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Thoughts on Omniscient Narrators

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Black Dragon, May 2, 2019.

  1. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    I never said that it didn't have the power to entrance readers, I just find that it's easier to do with a limited narrator. I like Lord of the Rings as well. Yet, when I first read it I found that I struggled to connect with the characters, possibly in part due to the omniscient perspective.

    I've never kept a running tally of books which I've read are told from an omniscient perspective, but given that I've read hundreds of books in my lifetime I'd be willing to put the count at least in the several dozens. Granted, though, I don't really pay too much attention to the narrator if the story is being told well. I didn't realize that the Hunger Games was written in present tense until years later when someone mentioned it on this site. Then again, omniscient is the only perspective where I'll be reading along and think "you know, this story would be better if written from a different POV." I've also noticed that stories written in omniscient have a huge tendency to tend to tell instead of show, but I'd consider that more a failing of the author than the POV.

    Maybe I should rephrase my opinion a bit. Any POV has the power to be immersive, but I've noticed that omniscient is easier to abuse and tends to fail more often than others, and when it fails it tends to fail hard and completely drag me out of the immersion.

    Like you said though, it's a matter of personal preference. You might have the exact opposite experience from me.
     
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  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    A multi-POV 3rd Limited is a close cousin to 3rd Om, where the narrator stays tight to one POV at a time... in a sense, because even there, the narrator reserves the right to pull back into a more Om perspective, depending on whether the writer wants to stay in a tight 3rd or the looser 3rd Limited.

    There’s so much crossover here... And if I recall, Wheel of Time opens chapters in a 3rd Om and switches into the 3rd Limited. What I would call panning the narrative camera.

    Personal preference to read is 3rd, and I don’t care what type.
     
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  3. robinlxs

    robinlxs Dreamer

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    My experience has been a lot of people mistake omniscient POV for head hopping. It’s hard to execute well.
     
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  4. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    I agree, robinlxs.
     
  5. Heidi Hanley

    Heidi Hanley Dreamer

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    I agree. I think the key is writing omniscient well. If not, it can be hard to follow. I tried it once. And only once.
     
  6. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    I'm honestly confused by a lot of comments on here like this. Not to pick on you specifically but it's the overall belief that it should be done well. ANYTHING in writing needs to be done "well" and that is hella subjective. As with all things in the craft, practice is what makes you a stronger writer. If you're going to think that writing in omniscient is "too hard and needs to be done well" then you're only preventing yourself (and others who believe this bologna) from advancing in a skill of the craft.
     
  7. Rkcapps

    Rkcapps Sage

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    I don't usually read omniscient, but last week I read one of the best in modern literature from a debut author (someone who clearly took time to learn the craft before debuting). Elizabeth Arden's, Bear and the Nightgale. Part fantasy, based around Russian fairytales. I finished it in 2 days.
     
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    As a reader, I've encountered poor execution. Whether the approach was intended to be 3rd Om or was instead bad head-hopping in what was meant to be 3rd limited isn't always clear, heh.

    I am by no means an expert 3rd Om writer—in fact, I've never completed anything worthwhile that I began in 3rd Om—but my experience as a reader leads me to think that introducing the omniscience from the very first paragraph or two is probably the best course of action. At least, I think this will be my strategy the next time I seriously consider writing a story in 3rd Om.

    Many readers are accustomed to reading 3rd limited. A sudden switch in perspective after a full page could be quite jarring. It's often jarring for me in those examples I've already mentioned!

    So borrowing from a well-known story for a quick example, I might start out Harry's story with an opening set on the first day at Hogwarts, using a paragraph something like this:

    Harry gripped the long dining table as if it could save him should he be called and sorted into Slytherin, despite the problem with normal operations of cause and effect. He had no clue that Draco Malfoy, sitting two tables over, watched him while casually reclining from his table; nor did he know that Draco had already targeted him for future humiliations regardless of the house Harry was sorted into. Draco hated Harry's notoriety, which already far surpassed his own, and also the fact that Harry's features were symmetrical, not longish and narrow like his.
    After that opening, the question for me would be whether to go into a further consideration of Draco at that point or to draw the focus back onto Harry for the next paragraph, lol.* Which is why 3rd Om can be a cumbersome thing for those of us who, like myself, are not yet experts. :sneaky:

    Still, I think I'd want to establish the POV clearly with the opening so that readers become accustomed to it—maybe even without realizing they have, heh.

    -------

    *Or, now after-thinking this, I might have a short, two-sentence 2nd paragraph about Draco's friends, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle, noting Draco's attention and following it to Harry, with thoughts/impressions of their own. And, seeing Harry glance at them at the end of that paragraph. That would be the transition I need for a 3rd paragraph that then focuses on Harry.

    So many directions to go!
     
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2019
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  9. I've come to feel that writing in the omniscient perspective, like a genre preference, is something best left to those who find it feels like "home" as a writer or those who wish to learning it as another facet of their craft, of course.

