by Jennifer Silva Redmond
I keep hearing that “everyone” says the omniscient narrative is still frowned upon by most publishers. I’ll start by saying that this is not established fact; perhaps a few agents and publishers have stated that they shy away from manuscripts written in a third-person omniscient point-of-view (POV), but a quick Google search tells me that just as many agents say they’re hesitant about a story written in first-person POV.
I am quite sure that particular “first-person” fear is really more of “first-timer” fear, because more beginning writers write in first-person, and many beginning writers have not yet learned the craft of writing to the extent necessary for professional publication. Obviously, first-person POV is not scary in general because, in recent years, blockbuster YA fantasy series like Twilight and The Hunger Games have mostly all been written in first-person. As a result, many agents and publishers have begun to focus on the first-person voice. I hear it is very difficult to get an agent or editor interested in a YA novel that is not written in first-person POV, so that may be where the “omniscient voice is dead” rumor began.
Of course, a talented writer, practiced in their craft, can write from any POV, because in the end it is all about story—and each specific tale calls for a particular voice. I have worked with authors who changed the POV after their entire manuscript was written, and even one who changed it twice before deciding on the final voice. It is a useful exercise, if one has the patience for such experimentation. That having been said, let’s delve into why a professional reader might not be interested in a well-written manuscript written in third-person omniscient POV.
I hear it is very difficult to get an agent or editor interested in a young adult novel that is not written in first-person, so that may be where the “omniscient voice is dead” rumor began.
Since all (or 99.9%) of omniscient POVs are written in third-person, I am going to refer to the third-person omniscient as just “omniscient.” The biggest difference between omniscient and third-person close (TPC)—also called “limited”, “tight”, or “deep” third-person—is the level of intimacy. Omniscient tends to be more formal and distanced, some might say uninvolved. The omniscient POV has been called the “classic” POV and even the “professional” POV. The word “classic”—as with cars—is a nice way of saying “old.” Ancient storytellers may well have told their stories from an omniscient POV; those who wrote the first printed stories definitely did. And many of history’s greatest works were written that way, by writers like Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot, and Dickens. Modern works in omniscient POV abound, too, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently, The DaVinci Code.
To be fair, there are some obvious dangers inherent in writing omniscient POV: One, it is hard to write in a consistent narrative voice that is neither a character’s nor, strictly speaking, yours; and once you discover that voice, it is hard to maintain it consistently for 300 pages. Two, omniscient voice can easily begin to feel too removed from the emotion of the characters, though I would argue that that’s probably just the result of sloppy “showing not telling” writing at work. Three, since you can jump from head to head, it is easy to fall prey to the dreaded “head-hopping.”
Bottom line: if you are still working on your craft, stick with first-person, and if you want to use third-person, stick with third-person close. Save omniscient for your second or third novel.
Even some of the benefits of omniscient POV can easily become drawbacks: the ability to give readers expository anytime without having the character or characters know the info, to go off on tangents and use flashbacks, and to employ irony without using dialogue or “spoken” interior thoughts. All of these tools can be used well by a good craftsperson, and are deadly in the wrong hands. As an editor, I often highlight whole pages, even chapters, with the note: “Interesting fact/flashback/tangent, but how does it further the story you are telling?” (That’s always an important thing to consider, no matter the point of view.)
In TPC, you can achieve all the intimacy of first-person POV, and still have the ability to jump into another character’s head (in a separate chapter or after a section break, please, so it doesn’t feel like “head-hopping”) and tell us things only he, she, or they know, which are unknown by your initial protagonist. Bottom line: TPC can do almost everything that first-person can do, and almost everything that omniscient POV can do, with none of the drawbacks, which is why TPC has become so popular with agents, writers, and editors.
Bottom line: If you are still working on your craft, stick with first-person POV—if it works for your story idea—and if you want to use third-person, stick with TPC. Leave the omniscient POV for your second or third novel, or for whenever it is called for in your future writing career.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, as well as a popular writing instructor and speaker. Long-time editor-in-chief and acquisitions editor at award-winning Sunbelt Publications, she teaches at the Southern California Writers Conference, San Diego Writers, Ink, was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3, and co-founder of the critically acclaimed Sea of Cortez Review. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies, magazines, and books, including Latinos in Lotusland and A Year in Ink; More info, a select list of edited books, and client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com.
P.S. Your friends will love this article. And they’ll love you for sharing it with them: