Sunday, March 16, 2008

Omniscient POV In Fiction

Omniscient POV is a style of the past. It was used like a narrator to set a tone or mood and most often to provide backstory for the reader. Today most authors avoid this style and only a few slip into narrative omniscient POV, using the technique as if someone is watching the story act out and is sharing the action, past or present, with the reader and often before things happen. It’s the line that says, If John had known what was behind the door, he never would have opened it. I have seen lines like this in some Dean Koontz great novels as well as a few other well-known authors, but once again, when you’re earning millions, you can do just about anything you want.

The reason omniscient POV is not as effective as it was is that readers like to be involved. They like a fast paced story. They want to be given credit for having intelligence enough to figure things out and often the omniscient POV explains things to the reader without allowing them to work it out for themselves, or it gives them a heads up on what’s going to happen and takes away the surprise.

Omniscient POV, sometimes called author intrusion, sneaks into writing more often when an authors wants to provide backstory. A town’s or family’s history, descriptive passage of setting, an explanation of an event or the background of a tradition might be something the author thinks the readers should know. Instead of working it into dialogue or providing the information in a creative manner, the author tells it.

Notice the word tells. As a writer, you know that showing not telling is the way to present a story that keeps readers interested and offers them an exciting read. Readers can hear the change in the flow of the novel when the author comes to a dead stop to provide a paragraph of background information. The feel of the novel changes and the paragraph will often stick out and distract a reader.

Read this example:
Jason paused beside his friend. “This is it. My childhood home.”

Conway studied it for a moment before responding. “It looks like one of those houses in a Gothic mystery. I’ve seen them on book covers.”

The house Jason grew up in had been standing for 250 years, build by his great great grandfather. The construction of the house had taken a half-year and later, his great grandfather had added a wing. As the family grew so did the house. His grandfather had finished the house to make it what it was today, a rambling estate, now painted a drab gray with slate colored shutters.

If this information has a purpose in moving the story forward, think how much more effective it would be in dialogue.

Jason paused beside his friend. “This is it. My childhood home.” He eyed the drab gray shingles with slate colored shutters and wondered what Conway might be thinking.

Conway studied the house for a moment before responding. “It looks like one of those mansions in a Gothic mystery. I’ve seen them on book covers.”

Grinning, Jason gave a slow nod. “Maybe it should be. My family has an interesting history. My great great grandfather built the front of the house, and my great grandfather added the left wing.”

“Let me guess. The right wing was built by your grandfather.”

“Not only that.” He beckoned him forward. “Let me show you the secret passage.”

Conway’s eyes widened. “Really?”

Jason didn’t answer but lead the way.

I think you’ll agree dialogue, action and introspection adds a little more interest than the omniscient POV paragraph.

Occasionally omniscient POV can provide a brief transition, moving characters from one location to another or to show the passing of time. Three days passed before Amanda heard from her best friend, and when she did, the news was bad. This helps move the story along and sets up a hook for the reader, but it is telling and not showing. Think of this same information, but state it through the eyes of a character and see how much more effective it is.

Amanda paced the floor, the telephone pressed to her ear. She’d waited three days to hear from her best friend and now, she wished she hadn’t. The news was bad. While this is similar to the sentence above, it provides action, Amanda’s reaction, and offers the same hook to arouse the reader’s curiosity.

The decision is yours on whether omniscient POV is effective or not, but whatever you decide, use it carefully. Today’s editors want action, emotion, and a story that brings characters to life.

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