Using Omniscient Point of View

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today.

One thing I enjoy about writing for Story Empire is that I also learn new things. Several weeks ago, when I wrote a post about changing literary styles, I quoted from a book in which the author apparently tried to write from an omniscient point of view. However, it was distracting and read more like head-hopping.

Reader Jessica Bakers commented that she had struggled to understand omniscient POV. She asked if there is truly is such a thing or a case of multiple points of view with head-hopping.

I didn’t feel qualified to answer, but I decided to research the subject.

Staci and I were discussing this one day, and she summed it up nicely.

“Head-hopping shows the scene from a character point of view and jumps from one to another. Omniscient is like God looking down and telling us everything, even things none of the characters could know.”

Author use of omniscient point of view used to be more commonplace. Consider the opening line of this classic.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

And how many of us read stories that began with “Once upon a time…?”

In both cases, the narrator is telling the story. But we all know that too much telling and not enough showing makes for a boring book. Inundating readers with a ton of backstory is a turnoff.

Now let’s look at a  few examples from more recent publications.

“No one was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.”

(Carrie by Stephen King.)

King tells us something is about to happen, but not what it is.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

(Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston)

I found Hurstan’s narration more subtle, but it’s definitely from a narrator’s point of view.

But take a look at this example.

“But when Mimir was not with him, Hoenir seemed unable to come to a decision, and the Vanir soon tired of this. They took their revenge, not on Hoenir but on Mimir: they cut off Mimir’s head and sent it to Odin. Odin was not angry.”

(Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman)

Would you read something like that? I wouldn’t. To me, that is head-hopping at its finest worst. Maybe a severe case of ADHD.

As a writer, I can’t see myself using omniscient point of view like Gaiman.  What about you? Would you try it? What’s your take on it as a reader? Please share in the comments.

76 thoughts on “Using Omniscient Point of View

  1. Thank you, Joan and Staci, for this interesting discussion. There are many valid points made in your post and in the comments. I read a book recently, by a well-known author, and she kept dipping into a mixture of ‘head-hopping’ and omniscient commentary. I found myself skipping those bits and my heart was saying to her ‘Do not tell me how to feel!’ I found your post through Jessica. x

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jessica always has something entertaining to say on her site. So glad you found us through her, Jane.

      I commend you for continuing to read that book. I try to never give up on things, but over the course of the last year I’ve come to realize I don’t have the time to devote to things that I’m not enjoying. I suspect I’d have given up on that one.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree with you, Staci. If I don’t care about the characters, I stop reading and flow the book onto a charity shop. With this one I cared enough to see what happened to them all. I skipped reading sections of it though. We’re far more aware of where our time goes nowadays aren’t we? ❤

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Great discussion Joan and Staci. For me, omniscient is best for books who use God or an angel or other wordly telling the story. I should think it would be more difficult to write because that form is a narrated story, and I suspect it would be more tedious trying to inject the ‘show’ into the ‘tell’ 🙂 And that Norse excerpt. Oye! Really? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At a MWA conference I attended years ago, the class instructor insisted omniscient POV was the best (and only!) way to tell a story. When I called her on it, she acted as if I had no idea what I was talking about. To answer your question, no, I would never write in omniscient. Too often the reader stays detached and, therefore, not invested in the story. King might be the exception, but I don’t read his books either. He’s too long-winded. LOL

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a great discussion today! I think writing in Omniscient POV would be very difficult and I’m not sure I’d ever try it. But maybe someday, I’ll try it in a short story. 🙂 I loved your examples and your explanation, Joan. This really got some great discussion happening!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post and examples, Joan. Omniscient POV is actually hard to write well, I think. To me, it seems to distance the reader from the story and it can often turn into telling the story versus letting the reader experience it inside the characters’ perspectives. I much prefer third person and a tighter POV. I think of omniscient and head hopping in terms of “voice.” Omniscient is in the narrator’s “voice.” And head-hopping jumps from one character’s “voice” to another. It’s really disorienting. Head hopping will usually result in me putting down a book. I’m so glad you posted about this one. It’s important.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How true it is that it is showing, not telling that draws people in. I like your quotes but wondered about Mimir.
    Looked it up and this is what I found.