    For me, I gave it a go on more than one occasion and, in truth, I never felt comfortable with the perspective and it made me feel forced in my writing. I love the idea of it. It seems far more apt to hit the "storyteller" psyche in us. Yet, I found it required way too much moment to moment thought as the writer and I rarely found myself in a good storytelling flow with it. Maybe more of that work should have been saved for the editing but that's just not where I want to put my time. It feels much different than when I write in first person or third limited where I find I can connect with the heart of the story without fail and carry on for pages uninterrupted. But that's me. I'm sure that I'll try it again down the road.

    I do love when it's done well and I think all the commentary above about the way it is approached is very helpful insight.

    I've had the same experience with second person as a writer. It's a very difficult head space for me to attain with any natural feel or flow.

    Bear and the Nightingale is one of my favorite books in the last few years. I read it last year and, if you'd asked me before today what perspective it was written in, I could not have recalled because it wasn't something I gave any thought to or noted (more than in passing) as I read it. I find if I am picking a story/novel apart as I read, it probably isn't all that good. My reader self is not my writer self when I'm immersed in a story. Bear and the Nightingale was a story that drew me into the world and took me out of my head. Now I want to take it out of the library again and peek into it a bit deeper to see how it was done. :)
     
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    If I ever get around to doing Third Om, I would do it with a true narrator’s, or story-teller’s, voice like one was sitting around a campfire listening to a story.
     
  11. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    I did that in my 'The Ways of Wizardry' novel, with the storyteller occasionally reminding his audience he was there with an aside (frequently snide). BUT I recognized that such a storyteller is not truly omniscient — he's very much the unreliable narrator who puts his own interpretation on things.
     
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Wow, this is something I'd not quite considered. I think the reliability and unreliability would depend on various factors, and these would probably depend on whether the omniscience was felt to be, heh, omniscient. If the storyteller relates one thing and it turns out to be false later, or an imperfect picture of characters or events that is later upended, unreliability would set in.

    There also seems to be a difference between putting a spin on things and reliability or unreliability. If the reader follows along largely in agreement with the narrator, or buying the spin, and the spin is never upended, that narrator would come across as reliable.

    Then there are storyteller narrators who are upfront about not knowing everything? In which case, if surprises happen the narrator can say something along the lines of, "Well, who knew that could happen? It was as if the fabric of reality broke and nothing could ever be as it once was."

    I don't know whether this is necessarily a bad thing for a storyteller narrator. The reader might identify with the narrator, also surprised by the turn of events, and the feeling of having a reliable narrator would continue.

    I suspect some dangers exist when using an entirely unreliable "omniscient" storyteller narrator.
     
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  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    This is something I've never felt free enough to do. I don't know why. Lately I'm thinking I should give it a go.

    When I consider writing in 3rd Om, I think of being able to quickly transition from character POVs and having a largely objective narrator, a narrator without his own personality, albeit a narrator who can "ventriloquize" those character voices.

    That ventriloquism is something somewhat done in 3rd limited also, for instance with free indirect speech, choosing descriptors a character might use for things, and idiosyncratic metaphors, similes, and vernacular a character might use, during narration. I'd use it in 3rd Om.

    Ultimately, it would be a question on when and how to pull closer and farther away. A paragraph focused mostly on one character might read as if it could fit quite easily in that character's 3rd limited story, but the next paragraph that focuses on a different character would feel like it could belong in his third limited story. This sort of thing. There would be sections that were multi-paragraph for one character before switching to the other. But then, there would be sections from a more overhead, distant POV also.

    I feel I'm a bit obsessed with working out how to do this sort of thing effectively, heh.
     
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  14. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Ah. Now, I know that this is just a quick example, but I see this sort of thing so often and it's exactly what I was talking about when I said that omniscient tends to tell instead of show. Instead of illustrating Draco's distaste for Harry (e.g. "Draco sneered as he reclined in his desk. What had Harry done? Survived a spell. That was all. Yet, he was the one with a constant stream of admirers, not Draco. He was the one who was put on the front page of newspapers. He was the one who ruined his family's position at the right hand of the Dark Lord. Look at him over there, with his perfect face and his perfect friends, completely oblivious to his own fame. Why couldn't he have been sorted into Slytherin? It would have made humiliating him so much easier.") You just tell me that Draco dislikes Harry. I mean, even in that quick rewrite it was tempting to just tell the reader what was going on because I'm working from a perspective that supposedly knows everything, so why beat around the bush when I could just get it over with?
     
  15. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Yes, but it's not you the author doing the storytelling.

    For example, my 1940s novels are written in omniscient. In the second book I pretended to be someone who worked with the main characters and related to the reader how everything unfolded. The reader doesn't learn the identity of the individual telling the story--and she was the same individual who told the story in book one of the series as well. You--the author--basically take on the voice of someone other than yourself even though it's you writing the story.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    So is beating around the bush a more enjoyable method, not storyteller but story-beater-around-the-bush? :sneaky: Heh.

