Writing Point of View – Part 1

GorillaReadingToday’s post begins a series on Point of View. The series will cover the basics as well as a number of advanced concepts.

Point of view (POV) is how you show your story to the reader. What perspective does the reader have as he or she takes in the story’s narrative? Do you tell the story as if you are an all-knowing narrator (omniscient POV)? Do you tell the story from the perspective of one or more characters (third person POV)? Do you allow the character to tell the story (first person POV)?

In order to illustrate the differences, let’s say that you are going to the zoo. A guide takes you from exhibit to exhibit and describes the characteristics of each animal. The guide tells you about the animal’s habits, native environment, and facts about the species that even the animal doesn’t know. Your experience would be similar to reading a story about the animals written from an omniscient POV.

Now let’s say that the guide strapped a mind-reading camera helmet on a gorilla and recorded everything the gorilla said, heard, and thought over the years. When you come to the zoo, the guide describes the sights, sounds, and thoughts that the recording device replays and nothing else. If the camera didn’t record it, then the guide doesn’t report it. The guide provides no commentary based on his own perspective. For you, this experience would be similar to reading a third-person (limited) POV story. (I will discuss nuances in this POV choice in a later post.)

Suppose you are sitting in an amphitheater at the zoo, and the gorilla himself walks onto the stage. He tells you his story himself, including his own commentary and reflections. This would be similar to reading a first-person POV story, that is, if you can get over the shock of hearing a talking gorilla.

Omniscient Point of View

Omniscient point of view is sometimes called the “narrator” point of view. When writing a scene in this perspective, you are like an all-knowing narrator who is able to tell readers about any aspect of the story, the back story, or what will happen in the future. The perspective doesn’t depend on any character’s input, that is, even if the characters are not aware of something, you can still tell the readers about it. For example, “Julie went to bed and slept peacefully, unaware that Tom would call in the morning to invite her to the park for a rousing round of hopscotch. If she had known that, she would likely have dreaded the call and tossed and turned all night.” (Yes, it’s bad, I know. 🙂 )

This POV has some advantages. It’s a good choice for a story that covers a long period of time. You can offer a panoramic sweep of scenes and events that are not narrowed to a particular character’s perspective. For example, you can tell a story about several generations in a family. In so doing, you can remind readers of past incidents characters might not know about. You can even mention that a current event will have significant ramifications with regard to another event that will crop up in the future.

When writing omniscient POV, you should use third-person pronouns (he, she, it, they, them) for all characters. For example: “He drove Carla to the park where they met Tom and Julie and played hopscotch with the park’s rangers.”

Since you are the “omniscient” writer, you can dive into a character’s mind and describe what he or she is thinking at any time. For example: “When Tom threw the beanbag to the third square, he wondered if the number three provided a sign. Perhaps he and Julie should get married in three days. That being the case, he would have to propose quite soon. She hated to be rushed.”

In omniscient POV, unlike in other perspectives, you are allowed to describe the thoughts of multiple characters in the same scene, but you should avoid what we call “head hopping,” that is, shifting from one person’s thoughts to another’s to another’s. Readers can become confused with multiple shifts in quick succession. (Note: Head hopping is a type of viewpoint shifting, but not all viewpoint shifting is head hopping. I will cover shifting POV much more when I discuss third-person-limited POV.)

In addition, with omniscient POV you have the freedom to provide commentary. For example, “So Tom died at the hands of Julie only hours before she committed suicide by swallowing a hopscotch beanbag. Tragedy is often the end of relationships that are based on foolish assumptions, conceived by shallow characters, and held together by hopscotch games in the park.”

I advise, however, to avoid doing this. Although we see such commentary in some classic novels, most modern readers don’t care for author intrusions. They want to know what the characters think and feel, not the author’s stated opinions. Yet, a skilled author can still provide commentary in thematic ways without directly intruding. More on this in later posts.

A major disadvantage of omniscient POV is the distancing of readers. Modern readers enjoy feeling “inside” the story, being in the skin of a character, and experiencing an adventure through a character’s perspective. Omniscient POV tends to give a helicopter feel to readers, as if they are hovering over the action instead of walking through it with the characters.

If you desire to communicate intimate closeness, then you should probably choose third-person-limited POV or first-person POV, which I will discuss beginning next week.

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17 replies

  1. Good advice. Another disadvantage of 3rd person omniscient POV: it often necessitates shifting perspective in the middle of a scene. For example: “Julie had always wanted to go to the ballet, but her husband couldn’t be bothered. Marcus hated the theater.” During the course of two sentences, we move from Julie’s thoughts to Marcus’s. Doing these types of shifts multiple times during the course of a story can be a jarring experience for the reader.

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    • Right. I briefly mentioned shifting POV in the head-hopping paragraph, and I plan to go into it more when I cover third-person limited POV.

      Your example is interesting in that it uses the narrator-style of “telling” to reveal two perspectives in order to inform a reader, a classic omniscient POV method. As you’re likely aware, the same information can be communicated without a POV shift through “showing” in third person limited. I will be giving examples as the series goes on.

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  2. Excellent summary of omniscient! I’m looking forward to the continuation of this series.
    Speaking of omniscient POV, a series that uses it really well is Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, if anyone’s interested. 🙂 She manages to make it appealing for modern readers.

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  3. Excellent post. I would like to point out that omniscent POv doesn’t always distance readers. When done really well, omniscient POV can draw the reader into a novel just as effectively as other POVs, or even more so. An amazing example of this is Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales of Goldstone Wood series. Though at first glance these seem to be written in 3rd-person-limited, a closer look will reveal that they’re done in 3rd-person-omniscient- and yet I’ve connected with them more deeply than I have most other books I’ve read.

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