    Mímir ( Old Norse “The rememberer, the wise one”) or Mimir is a figure in Norse mythology, renowned for his knowledge and wisdom, who is beheaded during the Æsir-Vanir War. Afterward, the god Odin carries around Mímir’s head and it recites secret knowledge and counsel to him.”

    Miriam

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great explanation of omniscient POV, Joan. I think everyone has said enough about head-hopping. I would like to try omniscient although I still prefer dragging my readers into the story rather than letting them sit passively and read the narrative. First does that nicely. Good job

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I don’t think omniscient necessarily means head hopping. I’ve read third person where the author head hops, and it always throws me. I love J.D. Robb, but she does it occasionally. Not sure it’s on purpose, but it might be. If omniscient is done well, I like it. It can give a book a timeless quality. The downside, it can make the story less immediate as being in a character’s POV and experiencing what he/she is experiencing along with her. For me, omniscient is harder to pull off, and I’m not sure I could do it. But I admire authors who do it well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It doesn’t Judi – head hopping happens when the writer jumps to put everyone’s thoughts on the page – even a character who only appears once or twice (and doesn’t add to the story). Third person omniscient narrator usually sticks to conveying the main characters’ internal dialogue as well as actions – three main characters equal three points of view equals ability to follow three characters throughout the book – distanced as it were; not in “I” POV.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The omniscient point of view, as somebody has mentioned when talking about Gaiman, seems to go back to oral tradition and the way one would tell a story around a fire. One would give the background but also talk about what the different characters feel or see, and even answer the questions the listeners ask. It isn’t used very often these days, and as many people have commented it is more common in classical or older writing, although well done it’s wonderful. It’s not easy, and I’ve never used it either. A very good explanation, Joan and thanks to Staci as well.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I like to play with all the tools, but this one baffles me. I’ve read some that start off that way to set the scene, then abandon it a page or two into the story. King is kind of like that. I like it’s use that way, because it can give me so much background so fast. It’s almost like Rod Serling walking us into a story, but not participating in it after the intro.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I read a book several months back which had received a positive review from Kirkus (surprising), and it was the worst case of head hopping I’ve come across. I was so confused because POV would change within the same paragraph, which I’d have to re-read just to understand what was going on. I honestly don’t think the author understood what he’d done. It definitely wasn’t omniscient POV.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Confused about Omniscient Point of View? Check out Joan Hall’s post on Story Empire today. Some good info and interesting comments from readers, too. As always, please consider sharing with the Immediate World, so others can enjoy this one, as well. Thanks, and thanks to Joan for helping clarify an often misunderstood subject! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  13. In my own work, I really enjoy using multiple POVs, as I like readers to see what each character is thinking. I try to stick to one in any given chapter, so there’s less chance of accidental head-hopping, and it’s clear whose head I’m in. And I’m learning to watch for slips into anything omniscient. While I’ve read books from that perspective that were very appealing, I don’t think I’d enjoy intentionally writing one.

    And funny you should quote Norse Mythology. It’s the only Neil Gaiman book I didn’t enjoy. In fact, I didn’t finish it. Perhaps you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why, because I’ve always been a fan of his.

    Thanks for clarifying what omniscient point of view is all about. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I always use multiple points of view but I’m adamant about using chapter or scene breaks.

      I do have a short story that I’m close to finishing. It dawned on me last night, I had only used a single point of view. But it works for the story. Can’t see writing an entire novel that way.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve read a lot of books written entirely from one POV and I think for some series and certain characters, it can be very effective. But I really love delving into my characters emotions and needs and personality quirks, and I think like you, multiple POVs can do that more effectively. Short stories are a different ball game all the way around. I can definitely see stick with one POV for many, if not most, of them. (I hope you’re working on one of your flash fiction projects? Several of those cried out for MORE. 😀 )

        Liked by 2 people

  14. I do not like head hopping, but I thoroughly enjoy omniscient POV when it’s done correctly. It’s my favorite POV, Always has been and likely always will be, though I don’t write it myself. I like to delve too deeply and too directly into my character’s heads.

