Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nixing Omniscient Nightmares

I'm going to be talking about the different points of view and narratives writers can use in novels. First, we'll start with Third Person Omniscient because I've noticed a trend in reading and/or critiquing the work of others on various sites, that some writers are using omniscience and using it badly.

Omniscience is where the narrator knows what everyone in the book is thinking and feeling and experiencing in any given scene. The narrator is not hemmed in by one perspective, but can show many or even none.

When you start off writing a novel, please only use this narrative style if you know what you're doing. Many beginners mistakenly use it because they don't understand how perspective works. When I began my first novel, I wrote willy-nilly because I didn't know any better. Luckily, I was reading books on craft at the time and was only a few chapters in. I fixed those slips promptly.In order for readers to identify and be engrossed with your characters, scenes really should be owned by only one character. That means from the beginning to the end of a scene, Bill can't know what Tom is thinking or see that his own face is turning red. Bill can only know what he himself sees, hears, feels, tastes, thinks, experiences. You can break this barrier without giving readers an arm's-length or jarring sensation if and only if you use an all-seeing narrator masterfully.

Although Omniscient Narrative allows for flexibility in it's umbrella-style relaying, keep these objections in mind:

Ø It creates distance between readers and characters because they can't identify with one character per scene. With head popping going on, extra attention to character development and exposure is needed.

Ø It can cause confusion, especially if you don't provide paragraph breaks or good reason for changing perspective.

Ø It went out of style with button-down shoes.

Ø It's unpopular.

Ø It can make you seem amateurish.

Ø It can reveal too much information, robbing readers of suspense.

Ø It can be too telling, a landfill of exposition and backstory.

An Omniscient Narrative can be intriguing and fresh if used properly, not in the head-popping, random manners I keep seeing. However, your work needs to stand out from the sludge written by clueless wannabes. If you decide to use such a way of telling, you can at least avoid having your work read like just another Omniscient nightmare. Here's how:

Ø Make it clear in the first sentence that you're using Omniscience. Having a God-like story-teller emerge in chapter 5 out of nowhere is very jarring and confusing to readers.

Ø Use it effectively, giving smooth transitions, revealing secrets to readers the characters don't know. You can even show a scene where there is no character.

Ø Make good use of knowledge in the past, present and future.

Ø Consider your narrator a character with personality and opinions, even if he or she is never named. If you think of your narrator this way, it will help you to stay focused.

Ø Keep the voice enthralling and consistent throughout the entire novel.

Ø Only shift to viewpoints that are important.

Ø Choose a tone, style and flavor that flows from beginning to end.

Ø Be consistent in the telling. Don't have four chapters in one POV and the rest a mishmash of whomever.

Ø Be creative. You can have great fun with an all-knowing perspective.

Ø Unless you're writing for children or a fantasy piece akin to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, avoid animal perspectives. You can reveal a lot through behavior. No need to jump into Fido's head.

Ø Show, show, show. Avoid lazy telling when story elements can be revealed through dialogue or action. Too much exposition and backstory will create drag.

Ø Have the ease of a steady cam.

If you unintentionally used Omniscience, squash any POV slips you find. Think of Bill. He can only know what he knows. He can't know about the bomb under his chair in the movie theater unless he knew it was there to begin with or about the girl who secretly admires him or that his waitress at Friendly's is addicted to online porn. Pick the most important POV for the scene and write it through that one pair of eyes.

If you're using omniscience with intent, be mindful of readers and make your work as clean and unjarring as possible. Use it with flair and consistency.

I'll talk about Third Person Limited tomorrow.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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