Narration: Is Omniscience Working For You?

Lately, the trend in writing has been to avoid omniscient narration. Whether you write in first person or third, present or past tense, writers are still advised to avoid omniscient narration as a thing of the past. They say it lacks immediacy and fails to connect the reader with the characters. Unless we have third-person close or first person narration, they argue, we aren’t really inside the characters’ heads, seeing everything as they see things. But is this always a bad thing? What can omniscient narration do for you that other forms of narration can’t?

First, there is a narrator in omniscient narration. There can also be a narrator in first person narration, since the person telling the story needn’t be the main character (though nowadays, they usually are, since we want to feel the story, not just hear it). A narrator provides distance and perspective on action; he or she has the ability to step away from the emotions of the moment and make broader comments about the world or the situation. This can be a weakness, but it is also a strength.

Anna Karenina is a good example. It employs an omniscient narrator (Tolstoy knows everything that everyone is thinking and feeling), but he uses his distance to make comments about society. In this scene, between Vronsky and Princess Betsy, we are mostly accompanying Vronsky and enjoying his perspective, yet Tolstoy writes the following:

“‘Well, bonne chance!’ she added, giving Vronsky one finger of the hand in which she held her fan, and with a shrug of her shoulders she twitched down the bodice of her gown that had worked up, so as to be duly naked as she moved forward towards the footlights into the light of the gas, and the sight of all eyes.”

Such a comment would never be permitted in third person close narration, since Vronsky would never think about Princess Betsy’s attire in such a way, but Tolstoy is allowed to make the quip because of his narrator’s position.

This doesn’t mean that Tolstoy must be distant from his characters, though. Third person close narration couldn’t get much closer to Anna than we do in this scene:

“She laughed contemptuously and took up her book again; but now she was definitely unable to follow what she read. She passed the paper knife over the window pane, then laid its smooth, cool surface to her cheek, and almost laughed aloud at the feeling of delight that all at once without cause came over her. She felt as though her nerves were strings being strained tighter and tighter on some sort of screwing peg. She felt her eyes opening wider and wider, her fingers and toes twitching nervously, something within oppressing her breathing, while all shapes and sounds seemed in the uncertain half-light to strike her with unaccustomed vividness.

“Moments of doubt were continually coming upon her, when she was uncertain whether the train were going forwards or backwards, or were standing still altogether; whether it were Annushka at her side or a stranger. “What’s that on the arm of the chair, a fur cloak or some beast? And what am I myself? Myself or some other woman?” She was afraid of giving way to this delirium. But something drew her towards it, and she could yield to it or resist it at will.”

In the above scene, we have the general feelings Anna is experiencing and a few of the direct thoughts she is thinking. Unless we translated the entire scene into stream-of-consciousness, we couldn’t get any closer to her mind and how she is perceiving that moment. That scene is the exception, rather than the rule, for omniscient narration, but it is part of an author’s tools in that narrative voice.

I think omniscient narration really gives you the following benefits:

  • You can step out of time. As the narrator, you can make comments like, “She had no idea that this trip would change her life” or “He would look back on that day fondly in the months to come, but now, he felt his wife’s presence to be an irritant.”
  • You can step away from a character. When one of the characters is awash in angst and depression, you and the readers don’t have to join then. As the narrator, you can slip us out of the room, or into some other characters’ perspective.
  • You can get close to a character, but not constantly. If the entire book had us as close as we are to Anna in the moment on the train, we would lose all the benefits of having a narrator. There would be no distance, no comments, no sense of a narrator at all, and would just be third person close narration.
  • You can round out a fictional world. In Anna Karenina, we inhabit the perspective of almost every character as the narrator guides us through the tale. We “visit” Anna, Vronsky, Anna’s husband, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her son, not to mention all the other characters in the secondary plot of the book. (This could also be achieved in third-person close narration by changing the character perspective after a scene break or chapter, as many authors do.)
  • You have continuity. Even though there are dozens of character perspectives in Anna Karenina, there is still continuity, because the narrator is always with us. He is like the ghost of Christmas past for Scrooge, guiding us through the visions and experiences of a multi-faceted story.

There are limits to omniscient narration, of course. You can’t visit one character after another, line after line, or it does feel fragmented and confusing. When Tolstoy shows us the triple-perspectives on Vronsky’s horserace, we see his perspective in a separate chapter from that of Anna and her husband, both in the stands. If all this had been merged into one chapter, it would’ve become disjointed and disorienting: first, we would be on the race course, then with Anna, then her husband, and back to Vronsky.

The question, ultimately, is what is best for your story. Does omniscience give you opportunities that third person close narration or first person narration doesn’t give you? Definitely. If those opportunities help you achieve the tone and feel that you want for your story, than it’s the best choice, regardless of what the market trend may be.

If, however, you never encounter a narrator and never say anything a character couldn’t or wouldn’t say or think, then you might not be writing from an omniscient narrator’s perspective. You are, perhaps, writing third person close narration without a lot of sensory details, but at some point, the narrator should show up, however unobtrusively. Otherwise, why have him or her tell the story at all?

Copyright 2105 Andrea Lundgren

12 thoughts on “Narration: Is Omniscience Working For You?

  1. Editorial omniscient narration is my way to go. I depracate any closeness of reader and character.

    I like visiting several characters line after line, or even in the same line. Nothing will inhibit me therefrom.


    1. Good for you! Many people like to have a single storyteller who is also a character, but others, like you, prefer to get a feeling for many of the characters at the same time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  2. Hello there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Many thanks|


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