Eight Points of View -- Omniscient Third27 Jul 2018
So far, I’ve been talking about points of view where the author’s persona is close to a single character in the story. When the author’s persona is close to multiple characters and combines their experiences into a single narrative, then the point of view becomes omniscient third. It’s sometimes called “omniscient author” or “authorial narration”. In Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin labels it “involved author”. I learned this POV as omniscient third person, so that’s the term we’ll be using in this series.
In Le Guin’s words, the author’s persona is one “who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen.” This also includes perceptions, analyses, and observations “that only the author could make.” If you encounter a description of a place when no one is currently there, the writer is dipping into omniscient third. Same for when the writer describes what a character looks like when they are alone (and not standing in front of a mirror).
Writing omniscient third is how writers can play god, exploring all perspectives at once. The end result also gives readers access to these god level insights into the characters and their situation. By combining all of these perspectives, the story can paint (or at least point to) the truth found between all of them. Maybe this is why it’s the oldest POV in fiction.
Nowadays, omniscient third is the least popular POV too. Le Guin points to the Victorian era and how writers of that time “abused” omniscient third. Common practices of addressing the reader directly, appealing to their emotions, or telling them how the story should be interpreted are what Le Guin is referring to. Readers generally don’t like being told Feel sorry for this person! when the writer hasn’t created a character worthy of sympathy. However, a writer who refrains from dictating to the reader can create something incredibly textured and deep.
Professor Ellar, Garrett, and Dora reached the center of the warehouse. As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they found themselves in one of the most confusing places they’d ever seen.
Garrett immediately noticed the hundreds of skulls lining the walls. He assumed that these were the remains of Vasco’s previous victims. They reminded Ellar of the catacombs beneath Paris. The purpose of the pentagram drawn on the floor remained a mystery.
But as soon as Dora saw that sigil, she knew that it was the source of the evil radiating from this place. She saw blood dripping down the drain, candles flickering, and something moving behind the red curtain at the far end of the room. Yet the blood and candles were just in her imagination, and that curtain was perfectly still.
Garret saw that she was staring at nothing with wide eyes. “Dora?” he asked concerned.
“Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” Ellar asked. It looked like she might be on the verge of a panic attack.
Dora knew she couldn’t lose her grip now. “We have to find Dr. Allen,” she told the others. “We have to get her out of here now.”
Ellar could hear the determination in her voice. She was being brave for her friend. He decided to leave Dora be, and Garrett followed suit.
The three silently separated. Dora stayed frozen in place, staring up at the constellation of lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. Ellar studied the pentagram and the smaller symbols written around it. Garrett walked along the stacks of skulls and saw numbers carved into each of their foreheads: 331, 573, 646.
Vasco entered the room through a door beside the curtain. “Don’t touch those,” he told Garrett. “Old bones are awfully fragile.”
“You!” the boy exclaimed, drawing the others’ attention.
Vasco walked forward and casually unrolled the sleeves of his stain-splattered, oversized shirt. Garrett guessed that the stains were dried blood. Dora thought they might be chemicals. “Professor Ellar,” Vasco began, “I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
“Where’s Dr. Allen?” Dora demanded. “What have you done to her, you monster?!”
Ellar and Garrett stood in front of Dora, protecting her from Vasco. “I know you are behind the kidnappings,” Ellar said. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
Garrett added, “Why are we too late? And what about these?” The skulls lining the walls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?” The angrier Garrett became, the more his voice cracked.
Vasco chuckled. Garrett was giving him too much credit. “Those people are long dead, kid,” he replied. “I simply gathered them here for tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
Dora wondered what this role was. Would they be sacrificed? Would Vasco spill their fresh blood to summon evil incarnate?
Garrett asked, “What kind of ritual?” Ellar wondered the same thing.
Vasco answered, “You’ve seen how divided this town is.” How it treats outsiders and those who don’t live up to their expectations. “How it hides its rotten soul.” Vasco knew what people were saying about Professor Ellar and young Garrett – that they were more than friends. “That ends tonight.”
Ellar had no idea how a ritual would cure this town’s ills. Garrett wondered if Vasco was crazy as well as evil.
Vasco stepped on a pressure plate hidden in the floor. The door Ellar, Garrett, and Dora came through slammed shut. A metal grate fell down in front of it. Panicking, Dora ran. Blue electricity converged on her as soon as she touched the grate. The shock knocked her backwards.
Garrett rushed to her side. He called her name and shook her. She was breathing but unconscious.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ellar demanded of Vasco. “Why are you locking us in?”
Vasco didn’t expect to hear so simple a question from Ellar. “I can’t have you calling the police,” he said, smiling. “You know too much.” He looked at his watch and noted the time. “Excuse me. I have a lot of work to do,” he said and quickly left.
Ellar slowly traced Vasco’s steps. As much as he feared for Dora’s life, there was still a case to solve. He needed answers that only Vasco could give.
“Professor?” Garrett asked, curious what the professor was doing.
“Stay with Ms. Marcel,” Ellar instructed. “I’ll come back.”
Garrett understood what the professor wanted to do, so he simply replied, “Be careful.”
Ellar nodded then followed Vasco.
Le Guin calls omniscient third the most complex and the most difficult POV to write. Personally, I disagree with the latter. The title of hardest POV to write goes to the one we’ll discuss next time. But I agree that omniscient third is the most complicated because of how much the writer must know before setting pen to paper.
The term “omniscient third” is a bit of a misnomer since you’re not aiming to replicate true omniscience. The end result you’re aiming for is a tapestry woven from multiple characters’ perspectives, rather than one character’s single thread. As the writer, you need to have a solid idea of what all the characters are thinking and feeling during the scene. Writing versions of the same scene from each character’s perspective is simply not practical, but making notes describing each character’s thoughts and emotions as fully as you need to will definitely help.
The most important thing to avoid when writing omniscient third is revealing everything at once. Doing so just kills the pacing and can slow the scene to a halt. The art of good omniscient third narration is choosing which moment to show from whose perspective. For each beat in the scene, ask who has the best view of what’s happening, who has the most interesting reaction, who would provide the most entertaining perspective, or who just makes the most sense to make the narrator for this bit. If a character knows something that you don’t want the reader to know, then avoid lingering too long in their head. Visiting it, however, will enable you to drop clues to the reader before the other characters catch on, thus setting up some delicious dramatic irony.
Because you’re jumping between different characters’ perspectives, you’ll need to include ways for you and the reader to track whose head you’re in when. Using the character’s names is the most obvious method. Leverage paragraph breaks as well to separate different moments written through different characters’ eyes. You can also apply the “no tags” strategies I describe in my post on dialogue.
Now a challenge for you. And some of you may have already guessed what it is. Open that scene you wrote for parts 2 and 3. Write a version of it in omniscient third. Narrate a portion of the scene from each of your character’s perspectives.
Share your scene, or a link to it, in the comments below. Have you ever read a story written in omniscient third? Have you read one that was published recently? Have you tried writing in it before this challenge? Do you think you’ll use it again now that you’ve tried your hand at it? Keep an eye out for our next post on the hardest POV – objective third.