Omniscient POV—PART 2 (How to recognize it and how to write it)
In my previous post a month ago on omniscient POV, I talked about what omni-POV is and isn’t, with emphasis on the latter.
In that post I said that head-hopping is NOT omniscient POV and that justifying head-hopping by saying you’re writing in omni-POV is just not good writing practice. In some circles head-hopping will brand your writing as bad.
We must also understand that not all readers are as critical of the practice and that some well-known writers practice head-hopping. The difference lies in (1) being aware that you’re head-hopping, (2) doing it for a valid reason, and (3) doing it smoothly so that the reader isn’t jarred when it occurs.
The main reasons to avoid head-hopping are embodied in those three points as well. Many new writers are not aware they’re doing it, they do it poorly or don’t understand the ramifications, and they jar the reader when they do. The result is generally poor writing. Therefore, I repeat my advice from Part 1: do not head-hop UNLESS you have a clear story reason for doing so and you understand how to use it to enhance the story you’re telling. (But from my somewhat biased perspective, head-hopping is a poor technique in general and the careful writer will avoid it.)
That said, there are TWO cases I can think of where the POV narrator is allowed to hop into the thoughts of other characters: (1) the narrator is truly telepathic and can read minds; (2) the narrator is God or an omniscient being who is able to know the thoughts of the characters. And these are the ONLY times that an omniscient narrator can know the characters’ thoughts: telepath and being God.
Do not confuse knowing everything about the characters and the events in the story with knowing what they’re thinking. In story terms “omniscient” refers to knowing everything about the characters and the events (as if the details were written down at the time they occurred), not what the characters were thinking.
Therein lies the true test of whether the POV narrator (and the writer) is head-hopping: Can the POV character/narrator know what another character is thinking without being able to read the other character’s mind or having the character voice the thoughts? This doesn’t include guessing what characters are thinking by their actions, but in that case, the thoughts are only guesses, not the exact thoughts. If the thoughts cannot be known by the narrator, then including them is head-hopping.
SIDE NOTE: please do not say that you’re writing the story diary-style, where the character would be likely to write down thoughts. Unless you make it clear that you DO have such a diary for the narrator to use, then NO THOUGHTS for non-POV characters!
Now that I’ve thoroughly beat the sin of head-hopping into your writerly heads, let’s take a look at a sample passage from a story written correctly in omni-POV. The story is called “The Desolation” and appeared in Issue 32 of Silver Blade magazine. It was selected for the 2017 Write Well Award.
(Opening excerpt of “The Desolation”)
Across the cracked and broken wastes, two figures came walking.
They were a man and a woman, under a darkened, starlit sky. The man was tall and slender, his skin, eyes, and hair all pale, as if bleached by years or decades of handling power. He was dressed in a dark tunic and trousers with dark, belted outer robe. The woman was shorter, all cinnamon, with hair and eyes the color of fine coffee; she wore a sleeveless top that left her midriff bare, and loose pants cinched in at the ankles above soft leather boots. The man’s hands were bound behind him with glowing chains, and more chains fettered his ankles. Around his neck rested a collar of solid light, and a lead ran from it to the woman’s hands.
An air of subtle, habitual cruelty hung about the man: an icy chill that suggested he was capable of terrible things. The woman gave away nothing, her dark eyes limpid and unreadable. Yet there was something about her—in the way she moved, the easy lightness of her stride—that spoke of danger; and indeed the man regarded her with the respect he might accord a venomous serpent. The woman carried a curving sword, though the edge of the blade was dull; the man was unarmed.
After a time, the man spoke, quietly. “What is this place?”
The woman glanced back at him over her shoulder with one eye. At length, she responded, “This is the Desolation.”
“And what is that?”
“This is the place broken things go to die.”
Here’s the link to the story if you wish to read all of this brilliant piece:
The first question you may ask is how do we know this story is written in omni-POV? The answer is also how you, as a writer, establish the POV of any story: You make it clear in the viewpoint perspective in the opening. Here it should be obvious that an external narrator is at work, just by the tone of it. We’re not in the head of either of the two characters. The POV is cinematic, being shown from a perspective external to the scene and its characters. It’s an almost god-like perspective. Because the author lets us see everything, we can surmise what the characters are thinking or feeling, but we’re never in their heads at any time, which would be head-hopping, not true omni-POV.
