We were about to jump into the cold, deceptively clear waters of the omniscient viewpoint.
The great and powerful illix writes:
How do you reconcile scene description with a first-person narrative, i.e. how can a single person describe something that is by its nature much, much bigger than any individual? Large dramatic scenes almost seem to require an omniscient perspective to establish scale. (I have in mind here the Lord of the Rings movies, which jump between individual narratives but still convey a sense of epic conflict.)
Let’s think about how many questions that raises. Are we talking about a narrative where one single person goes from place to place? Or a narrative where we jump from one person to a different person? (Because then you’re not in first any more.) And when it comes to a movie, how can you be in first at all? Leap into the whirlpool with me, my friends, and appreciate the real complexity of what we’re getting involved with.
You’ll recall that first person and third-person limited were similar in being confined within someone’s skull. In third-person omniscient, you can dip into the head of anyone you like, skipping from one character to another like a stone across a pond. “So, tightropegirl, that’s the real difference between limited third and omniscient? I can head-hop?” Actually — no. There are many novels where the viewpoint moves among, say, five different characters — but each time it does, we see, hear, and know only what that character sees, hears, and knows. That’s really taking your “limited third” ticket and moving from compartment to compartment on the train; it’s not flying above, seeing the train as a whole, the way an omniscient viewpoint does.
In omniscient viewpoint, as in first-person, there is a single voice telling the story to the audience. That voice is the author’s (or, to be careful about this, it’s the voice being presented as the author’s). That voice will invite you in to share the thoughts of various characters as the story is told; or it may stand aside for a moment and talk about politics or war or the weather; or it may come right out and address the reader, or comment on the reader’s perceptions. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Who’s saying that, and to whom? The god of that universe is speaking, and he’s speaking to us.
Here are two classic examples of first person and third-person omniscient:
Reader, I married him.
The anxiety which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, will not extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together toward perfect felicity.
The first are the famous words of Jane Eyre, fictional character, telling you about an important event in her story. The second, which occurs three pages before the end of the book, and which I often quote for sheer love, is Jane Austen sharing with the reader her gently humorous awareness that structure gives away plot.
(As, of course, it does; especially when you’re dealing with any kind of sub-genre the audience knows, from Law and Order to the latest romance novel. “The blond prep school kid can’t be the killer — we’re only ten minutes into the show.” “It can’t be pancreatitis; that’s the first guess.” “Her wedding can’t possibly go this smoothly — the movie’s barely begun, and I know it’s a comedy, so hijinks are probably gonna ensue any second now…” Of course, every now and then the prep-school kid will turn out to be the killer, just to keep the audience from becoming too complacent; but Jane Austen is never going to think, “Hmm, since everyone expects Catherine to marry Henry, I think I’ll have her mowed down and killed by a runaway carriage instead.” Because that would be a betrayal of the audience. Well, she’s also not going to think it because Jane Austen is dead, but as a writer I have to think the former reason is more important. –Hmm, I suppose I should write about structure at some point, shouldn’t I, and that noble tension between wanting to surprise and satisfy the audience but also wanting to be true to the story and characters you’ve set up? I love seeing how other writers handle this; it’s one challenge that’s never going to go away no matter how many years of experience you have.)
Limited third is more immediate than omniscient — and, though we saw in the last post that it can almost be a twin to first person, it’s more immediate than that as well. In limited third, you cannot get sentences like, “Richard knew the doctors were right, but he was not ready to acknowledge it, even to himself.” If you choose, you can write that sentence in first person — a narrator’s reflections, much later, on his earlier, unenlightened self; or you can write it in omniscient third, since the authorial voice has a similar distance and maturity of judgment. But tight, limited third is too in-the-moment.
Of course, you can signal exactly the same information to the audience while in tight third; you can have, for instance, a conversation between Richard and a friend in which his denial is clear. But you can’t come out and say it in the storyteller’s voice. Because that’s what first and omniscient have in common: someone’s narrating a story, and the audience is assumed to be present. In tight third, the audience and author are unacknowledged; the story is a found object, sufficient to itself — a small, alternate universe. No one’s telling it. It just is.
And only in omniscient third does the author know things about the character that the character doesn’t, and can share them directly with the audience. In Austen’s Emma, the heroine, having made a hash of things, looks at a girl she’d been mentoring and decides that girl is really her moral superior, and that she, Emma, should emulate her. And it’s a touching moment, in a way, because Harriet really is a good-hearted girl, but she’s obviously nowhere near Emma’s equal in intelligence or education. And the truth is, Emma tends to get enthusiastic about things and make resolutions she can’t keep. Austen, of course, sees all angles; so she can’t help mocking, gently:
It was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant; but she left her with every previous resolution confirmed of being humble and discreet, and repressing imagination all the rest of her life.
The downside of omniscient is that it can seem detached and emotionless compared with the fiery and immediate world of limited third — that’s always the danger of a godlike view. Even when Austen smiles affectionately at a heroine she loves as she mocks her, there’s still that distance, as of someone smiling at the foibles of a child. We’re no longer directly living in a character’s shoes, feeling each pinch; we’re watching them. (Remember that when we talk about television and film.) To oversimplify horribly, it’s the difference between being that character and appreciating that character.
