Toolbox 18: Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.

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While I was soul-searching and reading about writing the mystery genre, I discovered several explanations of third-person omniscient pov.

The pros of third-person omniscient pov:

  • Narrator knows all: which is limited only by the pacing of shared information over time
  • The use of summaries, transitions and bits of telling are acceptable and encourage to maintain reasonable word count
  • Conflict shows each character’s deepest expressible traits during a scene or dramatic moment.
  • Small spurts of backstory—personal or worldwide—can introduce or quickly explain character behavior and social climate within scene.
  • The biggest advantage of the objective point of view is it allows the reader to make up their own mind about the unfolding events within the story.

Cons:

  • The lack of connection and sympathy for the characters because inner thoughts are used sparingly if at all.
  • Depends completely on descriptions of body language, dialogue, and reactions to concrete details to express each character’s emotional state.

Other Cons and their solutions:

  • Head hopping an be avoided by sticking to the narrator’s pov.
  • Info dumps can be avoided by using using restraint when including transitions, backstories, and summaries. Less is more.
  • Psychic characters. Writers must remember that the narrator knows all—not the players.

Objective vs Subjective

Objective (dramatic) third-person omniscient pov is more of a fly on the wall narration. Think of watching TV or a movie. The narrator’s voice is nonexistent. Character’s emotional state is shown through stage direction, body language, concrete details, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and dialogue. No internal thoughts are shared. Emotionally charged words like felt/assumed or angry/sad are avoided.

Therefore, the reader has to determine what each character is feeling and thinking through observation alone.

Subjective point of view has a strong narrative voice. It is intrusive and can be anyone: a child, pet, ghost, etc. The whole story is filtered through the narrator’s tone, attitude and the judgment of the players.

There is less distance, because it is possible for the reader get close to and/or sympathize with the narrator. Especially when done with a slice of comedy.

Omniscient vs Limited pov

Although both are similar enough to be used (almost) the same way during a dialogue heavy scene, they have quite different advantages.

Third Person Omniscient’s descriptors are slightly different in a tell-y kind of way. They can simply state what kind of person a character is: weak but honest, harsh and cruel. It allows for quick explanations. The showing is focused on body language, dialogue, and reactions to concrete details.

Third Person Limited has more show-y descriptors. They are the observations of the protagonist and reflect as much about the person sharing as it does about the character being described. Inner thoughts are deep and limited to the observer comments.

Why consider using omniscient pov at all?

Plot driven stories aren’t completely dependent on the reader-character connection. Depending on the scope of the story your trying to tell, it may help with an unacceptably large word count. Summaries and transitions allow the reader to traverse time and space quickly and easily. It also allows the reader to engage with the story without getting confused or lost in its enormity.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Please share, I’m glad to learn more.

Gleaned from:

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55 responses to “Toolbox 18: Third-Person Omniscient Point Of View

  1. Thanks for the information and comparison. I would have trouble using this because I would continually put a character’s inner thoughts and feelings into the story. I don’t know how I would write without that and seems like there would be a lot of telling. Is there a famous writer or a novel you know that uses omniscient third person to tell the story? I can think of some movies, but can’t remember their names. LOL..
    JQ Rose

    • Some of my favorites are the Agatha Raisin Series, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings Series. I suspect epic fantasies and mysteries can still use this pov to trim back the word count or leave the reader to determine whodunit. 🙂

  2. Good summary. I think about this because so many writers claim it is how they write (to avoid being dinged for head-hopping). To me, it does feel distant.

    • Distance is why it’s avoided. Today’s trend is a deeper pov in 1st or 3rd person limited. 🙂

      Choosing would depend on what story you’re writing and the challenges of telling that story.

  3. Omniscient is a difficult POV to pull off in a book. So easy for a movie since we are seeing what is happening, but when it has to be described with words only?

    • There is that challenged. It’s been suggested to start practicing within short stories to get a feel for it. No doubt, lots of feedback would be in order as well. 🙂

  4. Wow, lots of info. Thinking about that makes my head hurt. Great post. Bookmarked.

  5. I don’t think I’ve read a book that’s in 3rd omniscient. The only one that comes to mind is the Limney Snickets (sp?) books, but I’ve only seen the movie on that, though now I want to go and have the kids read them.

