The Omniscient Narrator Must Flow


The fully omniscient narrator who sees all and knows all is out of style these days, but the perspective is rooted in a proud, long-standing history of classic literature. A fully omniscient narrator has no limits and no boundaries – you can use him freely not just to jump from one person’s thoughts to another, but from location to location. You can report on the doings of people and creatures whose lives and deaths will go unnoticed and unremarked by anyone else. It is a truly powerful perspective, and a truly limitless one.


But with great power comes great responsibility.


The advantage to today’s more popular perspectives – first person and third person limited omniscient – is that they are bound to a single character (at a time). The story is going to flow through that character. What happens next? Well, what does the character do next? What does she see and hear? What does she think? Whatever the answer, you have a powerful tool to keep the story in flow. The use of a snigle character’s perspectives helps you move the story effortlessly, keeping events orderly and maintaining the rhythm of the prose.


Yet there are times when the omniscient narrator still makes sense. I find it particularly useful in stories where no single character is the focus, yet there are a great many characters. It is also useful when you want to follow events that nobody sees or could possibly know about. When the world is in danger and you need to be in a dozen places around the planet to show it, some of them well below sea level or in the high winds of a hurricane, an omniscient narrator can be very effective. This was the case in “Mother of Storms” by John Barnes. Through an all-seeing narrator, we watched a chain reaction that created massive, never before seen hurricanes overtake the earth. In some scenes, we were the hurricane.


I’ve also found that the omniscient point of view works well in horror, when you want to show us danger that the main character isn’t aware of. Stephen King often uses an omniscient narrator that, at times, goes deep into certain points of view.


But regardless of why you have chosen to use an omniscient narrator – which can be simply because you want to and it’s your story after all – you have a challenge in front of you. You must find a way to tie events together. You must create flow.


An omniscient narrator is not the absence of a narrator. It’s not the absence of perspective. You still have someone telling the story, it just happens to be someone from on high. That person can get out of the way, be invisible, or can have a grandiose voice. That’s up to you. But either way, the narrator must guide the story seamlessly from one event to another.


Jumpiness. Look at this. Look at that. Look over there!


You can’t just bounce from topic to topic, place to place, or person to person without some kind of transition. The transition can be as simple as, “Meanwhile, on the other side of the meadow…” or as complex as an entire page of description as the narrator’s bird’s eye shifts slowly across that meadow. Either way, you must guide the reader from place to place, always mindful of what they are currently focused on and that it is your job to gently shift the focus to something else.


I’ve seen this mistake quite a few times as an editor. Usually, it feels to me as if the author hasn’t given point of view much thought at all – that they have confused the use of an omniscient narrator with the lack of a narrator. Other times, they may simply be rushing through the story, thinking that the omniscient narrator gives them leave to be anywhere at anytime, telling the story any way they see fit.


Authors who want to use omniscience – you have a proud tradition to uphold. Consider carefully why you’ve made your choice, and make sure you are writing with both purpose and perspective.

Posted in Tips for Writers.

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