Friday, August 26, 2011

Question #10

Our next question from Angie is:

Do you have any idea why the omniscient narrative is so frowned upon?

Really good question.

For those of you who are wondering what the dickens “omniscient narrative" means, the Wikipedia definition is as follows:

“A narrative mode in which the reader is presented the story by a narrator with an overarching, godlike perspective, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including everything all of the characters are thinking and feeling.”

In other words, the narrator knows everything and is perfectly happy to tell you things that the actual characters immediately involved couldn’t possibly know. This does not mean the authors chooses to tell you everything! We authors can withhold as much information as we want whenever we want to. However, this narrative voice gives the narrator the freedom to go into other points of view at will depending on the need of the particular story.

Let me give you an example from one of my own stories:

“A boy climbed one path and a girl, some distance off, descended another, each hoping to meet again and neither certain whether or not to expect such a meeting. The mountain was quiet, but it observed them with an interested, even eager gaze."  (Veiled Rose, p. 56)

You see here how the point of view is very broad. We are looking down upon the scene, seeing both Leo and Rose Red. We are told not only what they are doing, but also what the mountain itself is doing, all from an outside perspective. We are not in any one person’s point of view . . . rather, we are watching as though from a distance.

In another paragraph, we focus in more distinctly on Rose Red, leaving Leo to fend for himself for a couple of pages:

“Rose Red, the boy’s floppy hat jammed on her head, her veils draped beneath, carried two pails as she made for the mountain stream a short ways from the cottage. Her large pails had iron handles and were heavy even when empty. Yet they did not encumber Rose Red, despite her tiny frame. If her gait was awkward as she hauled them along, it was no more so than at any other time.” (Veiled Rose, p. 56)

Although we are now looking at only one character, we are still observing her from the outside. This way we receive details that we could not get if I had written the scene directly from her point of view. From Rose Red’s perspective, carrying those heavy pails would be nothing unusual, so she wouldn’t even stop to think about it. But from an outsider’s standpoint, it is unusual that someone so small can carry something so heavy with so little effort.

This is the joy and intrigue of the omniscient narrative. It gives the writer and the reader opportunity to observe details that would otherwise be missed, fleshing out the story into something much more complex than your typical “third person limited” or “third person intimate” narrative, which stays focused on only one character’s point of view at a time.

The omniscient narrative is my favorite narrative voice, both to read and to write. If I see that a book is written in omniscient, I will often pick it up even if the plot is not one that would typically be interesting to me. Omniscient narrative gives a depth and breadth to your basic novel and is an excellent stylistic choice if you are writing a long epic sort of story . . . though it works equally well in short fiction, as two of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, prove.

Yet for some reason I cannot quite understand, a rather violent stigma against the omniscient narrative has developed in the Christian market over the last decade or so. Not so much among the publishing houses . . . my publishers, especially my acquisitions editor, have always appreciated and encouraged the omniscient narrative voice among their authors. Yet nearly every conference, blog, class, etc. that I have encountered among the professional writers in the field have been vehemently against the use of this voice.

I went to a conference (my one and only conference experience thus far) in which the guest speaker impressed upon the audience (most of whom were aspiring fantasy or paranormal writers) that there are no hard and fast rules in fiction . . . EXCEPT ONE. And this speaker proceeded, for the next forty minutes or so of the lecture, to impress upon everyone present that they can never, never, NEVER switch Point of View in the middle of a scene! This, we were told, was the dreaded sin of head-hopping.

To clarify: Head-hopping is switching point-of-view from one character to another in the middle of a scene without a distinct scene-break. For instance, you might be reading the thoughts of the hero in one sentence, and in the next, you are told the thoughts of the heroine. Otherwise, the story is told strictly from either his or her point of view.

According to this speaker, head-hopping jars the reader out of the reading experience and ruins the flow of a novel. He equated omniscient narrative with head-hopping, saying that it was never used in modern fiction, that we would never sell work written in that style, and that the only place you will see that style used is in 19th century literature.

All of which is false.

For one thing, omniscient narrative and head-hopping, while very similar, are two different things. Omniscient narrative, as stated above, is an overarching view of the novel that presents the reader with multiple perspectives at the same time while also giving plenty of opportunity to sink down into a single individual’s perspective for a more personal touch. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is otherwise strictly third-person, but the author jumps from head to head, giving the reader first one perspective on a scene, then switching to another in the same scene. Very similar, yes, but distinct.

You will see a lot of young writers new to their craft using head-hopping badly by simply not understanding their tools. It can look very messy and awkward if the writer doesn’t know what he/she is doing. It’s rather like taking up painting. You can have all the right brushes and perfectly good paints . . . but your picture still turns out muddy. Is that the fault of the tools you are using? Not at all.

The same is true with your narrative voice. It can look really muddy at first. But as you fine-tune your skills, work with the medium (narrative structure), and gain finesse, you’ll find yourself writing more confidently in whatever style you have chosen.

