Using Third Person Omniscient PoV
by Brian Davis
Writing in Third Person Omniscient point of view lets you do many things with your story that you wouldn’t normally be able to do were you to use a Limited or even a Multiple point of view.
Third Person Omniscient lets you move freely through time and space, gives more information in a smaller amount of time, and yes, even shows what multiple people are thinking within a scene.
There are a lot of advantages to Third Person Omniscient, but if you look at fiction novels written in the 20th century, most are written in Third Person Limited. Why is that?
Part of the reason is that Third Person Omniscient is considered one of the hardest POVs to master because there are a lot of places where you can go wrong.
First, many new writers confuse Omniscient with “Head-Hopping”. This often happens because a writer wants to show what many or all of the characters within a scene are thinking, and then simply writes it down as if it were Third Person Multiple instead of Omniscient POV. This’ll come out as a jumbled and confusing pile of perspectives mixed together.
Second, many don’t quite grasp the differences between an Objective perspective and a Subjective perspective, and how to use them to their advantage.
Third, Third Person Limited (or Multiple) can be indistinguishable at times from Third Person Omniscient, which can make things very confusing.
Then come the big drawbacks of using Third Person Omniscient: The distance between the characters and the reader that’s inherent in the use of an Omniscient narrator. This is something that many writers struggle to overcome.
So now that we’ve laid down the pitfalls that many writers fall in to when writing in Third Person Omniscient, lets try to grasp the problems and how to avoid them.
When many writers attempt to write a story from the Omniscient POV, they instead end up with something that’s called “head-hopping”. Just what exactly is head-hopping?
Head-hopping is a mistake that writers usually fall in to because they want to be able to show what each character within a scene is thinking. The Omniscient narrator can indeed do that. However, this should be done with the narrator’s words, not the character’s. Let’s take a look at an example.
Dave sat up on his surfboard and looked towards the shore. Two people, John and Brian, were paddling up to the line up. “Nice day,” Dave said.
Dave looked out to the shoulder, a look of worry on his face. John was afraid of the shallow reef in the impact zone, and tended to avoid the peak in these situations. However, at this particular spot, even though the waves were smaller out in the shoulder, the reef out there was much shallower, and Dave worried about John wiping out after a take off. However, Dave didn’t need to worry, as John had decided to brave the peak.
Brian arrived at the line up and sat on his board, as they waited for the lull of the waves to be over. Behind him, John slipped into the water, and pulled on Brian’s leash from beneath him, making Brian lose balance and fall into the water.
“What the hell?” Brian said, as he floated back to the surface. John chuckled, and Dave grinned. A large wave began to form in the water, moving towards them. Dave gave John a taunting wink as he asked, “you gonna take the first wave of the set?”
In this example we can read what the characters in the scene are thinking. However, we never completely enter into their POV. Their thoughts are always filtered through the Subjective Omniscient narrator.
Notice as well that the scene is somewhat more “tell-y” than the incorrect head-hopping version below, which mostly incorporates things from Third Person Limited/Multiple in terms of the narration. For a Subjective Omniscient narrator, this is hard to avoid, as the narrator’s voice plays an important role in how the story is portrayed.
Let’s try to look at an example of head-hopping, and break down where Omniscient can go wrong:
Dave sat up on his surfboard and looked down towards the shore. Two people, John and Brian, were paddling up to the line up. “Nice day,” Dave said.
He wondered if John was going to stay out on the shoulder instead of the peak. Dave knew he was afraid of the shallow reef in the impact zone. Although the wave was smaller out in the shoulder, the reef was much shallower, and Dave worried about John wiping out after trying to take off. However, Dave didn’t need to worry as John had decided to brave the peak. I’ll have to watch him, Dave thought.
“No need to watch out for me, I’ll be fine,” John said. Brian realized there was a lull in the waves, and sat on his board. Bored on my board, he thought. John slipped quietly into the water behind him, and pulled on Brian’s leash, making him lose balance and fall into the water.
“What the hell?” Brian said as he floated back to the surface. John chuckled, and Dave grinned. They could see a large wave forming in the water, moving towards them. Dave gave John a taunting wink as he asked, “you gonna take the first wave of the set?”
Here we have two mistakes. The first mistake is head-hopping: we move between Dave’s, John’s, and Brian’s POV within the scene. Technically, this is considered a form of Omniscient. However, head-hopping is a less-than-ideal way of doing it. As the example shows, this technique can be confusing for the reader.
