Omniscient And Modified Omniscient Viewpoints

An omniscient viewpoint is one from which the author may look in on any of his characters, switching from hero to heroine to villain to any of the minor characters and back to the hero again. Free to view the unfolding events from many vantage points, the writer can develop several plot threads, building suspense by letting the reader see how all the pieces will come together while the characters are kept ignorant of the true situation: when the reader knows something the characters don't, this is called "dramatic irony," and it can be quite effective. Furthermore, by spending some time in third person with every character in the book, the writer is better able to create believable people all down the line than if he must use only the eyes and mind of the hero to present the rest of the story people.

In the late 1800's, the pure omniscient viewpoint was most popular with writers. In this, the author was a God who halted the action to comment on his story people, and he often addressed these comments to his reader, like this:

Robert stepped away from the overturned coach, brushed off his britches and looked up the long road toward the mansion that rested at the top of the hill. It would be a long walk in the dark, but he was determined to make it. Foolish man! You suspect nothing, anticipate only joy. But ahead, for you, lies more evil than you ever expect to encounter. Pity him, gentle reader, for the unutterable horrors he must soon face, and pray that his moral fiber and his long-held convictions will see him through these tribulations.

Ninety-nine percent of the novelists who used the pure omniscient viewpoint have passed into total obscurity: their work is now unreadable. Of the few whose talent was strong enough to permit such indulgences, nearly all have their work edited or abridged in modern editions to eliminate the worst of these stylistic ineptitudes. A modern category fiction writer must never permit himself the pure omniscient viewpoint, must never obstruct the plot with asides to the reader or with small sermons. First of all, such asides often give away events or at least the outline of events to come, thereby destroying the reader's suspension of disbelief. (If he knows the story is carefully planned out, he cannot kid himself that all of this is unfolding before his eyes.) Second, such pauses in the narrative flow tend to tell the reader what he should be shown through dramatic action.

Many new genre writers use the pure omniscient viewpoint without being aware of it, shaping it a bit to fit modern tastes but making the same basic mistake as all those long-forgotten novelists. They may begin a piece like this:

Leonard turned the car around and drove back toward the house, sorry that he had yelled at Ellen that way. He was going to have to apologize; otherwise, he would be awake all night with the knowledge of what a fool he'd been. As it turned out, he would have been far better off had he gone to a motel as planned and stayed awake until the small hours. He couldn't know that then, however.

This foreshadowing is less irritating than the long-winded omniscient commentary, but as undesirable. If you want to create a sense of impending doom, you must do it in mood words and suspenseful events, not with coy hints to the reader.

The modified omniscient viewpoint differs from the pure omniscient because it never stops to sermonize or comment directly to the reader. The author must show, not tell. The only similarity between the two voices is that the author may tell the story from many different character viewpoints, which is advantageous.

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