Writing in Third Person Omniscient

Hello guys! I hope you’re all doing well. 🙂

Today is the third installment of writing styles featuring Third Person Omniscient. In the post that started this endeavor, I mentioned some of the reasons Third Person Omniscient is avoided or ignored, but today I wanted to talk more about how to write using it.

First off, it’s important to note that Omniscient switches between Points of View (POV within a scene without the benefits of scene or chapter breaks to separate the POVs. One of the misconceptions is that it’s using multiple POVs, and to a point that’s correct, but in truth, there is only one: The Narrator.

The Narrator is the one relaying the story to us whether through telling us the story (Distant or Objective Omniscient. Think campfire stories) or allowing us to walk among our characters and experience what each of them do as they move the story forward (Close or Subjective Omniscient).

One of the tells we’re using Objective Omniscient is when we use tags like he/she thought when dealing with thoughts. While this isn’t absolute, it can be a helpful tool. The best way to tell if we’re using Objective Omniscient is if the Narrator talks directly to us (Breaking the third wall).

Here’s an example of Objective Omniscient:

Now, don’t let those others tell you different. Henry always tried to be a good boy. He couldn’t know Patty was setting him up for a fall, but we’ll get to that later.

“Really, Henry, why don’t you trust me?” Patty crossed her arms and smiled at him. It was a look he knew all too well.

“I don’t know. It’s just… I don’t know,” Henry whispered the last part as he sought a reason to justify it to himself. Maybe I’m losing my mind, he thought.

 

In this example, we’re the focus of the Narrator’s story. We get the feeling of a favorite aunt, uncle, or grandparent telling us a story by a campfire, in a comfortable chair, or as a bedtime story.

This style is extremely rare as it’s the toughest of the two to write. It’ll have a natural flow that most other stories don’t, but it’s easy to lose that voice if we’re not careful.

Subjective Omniscient is the prevalent style used over the last twenty years by many starting out, and even noted authors Stephen King (The Dark Half) and Joe Hill (NOS4A2). While the latter two only used small snippets of Omniscient here and there, it was still cool to see it sprinkled in at certain spots.

In Subjective, we’re told the story as though we’re walking with the characters. With this style, the Narrator doesn’t break the third wall and remains strictly in the story (Nothing is absolute, so be prepared. lol) and the thoughts are usually in italics. Sometimes, even with dialogue tags.

Here’s an example of Subjective Omniscient:

No matter how hard he tried to be good, Henry still had a reputation.

“Really, Henry, why don’t you trust me?” Patty smiled at him and crossed her arms. She knew it was a look he enjoyed.

Henry shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s just… I don’t know,” he whispered the last part as he sought a reason to justify it to himself. Maybe I’m losing my mind.

 

Notice the subtle shift between the focus being on both, then Patty, and then Henry? Instead of one voice relating the story, we experienced all three and Henry’s thoughts were in italics. We feel as though we’re a ghost walking among them, able to enter their heads at any moment. The trick is to work out how often to do this, and that is where the confusion about switching POVs comes into play for many. The confusion could be for many reasons. Personally, I believe it’s a combination of not being used to it and/or having been told who has what POV for years. These are the two most prevalent I’ve heard, but I’m sure there are many more. As always, it’s important to keep an open mind and not be afraid of accepting a critique when discussing this. We could always hear something that makes us think and tweak our style.

Subjective Omniscient leads us into the first of what I consider to be the two rules of writing Omniscient.

The first is showing who’s, if any character’s, POV we’re using. Believe it or not, that’s easy enough to do.

The keys of a POV shift involve the character’s head movements and/or the mention of their name. Notice how Patty smiled, drawing attention to her face, while Henry shook his head? Yep. It’s that simple. Surprised?

The second rule is to limit the usage of POVs.  What I mean by that isn’t limiting how many characters you focus on (You’ll find the rule of thumb is no more than three to four per book, but do what feels right for your story. Not everyone will have the same feel for it), but whether or not the POV moves the story forward. It’s hard, but we need to ask ourselves if having a butler’s story about his wife’s cousin is really needed. A good way to tell if a POV is needed is if we can transplant it and have some portion of it move the story forward for another character. While we want our characters to be individuals and different, if a segment can work for others, it’s a good indication it moves the story forward. If it brings the story to a halt and doesn’t fit into their plot line or slows their progress, then it probably doesn’t work. Does that make sense?

The purpose of Omniscient is to let the story flow smooth and freely. I like to think of it as walking along a museum’s corridor and looking from side to side to take in the sights. Is it more fulfilling and enjoyable? It depends on what our preferences are. Remember, we have to do what we feel works best for us and our story. As long as we do our best and are happy with it, we did our job.

Each of us tell different stories in different ways, so it’s ultimately up to us to stay true to our vision and nurture it into a full grown story. Be mindful that a helpful opinion can be anywhere and from anyone. Incorporate what you feel works best and discard the rest. Not everyone will agree with your decision, and that’s fine. This is art, so indulge a little. You never know what’ll work best for you.