Yes, we know what both of the characters are thinking and doing, but the scene is written from Dave’s, John’s, and Brian’s perspectives, not the Omniscient narrator’s.
The second mistake is a common problem writers encounter when writing in Omniscient POV: The characters have information they shouldn’t know—unless they’re psychic. This can be seen where John tells Dave that he didn’t need to watch out for him.
When writing Omniscient, a writer must be very careful not to give characters information that the narrator knows but that the character couldn’t know. That’s incredibly jarring to the reader, and could defeat their faith in the Omniscient narrator.
In order to write a scene where we know the thoughts and actions of most—if not all—of the characters, it generally requires the Omniscient narrator have a strong voice so the narrative doesn’t descend into head-hopping.
Objective and Subjective Omniscient
The Omniscient POV is typically divided into two categories: Objective (also known as the “Dramatic” POV or “Fly on the Wall” POV), and Subjective.
An Objective Omniscient POV is when the narrator doesn’t have a “voice”. The narrator is present, but they’re “invisible”; they don’t have a personality. The narrator relates the events as they happen, but doesn’t offer any opinions on the events.
Basically, the POV is like a camera following the characters around, showing actions and dialogue, and not entering into the internal thoughts of the characters.
Since Objective POV can only show actions and dialogue, but never internal thoughts, it’s almost entirely “Show” (as opposed to “Tell”), except for some occasional exposition. Instead of describing how any of the characters felt, characters would have to “show” it by their actions.
When writing in the Objective POV, the author must avoid all verbs that convey emotional behavior internally, such as “felt”, “assumed”, and any adjectives and adverbs that relate to emotions(sad, happy, angry, etc.). The reason for this is that it tells people in the narrative what the characters are feeling or thinking. Remember, think of the Objective POV like a camera. It can only show what the characters are doing, and can’t enter directly into their minds.
That said, it’s perfectly okay to say something along the lines of:
“Hurray!” Little Annie said, smiling happily as she skipped down the road.
The use of the word “happily” in the sentence above is perfectly acceptable in Objective, as the narrator is commenting on her body language instead of how she feels internally.
An incorrect way of writing about emotions in the Objective POV would be something like this:
“Hurray!” Little Annie said, feeling a warm happiness overtake her at the thought of having dinner at the neighbor’s house.
Here the narrator is commenting on what Little Annie feels internally rather than what she expresses externally. Note the use of our “don’t use” word: “feeling”.
It wouldn’t be completely incorrect to use the word “thought” in the context of the above example. However, it should be inferred by her body language or tone or voice that Annie is thinking it, as opposed to actually stating to the reader what she’s feeling at that moment in time.
Lets take a look at an example of how the Objective POV should look like:
Jerry stood at the edge of the bridge and stared down at the icy waters below. He took out his wallet and glanced at his business card.
He tore it in two and whispered, “Twenty years of my life wasted.”
Tears streamed down his face as he stepped into air and plunged a hundred feet to his doom.
The skyscraper where his company used to be situated loomed in the distance. Inside, there was only silence.
Here we don’t enter into Jerry’s thoughts, and we don’t directly know his emotions, although we can tell what they are by his actions (ripping his business card and the tears streaming down his face).
Now let’s compare that with an incorrect version:
Jerry stood at the edge of the bridge, staring down at the icy waters below. It had been a week since the market crash, since his company went bust.
Twenty years of my life gone, Jerry thought.
He looked up at the skyscraper in the distance, where his company used to be situated. He felt a rumbling in his chest and tears streamed down his face.
In the water, he saw his salvation. His only escape.
This is an incorrect way to write Objective POV. Here the narrator tells us what Jerry is feeling and delves into Jerry’s thoughts. This example would be considered Subjective Omniscient POV.
A Subjective Omniscient POV is one where there’s a narrator with a strong voice who can show the internal thoughts of the characters within the scene.
There are those who say that Subjective Omniscient can only follow a single character the entire time. This is not the case. It can certainly focus on a single character at a time (such as in Frank Herbert’s Dune), but that doesn’t always have to happen.
When the Subjective Omniscient narrator is telling the story of a particular character, the narrator can still get the insights and internalizations of characters other than the main character. Whether or not the Omniscient narrator follows a single character makes no difference; it’ll work more or less the same.
The most important thing when it comes to Subjective Omniscient POV is that the narrator has a strong “voice”, and that all emotions in the story are filtered through the narrator’s words, not the characters’. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself head-hopping.