As I’ve said in other posts, omni-POV distances the reader from the characters because you aren’t in their heads, but at the same time, done properly as here, we can still feel for and empathize with these characters. If you visit the link and read more of the story, you’ll see what I mean. The author on the one hand is TELLING us what we’re seeing while also SHOWING us everything and allowing us to feel what the characters are feeling WITHOUT needing to be in their heads. It makes for a very powerful story indeed that epitomizes what omni-POV can accomplish in the hands of a masterful storyteller. And it’s why the story was among the winners of the 2017 Write Well Award.
The lesson to learn here is that if you are going to write a story entirely in omni-POV, you must NOT go into the heads and thoughts of the characters. EVER. Once you get into the habit of head-hopping, it can be a difficult habit to break. I know at least one writer (whose stories I edit) who is struggling with it.
What I advised that writer (and advise you) as a way to avoid head-hopping is to put yourself firmly into the head of ONE character at the start of the scene and force yourself to see everything in that scene from only that character’s perspective. In other words, BECOME that character in that location for that scene and visualize everything through his or her eyes. Make that character the WRITER of the words you type. That way you cannot possibly head-hop (well, almost never).
This will take some practice because some writers seem to think that we should know all the characters’ thoughts all the time. Of course, you, as the writer, still have to make the other characters respond in words or actions (which means that you do have to flip your attention to the other character(s) briefly. The trick is to make sure that whatever they do or think is manifest in a way that your POV character can see and know. This means that the POV character can NOT know the motivations or feelings of the other characters, only observe the results.
If you’re writing omni-POV, then make your perspective that of a cameraman filming the scene. He can see and hear, but not read minds. He can’t even smell or taste what they’re smelling or eating, only surmise based on what he sees and hears. Think about what you see in a movie. Do you ever hear the thoughts of the characters (except in certain bizarre movies)? Of course you don’t. So, if you’re writing in omni-POV, STAY OUT OF THE CHARACTERS’ HEADS!
NOTE: One thing that’s often hard to remember is that your POV character also can NOT see himself/herself (facial expressions and the like unless looking in a mirror). The POV character can FEEL things like a smile or a furrowed brow or blood or tears running down the face, but not his/her eyes sparkling or hair flying (unless it obscures vision) or a bruise or blood oozing from a blow to the face. What I do is simply ask myself this: How would I know or infer if something happened to my appearance if I cannot see it? If I can’t know it without seeing it or without someone commenting about it, then I cannot write it from my POV. Sometimes I wonder if the reason so many people write in first person is that it is easier to avoid these mistakes, but in truth I still see writers making references to things that the first-person narrator could not possibly see, such as, “my eyes sparkled” or “I blushed.” (Blushing is a reddening of the face and neck; you can feel heat in your face, but you can’t see the coloring. You could get by with “I know I blushed.”)
While I’d love to be able to show you more good examples of omni-POV, they’re difficult to come by because so few writers use it, for the main reasons I’ve stated before: difficult to do well and tends to distance the reader. In “The Desolation” the distancing worked, but you likely would not want to write a steamy romance novel in omni-POV because you want the reader as close to the characters as possible for maximum “entertainment.”
I’m going to close with a mention of the ONE case where you can get by in omni-POV with revealing everything, including the characters’ thoughts: the POV narrator is God. I have a perfect example of this rare exception. My good friend, Elliott Morreau (who I plan to interview here in the near future), has done exactly that. I’ll provide a link to the book (part 1 of 2; he finishing up part 2 and will probably have it out in the first half of 2019).
I will point out that the novel has not received many reviews on Amazon, and the reviews are somewhat mixed because it’s a different kind of book and is not going to be to everyone’s taste. Therefore, I’m providing links to both Amazon.com and Amazon Canada for a wide range of reviews. He has gotten a couple of extremely complimentary reviews on review sites (which I’ll provide links to when I interview him).
The thing to pay attention to as you read the sample on Amazon is how he handles the POV, and how, in this case, he’s allowed much more latitude in the POV because of who the narrator is.
VALENTINE-ACT I (Amazon Canada)
But unless your story narrator is a god-like being, stay within the bounds of omni-POV and stay out of the characters’ heads.