  6. I think the only books I’ve read that (and I could be wrong) are in 3rd omniscient are The Wheel of Time series books. There was a lot of head hopping but I never had trouble following and didn’t get confused. I enjoyed it.

  7. I think the names of the different POVs can be misleading. I wish I could have a chat with whoever in history came up with some of them! I’ve always thought as limited as a type of third-person omniscient.

  8. Great tips! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  9. This is a great summary! I am attempting an omniscient POV for a short historical mystery/farce I’m writing. Developing the narrator’s voice — and making sure it has a historical feel and humorous tone — is the biggest challenge, followed by that part about forging a connection between the reader and the characters filtered through a nameless someone else.

  10. Thank you for the details in your POV definitions. You definitely know your writing perspectives and how to determine what best to use for a story 🙂 Happy Hop Day 🙂

  11. I’ve always heard that Tolstoy and other Russian greats are fans of 3rd Omniscient. Maybe that’s why I’ve never read them….JK. Sort of!

  12. A lot of great literature has been written in third-person omniscient POV, i.e. Mrs. Dalloway and Anna Karenina. One of my modern favorites is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When it works for the story, it’s great.

  13. I know it’s not popular right now, but I do tend to really like omniscient POV in my books. Terry Pratchett, in particular, does it really well 🙂

  14. I love to write THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENT POV. So much fun.

  15. I read a lot of historical fiction and it seems omniscient is popular for many of those novels. It takes me out of the story at times, but I admire anyone who can carry it off.

  16. I already struggle with too much telling and not showing so third person omniscient usually involves lots of red pen from beta readers and editor for me. LOL
    A good description and comparison. Thank you, Anne!

  17. I think the biggest challenge of omniscient is that no secrets can be kept from the audience.
    I always think back to Dune, and how one character secretly planned to betray the others, but the first time that character appeared on camera, audiences immediately knew that said character was a traitor. Granted, in that instance the story used that as an asset, ramping up the internal conflict that the character had over their impending treachery, but I think it can certainly challenge the author’s ability to create tension if audiences are in every character’s head.

    I think one of the most telling challenges of omniscient is finding strong examples of it in literature.

    • The narrator decides how much to share and controls pacing that way. Even in 3rd person limited, scenes can be skipped to prevent giving too much away.

      You’re right though tension is everything. 🙂

  18. I’m don’t think I’ve ever tried omniscient POV but I do agree the short stories are the best place to experiment.

  19. Christine Rains

    Excellent points. I think this type of POV works for plot driven stories, but it isn’t one I usually favor. I love character driven stories and all the unique voices that come with it.

  20. Very informative, and it’s mostly over my head!

  21. Even as an editor I have difficulty understanding and explaining the difference between omniscient POV and headhopping, but you’ve helped me unpack it a little more: omniscient POV is always distant and rarely shows internal thought (and I suspect that’s why I don’t like it: I like seeing what the main characters are thinking). Headhopping shows the thoughts of too many characters (even more annoying!).

  22. You used a lot of terms I don’t understand, so I’ll take your word for it. 🙂 Although, reading Iola’s comment helped. I think I understand now what “omniscient” and “headhopping” mean.

  23. Victoria Marie Lees

    Great post, Anna. Thanks for organizing the information so concisely. All best to you!

  24. The lack of connection for the reader, when the omniscient third person point of view happens, can be a deadly menace in our efforts to bring the characters to life.

  25. The POV information is very well laid out. Thanks for posting that today. And I loved the quotes. We are all so much alike, aren’t we. It’s just some express it better than others.

  26. Lots of great advice. Loved the quotes. I want to read more of your space story. I loved it. I still think about it.

  27. Jennifer Lee Hawes

    I’ve heard every writer doubts, no matter how famous they are! So there’s that. It can be crippling though. As in, fear of writing for fear of failure. Don’t let it get to you!! Squash those evil villainous thoughts.

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