Thursday, November 6, 2014

Yet Another Post About the Omniscient Narrative

Today's question which I will be attempting to answer is: "I like that you use the Omniscient Narrative. It is one of my favorites. What are some of the major things to avoid besides the dreaded Head Hopping?"

First of all, thank you, dear reader! I love the omniscient narrative too; it is definitely my favorite narrative voice both to read and to write. Which is funny in this day and age when CBA circles declare this narrative to be bad writing.

I know I've told this story before, but when Heartless first released, one of the first reviews I received for it declared it to be a "publishing travesty" purely because of my decision to use the omniscient point-of-view. This reviewer said the storyline and themes were timeless and classic, but my choice of narrative destroyed the entire project. She went so far as to declare that I "had no right" to write this way and that Bethany House Publishers "had no right" to publish it. I'm not kidding you. The vitriol against my narrative of choice was intense!

Things are changing a little for the better these days. More CBA writers are starting to notice that they're getting left out in the cold by neglecting the omniscient narrative. It's been a popular narrative choice in the ABA market for years, specifically in the fantasy and spec-fiction genre where authors such as Neil Gaiman, Sir Terry Pratchett, and even J.K. Rowling have made use of it to great effect. To ignore this narrative and to shrug it off as "bad writing" is a narrow-minded perspective to say the least. In fact, it's rather like telling Beatrix Potter that she's a terrible artist because she uses watercolors when we all know that the only good paintings are oils. What nonsense!

So, yes. I have strong feelings in regards to this topic. And while I will be the first to say that the omniscient narrative is the most difficult narrative voice to master, I would never tell young writers that they shouldn't attempt it. I will warn them that they may not at first succeed with it, that it may take them years to develop such a voice to a professional level . . . but that does not mean they shouldn't try.

As to things to avoid--the questioner brings up the topic of "Head Hopping."

For those of you who aren't sure, "Head Hopping" refers to the writerly tendency of starting a scene in one character's point-of-view and switch to another character's point-of-view mid-scene. One moment you're seeing things as Charlie sees them--the next, you're in Susan's head, and she's thinking about how odd Charlie looks etc.

Enemies of the omniscient narrative would argue that this is confusing to the reader. If they're seeing things from Charlie's point-of-view and then suddenly are switched to Susan's, how can they possibly understand what's going on? They would argue that, before the writer gets into Susan's head, a scene break or chapter break must be firmly established.

To which I say again: "What nonsense."

Now obviously the lovely young writer who asked the question has been trained with the above mentality . . . as have most of you, I would suspect. I was too, and I believed it for a long, long time. And you know what, I may not be able to convince you to my point-of-view. And that's fine! I'm certainly not here to bully you into thinking the way I think. But have a glance at my perspective anyway just so you can hear one counter-thought to the established assumption.

Head Hopping is not a problem at all just so long as the writer is clear in her intentions as she works. Even in a third-person narrative, head hopping can turn out just fine. Renowned novelist Francine Rivers writes third-person narratives and she head-hops all over the place. I'm serious. Read her Mark of the Lion series and notice how many scenes she spends freely jumping from character point-of-view to character point-of-view without any breaks or pauses. And she's not writing in the omniscient.

The reason this works for Francine is that she is clear and intentional. Her emphasis is always on telling the best story possible. This often means that particular scenes need to be told from several points-of-view simultaneously. Well, that's no problem! As long as the reader is never jarred along the way, where is the harm in switching points-of-view mid-stream? None that I can see.

Remember, of course, that Francine Rivers is an experienced novelist with many years of practice under her belt. She has fine-turned her natural instincts for good storytelling, developed her craft, and can make something like successful head-hopping look easy. And it might actually be easy for her by now. It probably didn't start out that way.

The same is true with the omniscient narrative. This narrative is different from third-person narrative in that there's always a slight sense that the story is being told by some outside source--the "omniscient" author, so to speak. Since this omniscient author knows what's happening in everyone's head, it make sense that she or he would choose to reveal to the reader the various, most interesting points-of-view in any given scene. Sometimes this may mean one point-of-view. Sometimes it may mean three, four, five, or even a hundred (since the omniscient narrator is free to reveal the collective thoughts of crowds if it works for the story).

The omniscient narrator is even free to tell the point-of-view of inanimate or seemingly-inanimate things. I remember in Veiled Rose writing a scene about Rosie and Leo from the point-of-view of the observing mountainside--the forest, the animals, the mountain itself. This enabled me to show the reader what was going on with both characters simultaneously, even though they weren't physically together in that scene.

These are some of the major differences between omniscient narrative and third-person Head Hopping. But either method is legitimate storytelling if done properly.

Thus I wouldn't recommend using blanket statements such as "Head Hopping Is Always Wrong" or "The Omniscient Narrative Is Bad Writing." These statements do not take into account the actual skills, instincts, and abilities of individual writers. Some writers really cannot handle Head Hopping in a way that reads like polished work. Some writers (such as Francine Rivers) can. Some authors would make the omniscient narrative sound dull, flat, expressionless, lifeless, and totally terrible. Some authors will make it sing.