Omniscient has advantages, though. One of the criticisms of telling a big, sweeping story through third-person limited is that the head-hopping can be too much of a shock. Where the omniscient narrator would show you someone’s thoughts from above, in limited third you’re right down there among them, plunged into the hero’s mind, deeply partaking of their POV. It’s like getting stuck in taffy. That’s why beginning writers are often advised not to change from one character’s POV to another too quickly; the taffy pull can be annoying to the reader. Here they are, having plummeted fathoms down into the mind of stalwart Lancelot, as he climbs the wall of the palace by night, in desperate suspense that he not be caught, and suddenly you’re tossing them out of his head and into that of the castle bookkeeper. And then you’re thrown out of his mind, as though by a trampoline, and you land squarely in the sitting room of the Lady of Shalott. Stop driving me crazy, the reader thinks. Who am I supposed to be?
The force of the taffy pull — something like that of gravity — wants to keep the reader in one character’s POV. You can lessen the sticky factor by changing viewpoints less often, and at places where you can train your audience to expect it — new chapters, for instance, or following very long scene breaks. Later in the novel, when the reader’s learned to love and commit to the characters, you can get away with shorter and quicker cuts.
(Disclaimer: this is not a rule. There are no rules, except the ones of grammar; there is only what works and what doesn’t in any particular case. I’ve seen good writers do shocking things with POV and get away with it like a thief in the night, without the reader even consciously noticing. The vague guidelines I’m talking about here are just that; and their purpose is to show you how the wheels and cogs operate. If you can ignore them and achieve your aims, then let nothing stand in your way — you are the evil mastermind of your own work. I’ve seen young writers say, “But if do X, won’t people criticize me for breaking the rule?” The only rule here is: tell a good story that people want to read. Damn, there’s another essay in that…)
There’s a lot of freedom in omniscient; the dip inside someone’s mind tends to be shallower — remember, you’re not the character, you’re watching the character — so the author’s more at liberty to skip from one person to the next, skimming over the map of the action like a gull. Let’s look at Lancelot & Co. again, in omniscient:
But while Lancelot was doing great violence to the ivy vine outside Guinevere’s window and the Lady of Shalott was pacing to and fro beside her mirror, twining her fingers through her wiry brown hair, as she always did when she was nervous, Geoffrey was just settling down to his accounts by the light of a tallow candle. And here the Lady’s plan began to go awry; for the magic rug of reeds, which would have forestalled disaster had Arthur only known about it, had not yet arrived. Geoffrey knew it was lying in the boat by the pier, but it had not yet been unloaded, and therefore he did not enter it as “Rug of reeds, one” in his account-book. He was a careful man, attentive to detail, and until it passed through his hands, it did not yet exist. Not even by name, as something not yet arrived — for here is the unfortunate fact about bookkeeping in the Dark Ages: it was by Roman numeral, and there was no term for zero.
The author feels free to tell you about three different characters, their tasks and aims, in one paragraph. And Lancelot does “great violence” to the ivy vine — that’s not how Lancelot is thinking of it; that’s the storyteller, commenting wryly. Because that’s what’s going on, in omniscient; imagine a storyteller beside a fire, holding the attention of a group of villagers. “Wait, let me tell you about this part! And now I’m going to skip ahead!” Why, I’ll even talk to you about Arabic numbers, something none of my characters know anything about.
In omniscient third, the narrator/storyteller exists — and here we’ve come right around to first person again. Someone is talking to you, telling a story — it’s just that the story isn’t about them. The author may never use the word “I” from the beginning of their 600-page epic to the end, but you can sense their presence. Then again, they may come right out with it. Here’s Austen once more, opening the final chapter of Mansfield Park:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.
And look at the next paragraph!
My Fanny indeed at this very time, I have the satisfaction of knowing, must have been happy in spite of everything.
“My” Fanny! The author claims her openly, making her partiality known. (Even though she still treats her as if Fanny had an independent existence — “must have been” happy.)
And because the POV here is really of one mind, that of the author, we can skip quite happily all around the chessboard with them. No taffy-pull to hold us back as we move from character to character. Tellingly, omniscient novels often begin with the big picture, setting the stage — because it is a stage, and we acknowledge storyteller and story. Remember how in first and limited third you were just thrown into somebody’s life without warning, in the very first sentence, seeing, hearing, and feeling what they do? Let’s look at some opening sentences from omniscient stories:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
In other words, “Sit down. I have a story to tell.” Omniscient’s been making a comeback in the past decade or so. (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which furnishes our second quotation above, is an example of a wide-ranging world described omnisciently, right down to the lovely footnotes.) There’s often a playfulness to omniscience that I think comes from that godlike perspective; the narrator’s above the action, looking down, swooping in to show us a tidbit here, a vista there. It can be a bit show-offy, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I for one am ready to applaud any acrobat who executes glittering spirals over my head.
The downside is that sometimes it can verge on soulless, especially in the eyes of a reader used to the close emotional grip of deep-immersion, limited third. Limited third has enormous power to suck you into someone’s life; in omniscient, you’re charmed by the storytelling. It is artifice undisguised. (I happen to love artifice, but not everyone does. And to be honest, I find it’s often easier to put down such books; that as a whole, they lack that stuck-taffy quality. But again, I’m making sweeping generalizations here — take it all with a grain of salt.)
After all, most readers can state firmly which of Austen’s heroes and heroines they prefer, and why; the author’s affection for the characters can be transmissible, just as in limited third. In the end everything depends on the god-author of that particular universe and what choices they’ve made. But from my talk of “setting the stage” and “watching the characters” you can see that omniscient has a lot in common with drama.
On to TV and film! Eventually.