    I will say, as with any book, you can have a very dry read, but I’ve read plenty of omniscient books that have held me spellbound.

    Great post, Joan!

    Liked by 5 people

  15. Excellent post and discussion, Joan. If I have to re-read a scene because of head-hopping, I’m likely to lose interest. You’ve helped me understand why that’s the case. As a writer, I’m intrigued by an omniscient point of view and want to know more. Gifford’s comment about a “deep omniscient” process resonates with me. Fascinating discussion!

    Liked by 3 people

  16. I use third person omniscient for my stories. A big reason is because I have so many characters to work with. If I jump among their heads too much then the perspective gets muddled. So, I spend 95% of my time having an unseen storyteller reveal what’s going on. I do it in present tense too, so it comes off rather different than most. Kind of like reading a movie as a few people have put it. That probably wouldn’t work if I didn’t go omniscient.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. I like books where you can get inside a character’s head and understand his/her reactions to different situations. I think it must be difficult to do this effectively from an omniscient POV. If a book is based more on incidents – such as tales from mythology – then I can see how this might viewpoint might work.

    Liked by 4 people

  18. I detest head-hopping. It drives me nuts. As for omniscient … I may use it in a short story, but I can’t ever see myself using it in a full-length novel. Great explanation Joan. And I love Staci’s definition. I don’t like reading omniscient, but then I loved Carrie. King is one of the very few authors I’ve read who can get away with omniscient and head-hopping. He does it so well that it reads like seamless switches. Fun and informative post, Joan 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I’m honored that you thought enough of our discussion to include some of it here, Joan.

    I’m much more tolerant of omniscient narration in classic literature than I am in contemporary stories. That’s probably elitist in some way or something, but it just seems to fit better with Dickens or Faulkner than it does today. I’m never a fan of head-hopping, though. I’m more likely to accept an all-knowing entity outside of the story telling me something than I am bouncing around between the characters in the same scene, which is just confusing. (I do, however, seem to prefer stories with multiple POVs than with a single one.)

    Nice spotlight on this issue, Joan.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. IOmniscience seems a prerequisite when writing about gods.
    But isn’t that where psychic distance come in? I’ve only recently read about psychic or narrative distance, and it seems a bit advanced for me… but I plan to experiment with it.
    When I have time.

    Liked by 4 people

  21. Nope! Omniscient still doesn’t sit well with me (though kudos to both you and Staci for helping to clear it up a hell of a lot!). Which is weird because I really don’t mind reading omniscient, I just can’t/won’t write it. Personal preference maybe? Lack of confidence writing it, definitely. I’ll just stick with my third person limited! Great post, Joan 🤗

    Liked by 4 people

  22. I’m not a fan of head hopping, it can be confusing as to who is speaking. Good post Joan. I did enjoy the stories in Norse Mythology but did get lost a couple of times:) I laughed at your ADHD comment, I raised two of them and know subject bouncing and talking in past and future at the same time…lol.

    Liked by 3 people

  23. The best description I ever heard of head-hopping is: a change of POV that the reader isn’t prepared for. I believe it was Joan Dempsey who told me that.

    I use a “deep omniscient” process, where the narrator sets up the scene or action, then I’ll dip into a character’s mind to add emotion or tension. But each transition is carefully prepared so the reader doesn’t get confused. I’d be really interested in knowing if other authors use the same process.

    Liked by 4 people

  24. ‘head-hopping’ – an irritation. The first time I come across this in a book, I put it down. Next irritation? Telling not showing. Next one? Information dumps. All of which scream out for a good objective editor. Good post, Joan.

    Liked by 2 people

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