Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Steampunk World's Guide to Viewpoints: Omniscient

Newbie writers are often warned not to use the omniscient viewpoint. Reasons are often not given. The reasons are simple.
  • It is hard to use right

  • It's often used wrong

Because of the sheer volume of newbie writers getting it wrong, a lot of places give this advice. I think giving advice on how to do it right would be much more beneficial, so that's what I'm going to do.

What is the omniscient viewpoint?

It is a 3rd person viewpoint. It is different from the 3rd person limited POV that is currently the most common in fiction because the limited viewpoint is restricted to one character per scene. A lot of people think the omniscient viewpoint is invested in several characters, but this is a common misconception.

This viewpoint is, instead, in the head of a God-like being. This being floats over the scene. It can enter the heads of any character in the scene. It has vast benefits over all the other viewpoints, but it has weaknesses, too.

The key to the successful use of this God-view is knowing it's strengths and weaknesses.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?

Who knows?

If you want to write about a tree falling when no one is around, or if you want to write about the formation of a wormhole leading to another universe, or the inner workings of a vast steampunk machine, or indeed anywhere that there is no character (and thus, no possible POV to be your camera) you can use omniscient.

This is one of the strengths of the omniscient viewpoint; use it when there is no one else around.

The Mystery Prologue

I'm calling this one the Mystery Prologue. That's where it's used most commonly. If you've read a mystery, you'll know what I'm talking about. The murder scene that the detective later has to solve. You have the killer, and the victim. You can't tell the scene from the victim's point-of-view, unless you're happy with him becoming a ghost halfway through. You can't tell the story from the murderer's point-of-view, either. You need him to remain anonymous (otherwise it isn't much of a mystery).

Omniscient viewpoint is the only answer. Of course, not all mysteries have a prologue. Dresden Files spring to mind as one (series) that doesn't.

Old Style

When writing about steampunk, some writers like to write in a Victorian manner. Personally, I don't (my readers aren't Victorians, after all) but if you do, remember that they primarily wrote in omniscient. See Jane Austen for examples of the Old Style.

Little Did he Know...

...he'd be dead by morning. This is a type of writing where the narrator reveals things the character can't possibly know. This is done to great effect in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, where he reveals things that are to come. When they actually come to pass, however, they are revealed to be totally different than expected.


Okay, so I don't know what else to call this. Terry Pratchett has his own omniscient style where jokes are a large (and awesome) part of the narration. I don't advise you to try and copy it, but if you can, go for it. There are any number of horror writers, epic fantasy writers, etc. There's only one Terry Pratchett.

So, how do we use omniscient?

There are tricks to using omniscient properly.

  • Don't go into someone's head unless you have to. Action scenes and descriptive passages are better told from the God POV.
  • When you do go into someone's head, don't go in too deep. A light brushing of surface thoughts should suffice. If you go in deep, it is harder to come back out.
  • If you reveal the future (a la Lemony Snicket) be aware that constantly revealing what is coming will leach away tension.
  • If you change characters too quickly, it is head-hopping. Head-hopping is baaad!
  • Omniscient tells more than it shows, and telling is baaad, too.
  • It is the most impersonal viewpoint, and can make it harder for the readers to care about the characters.

And that's omniscient viewpoint for you.

I fancy doing bad-ass characters next. We'll see...

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I do not agree with your murder mystery omniscient view. I find that if the murder takes place from the murderer's POV and the author gives him an alias (for example, some of James Patterson's mystery novels), it actually makes the scene more intriguing. If done right, a look inside the head of a killer (or any antagonist, really) makes the book that much more exciting.