Confusion between Third Person Omniscient and Third Person Limited/Multiple
The Omniscient POV can seem indistinguishable from Third Person Limited or Third Person Multiple at times, particularly when it comes to describing actions undertaken by the characters and scenes where there’s heavy dialogue. Take a look at this example, where Omniscient and Third Person Limited/Multiple are indistinguishable from each other:
The house was ablaze, so Jack and Jill hurried up the hill to fetch a few pails of water. Jack filled one up and handed it to Jill.
“Hurry up and put out the fire,” Jack said.
Jill nodded and dashed down the hill, the water sloshing in the bucket.
Jack filled another bucket with well water before he dashed after her.
This scene walks through the actions of the characters and their dialogue, and as such, could be from either an Omniscient narrator’s POV or Jack’s POV.
In order to firmly decide what POV this story is written in, we’d need more of the story to provide context. In extreme cases it can take multiple chapters to finally know whether or not the story is written in Third Person Omniscient or a Third Person Limited/Multiple.
For example, there are stories where the POV character changes with each scene, but each scene only shows a single POV character. This would mean the story is in Third Person Multiple. But every so often a scene would pop up where there are two POV characters or the narrator telling the reader what the characters in the scene are thinking—and that’s when we’d call it Omniscient POV.
Omniscient vs. Limited POV
The Omniscient POV has many advantages over Third Person Limited. Perhaps the greatest advantage is that Omniscient allows the author to give more information to the reader in a shorter length of time. In Third Person Limited we’d need to be “shown” what the characters are like, as opposed to Third Person Omniscient, where the narrator can simply “tell” us. Omniscient POV benefits from a larger scope than Limited and allows the author to say more things about the characters’ situations than the Limited POV can.
Check out this example, where the reader can grasp the entire situation in just three paragraphs:
Jonathan—a weak but honest man—entered the restaurant, and found Margie waiting at a back table. He notified the waiter and sat down next to Margie, playing with his tie to keep down his nerves. Margie was a harsh woman, and it was impossible for Jonathan to predict how she would react to his news.
The company Margie was heavily invested in had been struggling for a while. If it collapsed, she would lose nearly a hundred million dollars. She noticed Jonathan’s nervousness and frowned.
Unfortunately for her, the worst case scenario had come true. Jonathan was merely the messenger.
If this same information were to be conveyed in Third Person Limited, it’d take many more words to relay the information from a single character’s POV. For example, instead of saying “Jonathan was a weak but honest man”, either Margie would have to describe him as such and allude to things that had happened with him in the past, or Jonathan would have to “show” his personality with his internalizations and/or dialogue as he sits down for the meeting.
Another advantage Omniscient has is that it allows the author to take the reader anywhere—or any time—with the snap of the finger, and to explain everything that’s going on without using a character as an intermediary.
The Limited POV limits point of view to a single character at a time within a single scene, greatly narrowing the tools the author can use to tell the story. Considering that Omniscient is much more flexible than Limited, one might expect that Omniscient would be the predominant POV in fiction. Who wouldn’t want to use godlike powers to tell a story?
But it turns out that most fiction (particularly novels) written in the past century is written in Third Person Limited. Though Omniscient can do more with less, Limited is more common because Omniscient sacrifices what’s perhaps the most important thing in fiction: It doesn’t allow the reader to get close to and sympathize with the characters and the situations they find themselves in. This is because the distance created by seeing everything from the Omniscient narrator’s point of view instead of the character’s is too great.
In the example above, Margie is described as “a harsh woman”. This is clearly worded from the narrator’s point of view, as it’s unlikely Margie would portray herself like that (should the passage have been rewritten from her point of view). If we were writing in Third Person Limited it’d take a few paragraphs of showing her character (with her actions and/or internalizations) to get the point across, instead of having the narrator outright telling the reader. In the process of forming their own conclusions about characters, readers will form stronger attachments.
Third Person Omniscient naturally distances the reader from the characters and the situations because there’s an “otherworldly” voice telling the story. The voice knows everything that’s going on, as well as—in the case of subjective narrators—the fact that they sometimes comment on the events in the story. An Omniscient narrator can even address a reader directly, such as the “dear reader” comments made in Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels.
Distance in a story isn’t necessarily bad. It’s for precisely this reason that so much fiction in the humor genre is written in an Omniscient voice: Because it provides the distance required for comedic effect.
