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The other day, while I was reading a (published) work of fiction, I came across a passage that seemed to me was a result of the author being determined to write the piece in 3rd person limited, but wanting very badly to do something that would have benefitted very much from the piece being in omniscient POV. Instead, the author had kluged together an awkward workaround.

I would have been a bit less dismayed to see such a thing if it had not been for the context of the way new writers are nearly always taught about POV. I’ve not infrequently seen advice to avoid omni altogether, either because it’s difficult and therefore only for experts, or because readers aren’t used to it, or because editors won’t or don’t buy works using that POV. Specific advice for handling POV is nearly always advice for handling 3rd person limited, though it’s often articulated only as advice for handling POV, period. Writers who use that advice as their default template for handling POV will find themselves faced with difficulties if they attempt omni–hence, perhaps, the common wisdom that omni is hard to do, though once you realize that your POV technique isn’t POV technique but 3rd person limited technique, it becomes much easier. And then, of course, writers trained up on the features of 3rd person limited as “good POV” will read through that framework as well, which makes pieces written in omni look like they’re just full of incompetent POV slips and if it works anyway, well that’s because the writer “knew how to break the rules.”

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Excuse me, I had to take a few calming breaths after typing the “know how to break the rules” thing. Look, if you can break it and the story still works–if lots and lots of writers break it and those stories still work–it is not a rule. There are not actually any rules. Okay? Okay.

I’ve dealt with the “omniscient is too difficult to attempt” bullshit previously.

Now, let’s talk about common POV advice. The one, basic precept a newbie writer learns is that while you’re in the POV of a particular character, the text should only reflect what that character might know or actually think. This is good as far as it goes–it’s not the whole ballgame, but it’ll keep you from making the most obvious missteps. Asking yourself, as you write each sentence, “Would Star Ranger Samantha actually know or think this?” will keep you from slipping out of her POV. So far, so good.

Then there’s advice to avoid headhopping. This is also excellent advice–for 3rd person limited. Switching in and out of characters’ heads without warning is disorienting and confusing in that context. If you want to have more than one POV character in a 3rd person limited piece, you need to signal each POV switch so that your reader doesn’t have to stop and puzzle out whose thoughts they’re reading, not even for an instant. A scene break is conventional, but there are other ways to do it. (And a scene break by itself isn’t enough–you want to open that next paragraph with a sentence–or maybe even just a few words–that will re-orient the reader to the new POV.)

But what if you want the POV of more than one person in a single scene? There are ways to do this without a scene break in limited 3rd, though you want to be careful with them, they require very close control of your POV, and a very careful consideration of how you’re moving the reader from character to character. I’m not going to say don’t try it–on the contrary, do try it! You’ll come out of it with better control of POV and the flow of information to the reader. But you know what can give your reader the thoughts of multiple characters in a single scene without so much as breaking a sweat?

That’s right. Omniscient.

On twitter, Alex Clark-McGlenn suggested (if I understood correctly) that one of the problems with omni was an inherent lack of tension:

Since in omni the narrator knows all, why isn’t the narrative giving you this or that or the other piece of information? The reader, perhaps, rather than feeling enthralled feels manipulated. Or the omniscient voice, since it would know who the murderer was (to take an unsubtle example) must naturally mention that at some point, and there’s the end of suspense.

So, I disagree that tension is a product of concealing information from the reader. You get tension a couple of different ways, and one of them does involve controlling the rate of information the reader gets, but that’s not exactly the same thing as “concealing” that information. Just knowing what’s going to happen isn’t always going to kill tension. Now, if you’re handling your omniscient POV badly, yeah, it’s going to kick the reader out of the story enough that they wonder why the heck the narrator is hiding this or that. And if you’re trained up as a writer to think that limited 3rd is the one true POV, you’re maybe not going to handle omni very well.

There’s a tendency to think of omni as though it’s basically 3rd limited except you can headhop all you want and throw in whatever info you want, and of course that’s difficult because it violates everything one has learned about doing POV well–heck, when you try doing that, the results aren’t good at all, and so how the heck does it work, when it works???

