wonderfully this
omniscience serves me in my own life (“I know what the glint in your
eye means, Mister, and don’t you dare even think about eating that
Oreo and jelly sandwich ten minutes before dinner!” -- that one was
recently directed at my husband, not my son), the omniscient
perspective does not usually serve a novel, unless you’re writing a
sprawling saga along the lines of The Stand by Stephen King
or you’re crafting a
Gabriel García Márquez-esque
literary novel and have mastered the omniscient technique.
P.S., I have copyrighted “Quez-esque.”
It’s also a fact that many readers, including agents and editors,
find it quite difficult—and often downright unenjoyable—to read a
novel in omniscient perspective unless it is handled flawlessly and
used for a very good reason (if, for example, your name happens to
be J. R.R. Tolkien). Head-jumping into every character is often
exhausting, disconcerting, and ruins any sense of surprise for the
So if you’ve written something commercial, for example a mystery,
thriller, or piece of women’s fiction, it’s almost always a bad idea
to jump into everyone’s head using the omniscient perspective.
Writing in the omniscient perspective means that the reader knows
everything, so where’s the fun in that? Then the reader is simply
waiting for the main character to find out everything the reader
Omniscient perspective also doesn’t provide the reader with the
intimacy that a single, third-person POV provides. Ultimately that
means you don’t have a fully dimensional main character that the
reader cares about; we haven’t been allowed to be as deeply involved
with him or her because of the lack of focus on one character’s
perspective. This limits the emotional impact of a novel, and, to
me, hinders a compelling story and characters, when there’s simply
no reason to do so. Commercial novels are, most of the time, much
more enjoyable if written in third-person limited. In addition,
focusing on one character’s perspective will almost always
streamline the story.
Furthermore, giving the points of view of every single character
means that each character gets short shrift. We don’t get to know
anyone well enough to truly care about them, because you’re giving
everyone’s perspective, and there’s simply not enough space
to adequately explore each character. Giving some focus to your
perspective will make your novel exponentially better. I guarantee
it (*Thank you, Men’s Wearhouse).
Here’s an example of omniscient
As young Sarah walked down the
path, she could sense someone watching her.
The earthworm digging a hole in the grass near her feet
heard a twig snap behind him, and was startled, mostly because
he didn’t think that earthworms even had ears. The worm wiggled
backwards and observed a giant of a man holding a crowbar. The man
was unkempt, filthy, really, which is saying a lot coming from an
The man saw the fifteen-year-old girl look around,
holding her arms close, as if for protection. Good luck with
that, Sarah. No one can help you now. If Sarah had known that
her uncle was this crazy and this close, she would’ve hightailed it
out of there.
The girl slowly kept walking, her fear subsiding.
That was strange.
The earthworm agreed. You ain’t seen nuthin, yet, girl. That
nasty, muddy guy right there is up to no good. I can feel it in my
bones. Oh, wait, I’m an earthworm. I mean I can feel it in my
complex system of muscles.
As written in omniscient perspective, there’s no sense of surprise
(we know who’s stalking Sarah; hell, we know what the damn earthworm
is thinking). Writing in omniscient perspective, the author doesn’t
have time to get into Sarah’s head, build her character, or make her
fully realized and dimensional. Instead, I recommend writing from
only one main character’s point of view (third-person selective
singular) in order to keep the excitement, the unknown, alive for
the reader—especially in a commercial novel. Of course, you could
choose third-person selective multiple—consistently alternating
between a few main characters’ points of view—but make sure to
separate points of view by scene or chapter. In addition to building
a reader’s intimacy with your main character when you write with a
limited perspective, you’re also holding back details from the
reader so that the story is more stimulating, focused, and
consistent. If you’re jumping into everyone’s head (including those
who are segmented and eat soil), then everyone gets shafted,
including the reader.
Here’s the scene written from Sarah’s third-person selective
Sarah walked down the path, swinging her basket of
wildflowers. She’d been gathering them all morning, humming and
daydreaming, mostly about the new boy in class—the one with the
thick curls who’d taken to calling her “sweetie” from that very
first day. She smiled. Perhaps if she asked him to the dance,
Her heart skipped a beat. What was that? She
whirled around in the direction of the sound. An animal, perhaps?
She’d thought she was safe here.
She moved one foot in front of the other, increasing her
pace, trying not to panic. It was just a stupid squirrel or
something, Sarah, don’t be an idiot. He has no idea where you are.
The branches that had looked so welcoming only a moment
before extended ominously above her, and the sky seemed to cloud in
an instant. A shadow moved behind a tree. She tried to slow down her
breathing, looking over her shoulder, careful not to trip.
There’ll be no chance of escape if I fall. She kept moving
forward, praying, watching each step. A huge hand landed on her
shoulder and she heard his voice. She sank to her knees and her
A bit different, eh? The reader is left wondering—who is this
ominous threat? What does he want? You can feel the fear and the
reader gets to explore Sarah’s thoughts and feelings in a more
substantial way. There’s also more suspense—a reason to turn the
So before you decide to write in omniscient perspective, stop, think
about whether this technique will serve the novel and whether it’s
necessary. Usually, if your novel is character-driven or is a
commercial novel, mystery, or thriller, omniscient perspective is
not the way to go. Although, I must admit, I really do want to
know the earthworm’s thoughts about the meaning of life. . . and
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for
over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own
freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her
website at www.erinedits.com