    I think the sort of histrionic character voice in your example would work, but I don't think it's the only way to build a good story. In fact, that sort of voice is what annoys me about some limited POV writing, particularly when the main character always ratchets up to a 10, is angsty, confused, upset, etc., and rants. I do like that sort of character—but sometimes, I like it better from a distance than up close. An overhead view.

    Telling is not always a bad thing, and showing isn't only about having lengthy paragraphs of free indirect speech.

    Third limited is an odd thing, because there really is a separate narrator from the POV character; the narrator's just ventriloquizing. For instance, Malfoy in your example isn't referring to himself as "he." That's a separate narrator. Also, I doubt that Malfoy's thoughts about Harry, in that moment, are as coherent and structured as those sentences you've used. Yet, this method of ventriloquizing acts as sleight-of-hand; we readers are meant to understand that each of these issues has piqued his ire in the past. It's a clever way for the narrator to tell us this, hiding behind that mask of free indirect speech.

    Rowling opened the first HP book with this paragraph:

    Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

    We were told the Dursley couple were proud to be normal, also that they didn't hold with strange and mysterious nonsense. Telling things like this early in the tale can set the stage—so that we can move on to more interesting things. We don't need two pages of histrionic interior character voices, heh. Telling has this useful result of allowing us to convey things quickly when dwelling upon them would ruin the pace, possibly lead to boredom for the reader, and maybe even push the story in a wrong direction. (On that last point: We readers don't really need to dwell on the Dursley mindset for this story; the story isn't about them.)

    That first HP chapter is written in omniscient. In my example, I probably ventriloquized the ventriloquist—erm, well, I had Rowling's style for that chapter in the back of my mind. But you're right, it was a quick example, and since posting it I've thought about how I might revise it were it more than that. My primary point in that post was to suggest that leading with an obviously omniscient approach might be a good strategy if the whole book is going to be omniscient. (And there are other ways to do this than what I did, I think....)
     
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2019 at 3:48 PM
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  17. Vaporo

    Vaporo Sage

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    Well, an angsty, brooding, melodramatic teenager is exactly the character I was trying to portray so... success?

    But yes, I agree. There are countless ways to tell a story, and as an opener I don't mind telling vs. showing as much, but I still think that I'd prefer my approach over yours in most cases. For some reason, I can't help but read that sort of writing in a pretentious-sounding British accent. Personal preference, though. Not saying that one is necessarily better than the other. However, my point is that sometimes there will be an entire book written like your example, or at least with several out-of-place segments like it, and usually I find such books extremely tedious to read.
     
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  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    Not necessarily, although this is most often the case. A true oral tradition narrative wouldn't have a narrator pretending to be anything but a story-teller.

     
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  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I think the narrator is likely to be viewed as a person separate from the author either way, unless it's an autobiographical novel.

    This probably relates to that old saying that you are three people: the person you think you are, the person others think you are, and the person you really are. (Paraphrasing. Was it Emerson who first used this?)

    Being aware that others may think we are a certain something when they encounter our words, we may be more likely to put on airs when choosing those words. Heh. It's a kind of performance piece. The storyteller is a persona. I'd like to think that ye old storytellers in the oral tradition were like actors putting on a performance; maybe they'd slink offstage, drink some hard liquor and beat their dogs while cursing their audience--who knows? :unsure:

    Maybe they'd have seen themselves hit the mark, and the liquor afterward is celebratory. But young Galen and his friends slunk off confused and a little irritated that the storyteller's story didn't make much sense but the old man was probably trying to teach them some moral lesson anyway. Whereas, he wasn't. Or was he?

    Anywho. If you attempted to tell us a tale in your own voice, or to be the narrator, and your story is set in Narnia or Midkemia, I would think you were lying to me or else that the narrator isn't you. You can't have real knowledge about fictional worlds, but a fictional narrator can seem to have real knowledge about fictional worlds.

    A live oral telling probably blurred the distinctions, in the same way an actor on stage delivering a monologue can seem to be that character delivering it. I don't think the same blurring can happen as easily in written fiction. But this might not matter much to the reader who simply encounters a narrator telling a great tale. The question, "Is this the author narrating directly?" probably won't even arise; it's unimportant. However, as a writer, you're obviously going to be careful in crafting a narrator, insofar as you are choosing particular words to accomplish particular things, heh. You'll want the reader to trust the narrator who knows all about elves and such.
     
  20. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Auror

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    I would call this a great deal of overthinking. “Performing” doesn’t change who the narrator is by default.

    When reading A Tale of Two Cities would I ever consider the narrator is anybody other than Dickens? Hell no. Dune is narrated by Frank Herbert.

    If I drop into Third Om it’s me, not some mythical bloke named narrator. In fact, in Sundering the Gods, outside of dialogue and internalized thoughts, the narrator is “me” relaying the information I’m relaying. I’m not trying to craft a narrator at all. I already have one. It’s me. Why would I try to make another one? If this Narrator isn’t going to do something useful for me, like do my shopping, I’m not going to bother creating him.

    This notion of thinking the writer is lying to you because its placed in a mythical world mystifies me... It’s a story. It is neither a lie nor the truth. Much like politics.
     
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