But it’s really very simple. Omniscient always has a narrator. That narrator, by the way, is not always literally omniscient in the sense that they know everything there is to know in the universe. They are omniscient for the purposes of the story.

Sometimes that narrator is named–sometimes they declare themselves the narrator from the start, and tell you who they are. Sometimes the narrator is essentially a version of the actual author of the story. Sometimes they stand so far in the background you hardly know there’s a narrator at all, but they’re there.

But the story is always being told from the POV of that narrator, who just happens to know a whole lot about the circumstances of the story, for whatever reason. They’re telling you the story, commenting on it, judging it, maybe even making snarky remarks about it. But the story is being filtered through the perceptions of that narrator.

Once you know that, omni becomes more or less a snap. Well, barring the actual details of execution, which will probably take some practice, but it’s no longer as puzzling as it might have been. Decide who’s telling the story–you don’t have to tell the reader up front, you just have to know, yourself; you don’t have to have a name or history for them, you just need to have a feel for who they are and how they’d tell this story–and then have them tell it. No matter how many characters’ thoughts you report, you’re never violating that narrator’s POV. You’re not headhopping, you’re still in your narrator’s head.

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with 3rd person limited POV. But it’s not the only way to go.

Now, is it true that editors won’t buy it, or that readers won’t read it? I suspect there’s not as much published in omni, but is that because editors won’t buy it, or because writers don’t write in it, or when they do they handle it badly because they’re thinking of it as multi-limited 3rd with unrestrained headhopping?

And as for readers–you learn to read particular sorts of things by reading those sorts of things. If no one is writing omni, readers won’t be used to it. If you want readers to appreciate works in omniscient, well, you have to give them well-written examples of it to read. Editors are readers. It’s possible some younger editors may well have limited experience reading work in omniscient. I’m guessing about that, I don’t know for certain.

You can throw up your hands and say that the only thing to do is to write thing things editors are used to and likely to buy. You know, if you want. You do you, I’m not here to tell you how to manage your career. But I don’t think that’s the best course to take, I think if you give editors and other readers a really well-done example of something they’re not used to, they’ll be interested and intrigued. I don’t think we’re helpless in the face of What The Reader Expects.

This leads me to wonder how we got into a situation where, at least in SFF, limited 3rd is the One True POV. And I saw this tweet:

And I’ve been chewing on it. Here’s the thing: limited 3rd seems to just…come out of the air. There appears to be nothing between the story and the reader, just the raw facts of the character’s thoughts and impressions, just reality somehow arriving onto the page. Except it’s not–that reality is framed, carefully pruned and curated by the writer. It pretends to be an objective camera-view of the story. Except, even a camera isn’t actually objective. Things are edited, or left out of the frame, very carefully, to produce the film. It’s not raw truth, it’s carefully shaped.

There are advantages to doing this–limited 3rd can give you a particularly strong immediacy, can put you deep into a character’s experience, and that’s awesome. That’s possible to do with omni, of course, but it’s one of the things limited 3rd does best.

Omni, on the other hand, draws at least a little attention to the fact that you’re getting not raw truth, but someone’s interpretation of events. You’re getting the same with limited 3rd, of course, it’s just that the fact that the author is doing just that–presenting you not with utterly objective fact but with their take on the story–is concealed.

I think that in some parts of SF there is a particular value placed on the idea of Objective Truth. There’s no such thing, actually. I mean, yes, there are things that are true about the world–two plus two equals four, and the sun is about eight light-minutes from the earth, and objects in motion stay in motion unless some other force acts on them, and things like that, those are all facts. But stories? Stories, even stories arranged entirely out of facts, well, those arrangements aren’t somehow naturally occurring truths, but interpretations, thoughts about the world that come from a particular point of view–that is, the author’s. Some other author might have (almost certainly would have) arranged those facts differently, with very different results.

Limited 3rd conceals this–it conceals the fact that the story has not come from out of nowhere, some objectively factual place, but from the point of view of the author, with all its inherent assumptions and biases.

And if, as a writer, it’s the only POV you know how to use, and any others are deprecated, it conceals this fact from you, the writer, as well.

