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 mode in 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 havemastered 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 reader.
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 already knows.
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 perspective:
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 earthworm.
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 singular perspective:
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, he’d—
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 shoulders sagged.
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 page.
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 fishing.
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