There is ultimately nothing wrong with purposefully used head-hopping. It’s not a style that I write. However, you will see some popular modern authors use head-hopping pretty frequently. Consider Francine Rivers. I remember quite a bit of head-hopping in her novel Leota’s Garden. I am pretty certain she head-hopped at will throughout her Mark of the Lion Trilogy as well. She does it very gracefully with plenty of control.

Proving that even head-hopping, when properly used, is a perfectly legitimate and marketable style.

It’s also not the same as omniscient narrative.

And yet, this vitriol against head-hopping has spilled over into vitriol against the omniscient narrative as well. I remember when Heartless first came out, I received a review that included the following lines of criticism (the bold parts are my emphasis):

“I absolutely hate the storytelling methods employed, which are antiquated and certainly not timeless.”

“I personally found this aspect a publishing travesty that risks discouraging young writers from bothering to learn their craft.”

“Why do the hard work to learn modern techniques like staying in Point of View and show, don’t tell, when Bethany House’s editors decide to not do their jobs and allow one author to do it the old fashioned way?”

“She hasn’t earned the right to write however she pleases.”

All of this was because of my narrative voice. The reviewer enjoyed the story and the characters, but could not stand the style in which I chose to tell it.

Now, I think this reviewer has every right to dislike the omniscient narrative! Everyone has their own tastes. Personally, I do not enjoy stories told in the first-person present-tense point of view. It annoys me, and I choose to not read books written in that style (though there have been one or two exceptions).

However, I would NEVER dream of telling an author that they haven’t a RIGHT to write in this style if that is the style they wish to use. I think it is dreadfully discouraging to see how many young writers are being told what style is allowed and what style isn’t. How limiting is that? And how legalistic?

As for omniscient narrative being outdated . . . Perhaps we don’t see that style in the CBA market as much as we should. But in the secular market, that narrative voice is alive and thriving! Brilliant fantasy novelists such as Sir Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, the late Diana Wynn Jones, the brilliant Megan Whalen Turner, and many, many, many more are publishing popular and award-winning novels in the omniscient narrative every year.

And as for this style being “certainly not timeless” . . . how many of you have read Jane Austen? Or C.S. Lewis? Or Robert Louis Stevenson? Or J.R.R. Tolkien? Or Leo Tolstoy? Or Charles Dickens? Or Thomas Hardy? Or any one of the brilliant authors whose work has stood the test of time and will continue to be read for centuries to come LONG after most of the fiction being published today has been forgotten?

Every one of those mentioned above wrote in the omniscient narrative. Every one of them has stood the test of time.

Thank heaven for publishing houses such as Bethany House! I am so pleased and excited to see them encouraging their authors to experiment with the omniscient narrative. Eclectic historical author Siri Mitchell just published a charming romance, A Heart Most Worthy, written in that narrative voice. And she takes it to an even greater extreme than most by actually addressing and involving the reader as though in a conversation while she tells her tale. It’s lovely and intriguing and pleasing to read.

So if you are an aspiring author reading this, please don’t think that I am trying to discourage you from improving your craft by championing the omniscient narrative voice! Know this: You earned the right to write in whatever style you wish the moment you first picked up a pen. What’s more, the professional publishing houses earned the right to accept or reject your work based on the standards of quality they have established over years and years of business.

Study your craft. Choose carefully a narrative voice that fits your individual story. Don’t write a certain style because someone else told you to. Read the great authors and the vast array of styles and techniques they used. Find the voice that suits you. Find the voice that gives life to your characters. Whether that voice is strict third-person, first-person, omniscient, first-person present-tense, head-hopping or whatever! Any one of these styles, when done well, can be the gateway to brilliant storytelling.

So, Angie, ultimately my answer to your question is . . . I haven't the faintest idea why omniscient narrative is frowned on in modern publishing! It boggles my mind. And makes me very sad.


Matt said...

What are your favorite contemporary novels?

Faith King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Faith King said...

A touch of 'antiquated' narrative is usually a draw for me as a reader, not a detriment. It makes me feel like I'm being carried back in time. Like you, I don't care for 1st person present tense at all, but I can understand why an author would choose it as the most appropriate voice for a story.

That criticism was very high-handed, I think.

How do you handle strong critical feedback or overtly negative feedback? I know you're not supposed to let it get to you... but it does.

I've had a lot of constructive criticism from my friends on my writing over the years, and my process is usually to bristle and sulk for two days before finally soaking it in and considering whether or not their suggestions would actually improve what I'm trying to accomplish (sometimes it does, sometimes I reinforce my reasons for the original version).
However, to my knowledge, Laura and I have not received any truly negative feedback on "Awakenings" and I'm kind of living in dread of it. I know I'll get over it, but there's an incubation period I always have to get through, and it's easier said than done.

I really wish with all my heart that the positive had as much lasting power and remembrance in our lives as the negative (i.e., we remember insults longer than compliments, The Team winning the Series isn't as joyful as their losing is painful). Why are we like that? Deep question, I know. I'm mostly voicing my observations. Perhaps I generalize unfairly.

Angie said...

I think it's funny that people say you shouldn't write in the omniscient narrative because it's "not timeless" when so many of the classics are wrote in that narrative. How crazy is that?