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with limited 3rd. Heck, the thing I’m working on now is in limited 3rd. Just, it’s not the only way to go. And it’s worth learning how to use others. It’s worth your time to spend some thought on how those others actually work, and to read things written in them and try to see how they’re put together.

This is getting long, and I have other thoughts, but I should stop here. But, in summary: no POV is inherently good or bad, they all have advantages and disadvantages. Don’t feel stuck with limited 3rd if you want to do something another POV would do better. All are worth learning, all are worth practicing. They’re all tools worth having in your box. Why limit yourself?

8 Responses

  1. Erica

    Nice article, and I completely agree. All narrative viewpoints have a place. I’ve actually seen a number of omniscient third fantasy and SF novels published in the last few years, so online statements that it’s out of style or that agents and editors summarily reject them seem vastly overstated.

    I’ve also noticed that on writing forums, people often assume that omni (not limited third) is the default and give advice about how to write “third-person” narrative that reflects this.

    But people often give advice that assumes everyone is trying to write in limited third too.

    I think there’s a general tendency for people online to give general writing advice (in forums, blogs and so on) without framing it (if you are writing in limited third, then…), because they assume everyone is trying to write the same way they or their favorite authors do.

  2. Q
    Qalmlea

    I have to agree that 3d-limited feels like the “default”. I started reading Tanya Huff’s Quarters series recently and was surprised to see an omniscient POV, and was more surprised to see that it was being done well. So there’s a starting point for anyone looking for examples of that style.

  3. Deborah J. Ross

    I love craft chats like this!

    An excellent example of omniscent/limited 3rd (in space opera, so there are lots of characters of different species) is the Exordium series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge.

    1. Lenora Rose

      Smith’s Inda books and vaguely related book Banner of the Damned are all omniscient as well. She’s talked a little about it on her blog; she’s the first (And so far only) other person I’ve seen point out that omniscient has a narrator, and in fact depends on it for its power.

  4. B
    Beth

    Super helpful! Thank you. The omni narrator as an actual narrator (with their own thoughts/snark). That is such a useful way to think about omni POV.

  5. Lenora Rose

    On the question of concealing information: Hitchcock, I think, was the one that pointed out that you don’t feel nearly as much tension in a scene of some people dining around a table if the reader doesn’t have any way of knowing there’s a bomb under it. Sometimes – often – more information is greater tension.

    I think one of the biggest inherent points of interest in every point of view is the tension between the character’s perception and the outer reality and/or perceptions of others. In first person, it’s pretty much de rigeur to assume the narrator is unreliable about some aspect of the reality around her, even in one who is trying to be reliable and record things strictly. I’ve never met a good first person narration that wasn’t at least aware of this. (I’ve also argued elsewhere that first person is not one point of view, but several with one identifying commonality in the usage of the pronoun I. It’s all about where and when that “I” is standing at the point of telling versus the point they are telling about.)

    In omniscient, it’s easier in some ways to bounce the tension of what X character believes off the narrator’s understanding of events, which is if not objectively true, is at least more complete. It’s one of its biggest strengths.

    This is one of the few things I suspect is hardest in limited third, at least in limited third that doesn’t change narrators at the scene break. And when you do the change of narrators, it often ends up the tension between two alternately wrong perspectives on the world, with no seemingly objective truth to stand between them. Despite what you say about the apparent assumption that the story is being told by some Objective Truth behind those third person limited PoVs, the fact that Objective Truth is an invisible force makes it harder to contrast with the characters’ {mistaken?} ideas. Sort of like trying to compare how an artist’s painting of a landscape compares to how gravity affects it.

  6. P
    Paul Harrison

    Maximum Likelihood is in a sense objective, but that doesn’t make it good. What is most likely is not representative of the spread of what is likely, it’s usually too simple. So in the classical approach we might instead ask for an unbiassed estimate where our guesses are spread evenly around the truth. A Bayesian however would point out that this is now dependent on parameterization, and for whatever prior beliefs (POV) you want you could choose a parameterization to make their distribution uniform in order to appear objective and unbiassed.

    Which is all to say unbiassedness is unavoidably subjective, and the only way to be objective that we know of tends to be under-estimate the randomness of reality.