The Third Person Omniscient

StatueI’ve been working on a new short story. I decided to use the third person omniscient narrative viewpoint. Let’s look at how that works and what it does.

Third Person Omniscient

First things first, let me explain what the third person omniscient is. A story told in the first person is one that uses ‘I’, as in ‘I came into the room and things exploded.’ The second person uses ‘you’ and the third person is consequently ‘he’ or ‘she’.

The third person perspective is further subdivided into two types: third person limited and third person omniscient. The first means that the perspective is third person, but the writer still only shows things from the perspective of one character with their own thoughts and misconceptions. In third person omniscient, the viewpoint is omniscient and can read other character’s minds.

For more in-depth examples of these viewpoints, read my longer blog on narrative viewpoints.

Omniscient isn’t head-hopping

One of the more confusing things for beginning writers is that an omniscient viewpoint is not the same thing as head-hopping.

Let me give you an example of head hopping:

John walked into the room and saw Megan at the table. She knew the secret he desperately needed.

No, I won’t tell him, Megan thought.

In the above example there’s a very jarring switch from John’s point of view to Megan’s.

In fact, the above writing isn’t omniscient at all, it’s limited third person with alternating viewpoints.

Now for the same example written in third person omniscient.

John walked into the room and saw Megan at the table. Megan was desperate to keep her secrets, John just as desperate to learn them.

They would both learn the error of their ways soon.

The above snippet reads differently, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if there is a third person watching John and Megan, able to look into their heads. And that’s exactly what third-person omniscient is.

Why use it?

As stated, the third person omniscient gives a writer the ability to look at the thoughts of all the characters in the story. This viewpoint isn’t limited to following certain characters or looking at the story world in a specific way. It gives a writer complete freedom.

However, it also creates distance. Orscon Scott Card once described them with the metaphor of a camera. First person has the camera really close to the character, second person zooms out, third person limited zooms out further, and third person omniscient is the wide-angle shot.

The third person omniscient gives the writer the broadest view, but it’s also the least intimate viewpoint. This can make it harder to connect to the reader.

I personally used it for a slightly different reason in my new story. I tried to instill a sense of voyeurism into the reader as they watched events unfold.

Some tips

The third person omniscient has some pitfalls. I’ve already discussed head hopping. It can be tempting to switch gears too quickly. As a writer you know exactly what is going on, but readers won’t have that advantage. It’s like tugging somebody along with a blindfold on. You can see what is happening, but they need a description. Tug them too hard and they fall over.

By giving the omniscient viewpoint a clear personality, it’s easier to keep things straight. Who is telling the story? You? Or a mythical version of yourself who is far more witty? It is very important to keep a consistent tone of voice throughout your story. You’re telling the story from a single viewpoint, even if that viewer isn’t part of the story. You can’t just swap that viewpoint out for a different one.

Finally, avoid confusion. Because the viewpoint sees into everybody’s head, the reader needs hints as to what head a thought comes from. This isn’t a problem in third-person limited because then we’re constantly looking through the same eyes, but that isn’t the case here. Take care.

Conclusion

Third person omniscient is a very good tool to have in your writer’s toolbox. As with all tools, they beg to be used, so go at it.

 

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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