by Winnie Kay
Third-Person Omniscient Point of View
Who Is Telling This Story?
Everyone knows a story--from flash fiction to epic novel--must have a beginning (exposition of characters and settings), a middle (conflict, plot, climax), and an end (resolution and unraveling of the conflict). But who speaks to the reader? Who tells the story? The writer is the creator of the characters, settings, and story-line. He or she designs the structure in a comprehensive sequence of events with the purpose of holding the readers' interest and establishing relationships between the readers and the characters. But is the author telling the story or is the character telling the story? In this article, I want to talk about the most common type of point of view utilized today in which the characters tell the story: third-person omniscient.
Point of view is the most critical application you will develop in your story. Maintaining a consistent type of POV throughout your work is essential if your characters have any chance of establishing a relationship with your readers. Without making it clear who is telling the story in each scene or chapter, the reader will not connect with the character which is the crucial focal point of your story. The main character is responsible for being present and emotionally involved in the conflict, climax, and resolution of the story.
Omniscient is defined as having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things. Writers interpret third-person omniscient as a license to jump in and out of any character's head any time they want to. Yes, this point of view allows the writer to reveal the thoughts of many different characters in an all-knowing, all-powerful, God-like ability. But there's a specific structure, pace, and timing involved to successfully move from one character's mind to another without ripping the reader from the main story-line.
Let me show you rather than tell you what I'm trying to say. The following is an example of inconsistent third-person omniscient POV. I underlined the various characters' viewpoints (their thoughts and feelings), and I used bold text for areas where the POV is unclear.
Rufus knew he wasn't accepted by the others. He could tell by their looks and whispers when he came into the cave they all shared. He wanted to play Hide and Freak with the young dragons at night. It was fun to swoop down from the tree tops and terrorize the humans, but they refused to let Rufus play. His appearance spoiled their game. They didn't like his ability to out-scare the villagers who constantly felt afraid.
Calvin belched and a spark flew from his mouth. He felt sorry for poor Rufus and tried not to stare at the youth's third eye which was stuck in the middle of his forehead. I've got to do something about this, thought the leader of the flock. His wife, Gladys, had an idea and decided to approach Cal one night with her plan. He listened with much interest and agreed she may have solved the little dragon's problem.
The next day, Gladys and Calvin eagerly presented Rufus with a beautiful gold eye patch, and Gladys securely attached it around his horns. The little dragon was touched by their thoughtfulness.His young peers liked the change the ornament made and couldn't wait to include Rufus in their games.
The little story above is not an example of third-person omniscient POV. It's a mess and the reader is frustrated and will have the urge to throw your book against the wall. There are five different characters' points of view hopping back and forth with no structure or consistency. Rufus starts the story by telling us what he knew, and we stay in his head until we jump into the young dragons' heads as they refused and didn't like. Then we hop over to the villagers' feelings as we are told they felt constantly afraid. Next, we pop into Calvin's mind as he felt sorry for Rufus, and we hear from Gladys's viewpoint when she decided to approach Cal with her idea. The reader is told that Gladys and Cal were eager, Rufus was touched, and the young dragons liked the patch and couldn't wait to have Rufus join in their games. And whose opinion reveals that it was fun to terrorize the villagers and that Rufus's appearance spoiled their game? If you answered that these are the narrator's observations, you'd be wrong. In third-person omniscient POV, the narrator does not tell the story; the characters do.
By the way, starting a new paragraph indicates a new speaker in dialogue, but paragraphs are not a clear device to switch points of view. The author must clearly prepare the reader for a shift in who is telling the story by using signals like asterisks, triple blank lines, or devoting a whole chapter to one character's POV.
Let's fix this structure before the frustrated reader decides he feels nothing toward the characters and goes off to watch Downton Abbey reruns.
Rufus knew he wasn't accepted by the others. He could tell by their looks and whispers when he came into the cave they all shared. He wanted to play Hide and Freak with the young dragons at night because he thought it was fun to swoop down from the tree tops and terrorize the humans.
The young dragons refused to let Rufus play, for his appearance spoiled their game. They didn't like his ability to out-scare the villagers, who they knew lived in fear.
Calvin belched and a spark flew from his mouth. He felt sorry for poor Rufus and tried not to stare at the youth's third eye which was stuck in the middle of his forehead. I've got to do something about this, thought the leader of the flock. His wife, Gladys, came to him with an idea, and he listened to her plan with much interest and agreed she may have solved the little dragon's problem.
The next day, Gladys and Calvin presented Rufus with a beautiful gold eye patch, and Gladys securely attached it around his horns. Calvin could see that the little dragon was touched as he watched a large tear slide from under the new patch on his forehead.
His young peers all agreed they liked the change the ornament made and couldn't wait to include Rufus in their games.
As you can see, each scene is clearly marked with asterisks indicating a shift in point of view. In the first scene, Rufus, and only Rufus, is telling the story. The reader hears only his thoughts and feelings. The next scene is told from the young dragons' viewpoint. Then we shift into Calvin's head, and we know about his wife, Gladys, but only through Calvin's eyes. Calvin tells us that she comes to him with an idea, and he listens and agrees, but we do not enter into Gladys's mind. Finally, we end up back in the young dragons' heads as they collectively accept Rufus in their games.
Of course, each scene would be more detailed as to the characters' feelings and actions, but I hope this little demonstration answers some of your questions about how to properly utilize third-person omniscient POV.
A Few Useful References!