Ultimately, a writer must find that balance of instinct and skill to discover the narrative best suited to her voice. It's not something that can be easily taught. It's certainly not something that can be fit into blanket statements and hard-and-fast rules. But with time, practice, persistence, and experimentation, you can learn to express yourself in your own unique, individualized style.

Anyway, I focused that post pretty much entirely on Head Hopping! Come back in a few days, and I'll talk about some potential problems that might crop up as you attempt to write in the omniscient narrative.


Psalms w guitar said...

Thanks Anne, this article was helpful to me personally. I keep keep coming back to the omniscient point of view. I gave 1st and 2nd a real try but they just didn't fit.
I think some of these critics that are so enamored of first-person are kind of touchy-feely and somebody out there is trying to discredit some great books.

Sarah Bailey said...

Thanks for writing this. I use mostly third person narrative; very rarely do I user omniscient narrative, and I do that when a large shift/scene break of POV would be awkward. However, the times I have used it fit well when it came to storytelling. I have nothing against omniscient narrative, as long as it is used wisely.

I never knew omniscient narrative was so looked down upon by some people. Maybe I just haven't come across a bad example of it yet :)

Tyrean Martinson said...

I admit I'm not a fan of head hopping, but I never even noticed it in your book . . . or I just thought you did a great job of it and went with it. I notice head hopping when it isn't done well, or when two characters thoughts are referenced together like "The kids all thought that . . ." - and I'm not fond of that, unless the kids are all telepathically linked.

As you stated in your post, if it's done well, it works.

Michelle Dyck said...

Very well said, Mrs. Stengl! I myself have never really tried my hand at the omniscient POV...although I'd like to someday. I really enjoy books that pull it off well, like yours of course, as well as The Chronicles of Narnia and other such things.

Like Tyrean Martinson said, I hardly notice head hopping when it's done well. But when it's choppy and poorly executed, it is somewhat annoying. (But I suppose that *anything* done poorly in a book is that way too...)

Anyway, you are definitely one of those authors that makes this POV sing! :) There's such a charm about your books; I love it.

Meredith said...

This is such a helpful post. I'm trying to do more omniscient writing in my own work since it gives you more power to examine scenes from different perspectives. Not sure how well I'm doing with it yet, but its fun experimenting. I love all forms of narrative and have found that seeing a story from an outside narrator is very fun. I like writing first person, too, but I tend to write in the present tense when I do, and that can be limiting. When my first book was edited, the editor at the publishing company got onto me because I switched to a different character's perspective in the middle of a chapter. I rewrote the chapter because I thought that's what you were supposed to do. Now I'm not so sure.

And, I loved the way Heartless was narrated! We were able to see the story from many different perspectives, and I don't think it would have had the same impact if you'd just focused on one character. That's what's so great about reading but also so frustrating. One person can love a book for certain reasons, and the next person can dislike it for the exact same reasons. If you're striving to use the gifts God has given you, and if you're proud of your work, that's what matters. I try to remind myself of that all the time. God bless you.

Anonymous said...

This post will probably be very helpful to me in my writing life, if I only knew one thing, what does omniscient mean?

Anonymous said...

This post will probably be very helpful to me in my writing life, if I only knew one thing, what does omniscient mean?

Michelle Dyck said...

Jemma, the word omniscient means "having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things." So in the case of writing, it means a point of view that allows the reader to know...well, if not quite 'everything,' then a lot more than other POVs. You're not limited to just one character's knowledge. Hope this helps! =)

Miss Melody Muffin said...

Thank you for this post, Anne Elisabeth. Omniscient narrative is my favorite narrative voice to write. I was not aware that it was looked down upon, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to master.

I had read articles warning against head-hopping and was admittedly trying not to do too much of it but your post helped me to take a step back and evaluate head-hopping in a different way. So, thank you very much!

I'll be looking forward to your next post on omniscient narrative!

Allison Ruvidich said...

Yay for this post! I find it interesting how you specify that omniscient narrative is pretty much whatever it takes to tell a good story; that really clarifies it for me. And that initial reviewer of Heartless has such a bad attitude! : O

Alicia G. Ruggieri said...

I love the use of multiple-perspective POVs... It makes the story stronger, more interesting, and less centered on one specific character and more centered on the overall theme and storyline. Yes, it must be intentional, though. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Michelle, it makes sense now!

Jenelle Leanne said...

Third-person omniscient is my favorite style of story to read. I don't mind head-hopping at all, so long as it's done well... but that can be said about any part of the writing of any story. For instance, I kind of hate reading first-person narrative, and used to put a book back if I saw any hint on the first page that the book would be told from that perspective. I've matured a bit, and can handle some 1st-person novels now, if they're done well.

I guess what I'm saying is... there's a place for all styles, because there are all sorts of readers out there, and we're not all always going to like exactly the same style and stories... which is such a wonderful thing for those of us who aspire to be authors. :)

Thanks for tackling this subject!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for answering my question. I remember the scene in Veiled Rose, and think it's quite eloquent and cool! I understand what you're saying about head-hopping and writing, it's neat. I've noticed it, but never thought about it that way before, thanks. :)

Michelle Dyck said...

Glad to help, Jemma! :)