Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Point of View - a Study in Voice

I recently read a publisher's website that stated they did not want submissions in the omniscient voice and it got me thinking about that. Who does that? Would I like it? Maybe they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one. Now, I understand about no head hopping in third person, handle with care first person (The Snowflake - my Christmas novella due out in October is my first experiment with first person) but what exactly is omniscient pov? And is there really anything wrong with it?
A few days later, down another rabbit hole, I looked up one of my childhood favorites - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and there it was . . . omniscient narrative:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled
Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at
her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of
pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy,
with an injured sniff.
"We've got Father and Mother, and each other," said Beth
contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened
at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,
"We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time."
She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking
of Father far away, where the fighting was.
(This appears in Jo's pov)
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone,
"You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this
Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone;
and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when
our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can
make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am
afraid I don't." And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully
of all the pretty things she wanted.
(Now we're in Meg's pov)
"But I don't think the little we should spend would do any
good. We've each got a dollar, and the army wouldn't be much helped
by our giving that. I agree not to expect anything from Mother or
you, but I do want to buy UNDINE AND SINTRAM for myself. I've
wanted it so long," said Jo, who was a bookworm. (Jo's pov if she's the person we are in their head, if not omniscient)
"I planned to spend mine in new music," said Beth, with a
little sigh, which no one heard but the hearth brush and kettle
holder. (Omniscient pov)
"I shall get a nice box of Faber's drawing pencils. I
really need them," said Amy decidedly.
"Mother didn't say anything about our money, and she won't
wish us to give up everything. Let's each buy what we want, and
have a little fun. I'm sure we work hard enough to earn it," cried
Jo, examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner. (Back in Jo's pov or omniscient)
"I know I do--teaching those tiresome children nearly all
day, when I'm longing to enjoy myself at home," began Meg, in the
complaining tone again.
"Don't peck at one another, children. Don't you wish we
had the money Papa lost when we were little, Jo? Dear me! How
happy and good we'd be, if we had no worries!" said Meg, who
could remember better times. (Omniscient)
"You said the other day you thought we were a deal happier
than the King children, for they were fighting and fretting all
the time, in spite of their money."
"Birds in their little nests agree," sang Beth, the
peacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voices
softened to a laugh, and the "pecking" ended for that time.

Okay, lots of head hopping going on here, but really it doesn't feel as if we're in any one's head. It feels as if the camera is zoomed out and giving us an overall view of the scene. I find I don't mind it. It gives me information about each character and what they think and feel, who they are. If we were only in Jo's pov it would be quite different, wouldn't it? How she views her sisters. But, wait a minute. That kind of comes through after all, with the way it is written. It's Jo we end up identifying with in Little Women as the main character/narrator and maybe that's because the omniscient view isn't really omniscient after all. Maybe it's Jo's way of telling a first person pov story. Now that's confusing! And interesting to me.


Jamie Carie


  1. Omniscient POV used to be "the thing"! I, for one, am sorry it's "out". . . . And I think one reason it's out, altho' I don't know for sure, is that it slows a story. And these days, everything is supposed to zip zoom from scene to scene. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that just about ALL the "old," great authors used omniscient POV. I'm running thru my favorites in my head right now, and even first person stories had large blocks of narrative POV. Perhaps, like all good "old things," it will come back some day in full force -- for of course, it's not completely gone. . . :-)

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  3. Steph said...
    I'm finding smidgets of omniscient POV in the secular market, mainly bc I'm tuned into POV as a writer. Here's an example from a book I'm reading that was published in 1990:
    (Everything so far has been in the 3rd person POV of the protag. And then it switches to a male nurse-->) "So yer don't remember," the man went on, his face friendly and faintly amused. He had seen all manner of human frailty and there was nothing so fearful or so eccentric it disturbed his composure. He had seen more men die [etc.]..... "Or else yer ain't saying," he went on.
    Once in a great while omniscient POV is used again, but briefly. Every time the flow of the story has not been disrupted; in fact, it has benefitted.
    Personally, I don't like limitations like this on authors. I'm curious if it's a fad or what the reason for rejecting it is. And now *sigh* I hear the semicolon is on its way out. Grrrr, I don't like my tools taken away from me!
    Given all that, I'll do whatever an editor wants. :-)

  4. Great topic and one I've been thinking about alot recently. I normally write stories and firmly stay in one person's head at a time with three POV tops. However I'm working on a book where I wanted various stages of grief explored by seven different people. I purposely choose omniscent viewpoint so I could seamlessy move about a scene with the sense of watching a movie. I was advised that wasn't selling and spent three months changing it. In many ways the writing is stronger, however, the problem now is that it feels as if too many people crowd the story. Interesting. Current day author Alexander McCall Smith's books are omniscient followings of several individuals. Compare that to The Poisonwood Bible which changed viewpoints between characters by chapters. I believe that onmiscient viewpoint can/was abused and should not be a platform for intervention and interruption by the author. Properly used it can promote the story seamlessly - which is the point of fiction. Any method that pulls us out of the storyworld should be re-worked. As Millie said this may be the current "in" thing, but when all is said and done, an author needs to buck up strong and stand for what you believe will best, most seamlessly, present your story. At the end of the day it's the story that seems alive that will stand regardless of POV used. Thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion.

  5. The Book Thief does a GREAT job with omniscient POV. It's just such a HARD job to master, so perhaps that's why the general approach is don't do it. Kinda like tackling SEVEN points of view as occurs in My Sister's Keeper (Piccoult).

    Masters can pull it off. If God lays that "it" on your heart, GO FOR IT!!!

    Blessings and thanks for a great topic!

  6. I agree with you Steph and Patti! Don't take my tools away, let us explore new and innovative ways of using them, but like Patti said, it is hard to master. I guess the better we get as writers the more we can go back and experiment with tools of the past.

    I heard someone say once that everything that can be done has already been done. I don't agree with that. That's like saying that there is nothing left to discover in our field. Someone "invented" first person pov. Someone imagined a new genre or sub-genre. When I think of how God created the world and ALL the mysteries of science and nature, mathematics, language, art . . . our art. Any of us might invent the next peak into His Kingdom - that place that reveals to creation an aspect of who He is, God's character in art form. The Bible calls it the "secrets of the kingdom." I pray God gives us - as His story tellers - these secrets to reveal to the world, like the parables of Jesus, who He is and what His kingdom is like so that we can draw more into eternal life through Christ our Savior (sniff! Okay, sorry, the preacher's daughter got the best of me again and I'm on my soapbox! LOL)

    Thanks for reading my thoughts!!!

  7. P.S. Well said, Mary Allen! After the stronger rewrite go back and do omniscient pov again and see if you can find a compromise? I've found it does help to change gears sometimes and then go back to what I thought was right the first time. Know what I mean?