For example, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams often puts the characters in situations where reactions would have been horrific instead of humorous, should the situations have been written differently.
Lets see how the distance from the characters work for comedic effect.
Little Allison had stood in the corner of the room, staring at the wall for hours on end. This was her punishment for stealing cookies from the cookie jar. The length of it took a grave toll on her stubby 4 year old legs, making them shake with both exhaustion, and excitement.
The harshest of tyrants and the cruelest of criminals would have deemed the penalty inflicted upon this young child an indecent abuse, and certainly not equal to the crime of stealing a cookie.
Finally, after all that time standing, little Allison gave out a whimper as a tear fell down her face. She could no longer bear it.
“Allison, your 15 minute time out is up,”her mother said.
In this example, you can see that because of the narrator’s comments and the distance the story has from the characters, the story turns out to be a humorous piece.
Should we have gone deeper into Allison’s POV, the story would have most likely had a very different tone. You may have had a stronger sense of Allison’s whining and impatience, instead of the narrator’s darker look on the situation. You might also notice that in this example the narrator is unreliable (Allison had not been forced to stand for hours). This is something allowed by the use of an Omniscient narrator. Be careful if you do this, though, as you can inadvertently change how the story is perceived.
The main reason why there’s distance from the reader and the character when a story is written in Subjective Omniscient is because the characters are being judged by the narrator, not by reader. The Subjective Omniscient narrator often comes across in the guise of a friend gossiping with the reader about the characters as they journey through the story.
Sometimes authors writing in Subjective Omniscient will try to make the readers connect with the narrator instead of with the characters. When this happens, the way they tell the story becomes just as important as the story itself.
The distance between the reader and the characters when a story is written with an Objective narrator is even greater than Subjective. In Objective, the narrator doesn’t “judge” the characters for the reader. However, since the reader only sees what the characters say and do and not what they think, it becomes like watching a film. You can see the characters on screen, you can see who they are and what they’re doing, but the screen is always between you and the characters. You can never step into their shoes and see the story from their vantage point, or understand what they’re thinking at any given moment.
It isn’t impossible to overcome the distance between reader and character when writing in Omniscient. That’s most obvious when reading traditional fairy tales, which are usually written from an Omniscient point of view. But readers will most often sympathize with the characters and the situations as concepts, rather than with the characters as people.
For instance, in the story Little Red Riding Hood, the main character is a little girl. She represents innocence and helplessness. The obstacle is a predatory wolf who’s stalking her. Readers will immediately sympathize with the main character not because of who she is (as a person), but what she is (an innocent little girl), and the situation that she’s been put in (a wolf is hunting her).
In short, getting the reader to sympathize with the characters in the story is part of the art of the Omniscient perspective. Sometimes it can require creative solutions, but don’t be discouraged if you run in to trouble. It takes both practice and a strong understanding of the relationship between the narrator, the characters, and the reader.
Pros and Cons
Strengths of using Omniscient POV:
The narrator has godlike knowledge, allowing the reader to know everything going on at any time.
It doesn’t limit the author to a single POV character in a scene.
It allows the author to provide information in a more natural way.
It can provide smoother transition into action.
Weaknesses of using Omniscient POV:
It’s more presentational in nature, resulting in distance from the characters.
Emotions are harder to convey to the reader.
It tends to be more “Tell-y” (which can lead to massive info-dumps if you aren’t careful).
The narrator’s godlike knowledge means that tension can be dissipated, possibly resulting in a dull-feeling story.
Is Third Person Omniscient Best for your Story?
So now that we’ve discussed the common pitfalls and how to deal with them, is Third Person Omniscient really the best POV for your story?
Take a look at your story. If it’s character driven, then Omniscient might not be the best bet. Since the story stands mostly on the shoulders of the characters and requires the reader to make a strong connection with them, Third Person Limited or First Person might be a better choice.
But if your story is plot-driven and wide in scope, then Omniscient might be an attractive option. That’s because you need to get the points across quicker, and can move across time and space in order to bring out just how wide the story’s scope is.
Another thing to think about is your grasp on the Omniscient POV. If you aren’t confident in your ability in using it, then you should get some practice first. It’d be best if you wrote a few short stories to gauge your ability.
Whatever POV you end up choosing, it must ultimately allow the reader to be able to sit down and engage with the story without getting confused or lost.
Points of View by Dr. Agatha Taormina
Definition at About.com Fiction Writing
Third Person Omniscient at Novel Writing Help