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Debunking Writing Myths: “Omniscient POV Is Bad”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Omniscient POV is bad—it’s lazy writing, it’s a sure sign of an amateur, it’s the same thing as head-hopping.

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Omniscient POV is not the same thing as head-hopping; those who do it well are masters of the craft and work hard at it.

Fiction written in Omniscient Point of View (OPOV) is more along the lines of what we might call Narrative Fiction. It can be any kind of story, but it’s narrated rather than seen/experienced through Deep Point of View (DPOV)—what we now see in most genre fiction. In OPOV, the author is basically narrating the story and can dip into any character’s thoughts at will. It tends to be more telling and less showing when it comes to the characters’ internal thoughts, motives, goals, actions, reactions, etc. And it’s usually written in third person—though there are stories written in omniscient style with a first-person narrator: one who witnessed what was happening but is not actually the protagonist of the story (e.g., Moby Dick).

OPOV is the style we see most often in classic literature: Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens. For example, from Dickens’s Bleak House*:

Mr. Tulkinghorn glances over his spectacles and begins again lower down. My Lady carelessly and scornfully abstracts her attention. Sir Leicester in a great chair looks at the file and appears to have a stately liking for the legal repetitions and prolixities as ranging among the national bulwarks. It happens that the fire is hot where my Lady sits and that the hand-screen is more beautiful than useful, being priceless but small. My Lady, changing her position, sees the papers on the table–looks at them nearer—looks at them nearer still—asks impulsively, “Who copied that?”

      *In Bleak House, Dickens employed a mixed POV—alternating between third-person/present-tense and first-person/past-tense. You can read more about that here.

What separates OPOV from head-hopping is the fact that the omniscient narrator maintains a distance from the characters, even though he occasionally will let the reader in on what the character is thinking—but, again, in a style that’s more told than shown. Here’s another example of OPOV, from Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility:

Elinor, resolving to exert herself, though fearing the sound of her own voice, now said, “Is Mrs. Ferrars at Longstaple?”

“At Longstaple!” he replied with an air of surprise. “No, my mother is in town.”

“I meant,” said Elinor, taking up some work from the table, “to inquire after Mrs. Edward Ferrars.”

She dared not look up—but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes upon him. He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and after some hesitation, said, “Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. Robert Ferrars.”

“Mrs. Robert Ferrars!” was repeated by Marianne and her mother, in an accent of the utmost amazement—and though Elinor could not speak, even her eyes were fixed on him with the same impatient wonder. He rose from his seat and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissors that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke, said, in an hurried voice,

“Perhaps you do not know—you may not have heard that my brother is lately married to—to the youngest—to Miss Lucy Steele.”

Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.

Authors experienced with using this POV are actually narrating what’s going on inside the character’s head. It isn’t the character’s direct thoughts. Authors who write in a head-hopping style jump from one character’s thoughts to another without any transition between them, sometimes from sentence to sentence, sometimes within the same long sentence. Headhopping is jarring and sometimes confusing. For example, from my 200,000+-word “epic” written in the 1990s (before I knew anything about the craft of writing):

Brandon was impressed by Elisa’s strength and endurance. She carried some of the heavier boxes of books without even batting an eye.

When they were done carrying everything in, they both collapsed onto the parquet floor in the dining room, right next to one of the air conditioning vents. “Thanks for the help, Elisa. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. Besides, I didn’t have anything else better to do with my Friday afternoon. Well, are you ready to take the truck back now?”

“Yeah. But I think I’m going to put a dry T-shirt on. Do you want to borrow one so that you can get cleaned up a little bit before we go?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Elisa followed Brandon upstairs. She felt kind of strange now, following him up to his bedroom to borrow one of his shirts. She was getting a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach, and she knew it was because her crush on Brandon was increasing in intensity exponentially the more time she spent with him.

Brandon wasn’t sure what was going on in his head. The more time he spent with Elisa, the more he liked her. And the more he liked her, the more time he wanted to spend with her. They were nothing alike at all. She loved to chatter and talk and be with people all the time, and he preferred to either be by himself or just one or two other people. He realized that he felt differently about Elisa than he had about Ash when he first met her.

Can you now see the difference between OPOV and head-hopping? Omniscient POV is more of of a “godlike” viewpoint on the story and one in which the narrator of the story becomes an invisible extra character. Head-hopping is trying to write in deep-third-person POV without sticking to the rule of just one character’s viewpoint per scene—and that’s lazy writing. Omniscient POV is not bad or wrong—if you have a good grasp on how to do it and aren’t actually just head-hopping.