That’s it for this week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, or suggestions. There’s always room for more information. 🙂

See you all next week when we discuss First Person. Until then, let your imaginations fly! 🙂

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About CP Bialois

Where do I begin? Well first I guess it's only fair to say that CP Bialois isn't my real name. It's a collaboration I made out of the three greatest pets anyone could ever want. My real name is Ed and I'm just an average person that has found a way to do what he loves. For as long back as I can remember I loved to pretend. Whether it was with my Transformers, GI Joe, or He-Man toys I loved to create intricate plots and have them fight it out. As a fan of horror, science fiction, action, and comedy I dare say my taste in movies are well rounded. Some of my favorites were Star Wars, Star Trek, martial arts, and anything with Swarzenegger in them. I'd write my own stories about the characters I saw in the theaters or TV or I'd just daydream about what I'd see myself as the hero of course. You can't have a daydream without beating the bad guys, getting the girl, etc. It's just not right to envision yourself as a flunky or sidekick. As far as books I loved Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island, Dracula, and the normal assortment. My early love was the Star Trek novels, I'd read them or the Hardy Boys relentlessly. For a time I could tell you the plot of over a hundred books not to mention comics. I have to come clean and say that I learned to read because of comic books. I was bored, make that extremely bored when we started to read in school. Reading "the cat fell down" really didn't interest me. My dad, who continues to astound me with his insight to this day, figured comics would work. With that in mind he went to the newstand in town and bought issues of Donald Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Tales From the Crypt, and Spider-man. He patiently read through them with me until I picked it up. Whether it was him or the comics I learned to read in about two weeks and for a while few were as good as I was. For years after that whenever we'd go out he'd always spring for a couple of comic books for me. While it wasn't exactly the perfect beginning everything I've ever read or have seen has influenced me in some way and now is the time I'd like to share some of the ideas I've had over the years with all of you. I hope you enjoy my stories, they're always fun to write and I don't see myself stopping anytime soon.
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19 Responses to Writing in Third Person Omniscient

  1. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this post on the third person omniscient voice.

  2. This was really great information. I struggle with these “persons” at times in my writing. I must share this! Thanks for the help. ❤

  3. Reblogged this on Silver Threading and commented:
    I sometimes struggle with the different writing styles. Here are some great examples to help you in your writing and moving your story forward. ❤

  4. gipsika says:

    Amazing, to have it laid out clearly like that! 🙂

  5. Terry Tyler says:

    The trouble comes when inexperienced writers use the omniscient narrator without realising what they’re doing, and it just comes across as confusing head hopping. I still think it’s best to stick with one POV per chapter, at least, or to separate with asterisks if you must, and not keep chopping and changing, until you’re really sure that you can hold a reader’s attention.

    I write without knowing the names of any of these styles, and just do what feels right for the story. I get fed up with saying, in a review, ‘it was all over the place, kept head hopping between POV until I couldn’t tell who was saying what to whom or thinking what when’, and being told that I’m the thick one for not knowing that the writer is using the omniscient narrator style. S*d that, I say. If it’s confusing, it’s confusing. Sometimes one can have too much knowledge! This was interesting to read, thanks.

    • cpbialois says:

      You’re welcome. 🙂 I started this series to help get the ideas out there and help others either understand or fine tune their approach. I definitely agree that we need to do what we feel is best with out story. We each have our own style and methodology in doing something. To me, art is too diverse to be hemmed into a corner.

      The biggest problem I’ve seen (I’m not attacking, just pointing out my observation) is along the lines of what you’ve said. So many are quick to jump on those that use Omniscient by calling it head hopping and confusing without understanding it themselves or helping others hone their craft. I’ve had reviews where I was told to hire an editor because of it by people that have typos in the first couple sentences of their books.

      There’s no doubt there are plenty of authors that don’t have a firm grasp of it or other parts of writing when starting out. That’s part of the reason I decided to write this series. I think sharing information is important as well as being open to learning something new. What we do with it is up to us.

      I sometimes write in Limited and other styles, but mainly I stick with Omniscient because it feels right. At the end of the day, I think staying true to our work is the important thing.

      Hope that makes sense and sorry if I rambled. I’m in the middle of my first cup of coffee. lol 🙂

      • schillingklaus says:

        Editorial omniscient narration is my one true way to go, as it allows for deliberately and consistently violating the evil “show, don’t tell” commandment.

        Being inexperienced is absolutely no argument, for it is possible here to learn by doing as for anyone else.

        I avoid everything Third Limited (especially the so-called Deep PoV), unless enough fourth-wall breaking/authorial intrusion/footnotes circumvents the perverse limitations; but if the limitation is nullified by inclusion of paratext, is it still accurate to call it limited? I doubt so.

      • cpbialois says:

        True, I agree with the no excuse not to learn part for sure. Everything we need or want to learn is out at fingertips, so it’s either naivete or a willingness not to learn. The first is easily rectified if we want to learn. If we choose not to take advantage of that, then it weakens any argument against it, in my opinion.

        We each have our preferences, and you do bring up a good point about breaking the fourth wall. If it does that, I’d have a hard time thinking of it as Limited.

  6. schillingklaus says:

    I break the fourth walls permanently and remorselessly; equally, I have absolutely no qualms focussing on huge amounts of characters during even a single sentence. Additionally, I do not want characters to be individuals, but strawmen of ideologies. The rule of thumb is totally disgusting and inacceptable; and so I violate it shamelessly.

    • cpbialois says:

      I’m not much of a conformist either. I love to write in Third Person Omniscient despite often being criticized for it. It’s about the story and our vision of the story, not a one size-fits-all methodology.

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