However, for genre fiction, editors are looking for authors who have a good command of writing Limited Third Person—meaning only one viewpoint character per scene. Limiting yourself to only one character’s viewpoint per scene will not only strengthen your story, it will also strengthen your skills as a writer. [You can break a scene into two character’s viewpoints—as long as you’re giving each character a sufficient chunk of the scene (e.g., at least 1,000 words) before changing viewpoints with a definitive scene break.]

Sub-Myth: Bestselling authors in my genre head-hop and use omniscient POV, so I can, too. Many bestselling authors are grandfathered in and don’t have to write to the same requirements that an untried, unpublished, or newly published author must live up to. Why? Well, let’s look at what they’re doing right instead of what they’re doing wrong. The reason these authors have gained bestseller status is because they’re first and foremost great storytellers. They craft compelling characters. They’re experts at generating suspense. They use words in describing the setting the way a painter uses oils to create a masterpiece. And they sell books.

What are some of your favorite examples of books written in Omniscient POV? What are some books that you thought were OPOV but now realize are head-hopping? Have you ever tried writing OPOV? How did it go for you?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, January 11, 2011 1:39 am

    Great article Kaye! I write in LTP and never really gave this much thought, I instinctively felt it was the best way for me to tell my story. As a challenge though I would like to try OPOV and the ‘god-like’ overview, but strangely that scares me a little. I have read so many brilliant books done in that style and admire it, but have doubts it would suit the way my mind works! I like the way it is easy to add suspense and intrigue (keeping the reader waiting for information) by moving between characters (in my case usually about 5). Interested to hear other people’s views.

    Like

  2. Tuesday, January 11, 2011 8:04 am

    I read Bleak House this past year and was fascinated by the mixed types of narrative. It took me quite a while to catch on to it, though.

    I particularly struggled with POV in the novel draft I did for NaNo. Like Linn, I felt that writing from different characters’ POV suited my story best, but I kept hitting snags in places where I felt that the narrative needed to switch to another character. For instance, what about having your MC enter a room midway through a scene? I felt that what happens after that would be best from his perspective, but I wanted to explain what some minor characters already in the room were thinking before he got there. Can you start out in OPOV and switch to LTP?

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  3. Tuesday, January 11, 2011 2:42 pm

    I head hop more than lice on steroids. I’ve really had to work on not doing it.

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  4. Tuesday, January 11, 2011 2:53 pm

    Starting out writing fanfiction, you automatically head-hop. I don’t anymore, and I’ve noticed other fanfic writers that are published or seeking publication sticking to LTP. Now sometimes I lapse into OPOV by mistake, but it’s few and far between these days–fortunately for my critique partner! 🙂

    I was trying to think of books in OPOV. The first “novel” I ever read was “The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew.” I just glanced through it. Definitely OPOV. Then I thought about the “Little House” books, and glanced through “On The Banks of Plum Creek.” Nope. Limited Third Person. Totally from Laura’s POV.

    Like

  5. Tuesday, January 11, 2011 2:53 pm

    I used to head hop all over the place. I don’t anymore. It’s a lot more fun to stick to one character’s POV. More challenging too.

    Phantom of the Opera uses OPOV. It works very well. There’s one chapter all about the journey of a safety pin from one pocket to another, with a note for the phantom attached to it. It’s my favorite part of the book!

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  6. Saturday, February 5, 2011 8:25 pm

    Thank you for this post! I get tired of seeing people call it the “head hopping POV.” Even some of the writing how-to books get it completely wrong. Authors/books in omni:
    Clive Cussler
    Tamora Pierce
    Philip Pullman
    JRR Tolkein
    JK Rowlings (Yes, Harry Potter is most definitely omni)
    The Book Thief
    J.D. Robb
    Stephen King

    Like

  7. Ken permalink
    Sunday, October 21, 2012 2:44 am

    Nice discussion. I am familiar with the older form of OPOV and like it. I just started reeading Shogun by James Clavell and noticed how he changes POV mid-scene, using only a new paragraph. I am not sure is this is really head hopping. Since I am used to writing in Limited 3rd person or First person POV, Ifound it confusing at first, but it seems to work even if a bit annoying because he has such a good story and good characters .

    Like

  8. Darrin permalink
    Wednesday, March 13, 2013 8:19 am

    TBH, not convinced. In the Jane Austen example it is not OPOV because everything can be experienced via Elinor. Consider rereading as she is guessing at other people’s emotions by their action.

    The Bleak House example is a perfect example of annoying head popping. Again I know I’m caught up in the current zeitgeist of non OPOV; I don’t care for it for various reasons. But still the point is that paragraph by paragraph or line by line authors head pop when using OPOV.

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Trackbacks

  1. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 1 « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writer-Talk Tuesday: Let’s Talk POINT OF VIEW « KayeDacus.com
  3. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Debunking Writing Myths | KayeDacus.com

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