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Exercise: Omniscient POV

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Patricia Johnson
Posted on: Fri, 26 Aug 2001

Omniscient POV

How does an author narrate in omniscient POV, given that the modern reader will assume limited POV unless strongly clued in otherwise? A good question. Let's start out by defining omniscient POV and third-person limited POV.

Omniscient POV is not used often by authors today. The omniscient narrator knows everything about the story including all characters, action, places, and events. This can give a distant feel to the story. Because of this all-knowing and all-seeing, the author can enter every character's thoughts. Omniscient POV can lead to confusion if not done masterfully. The author has to seamlessly transition from one POV to another. The author may decide to use the omniscient POV without jumping inside characters' minds, but he must still orchestrate his narrative voice to avoid a tangle of information.

Limited third-person is the most common POV in use today. If the POV is limited third-person, then the narrative is narrowed to one character or a few characters. Limited POV helps eliminate "head-hopping" and confusion on the part of the reader. Authors use several devices to keep the limited omniscient narration easy for the reader to follow. One way is to reveal just one character's senses, thoughts and feelings during each scene. This keeps the reader intrigued while still keeping the story and POV clear. Some authors even title segments and chapters to reveal which character is present for that time. One character can describe, involve him/herself in action, and sense what all the other characters who are present in the scene/chapter are doing. Some authors alternate between characters in the chapters/paragraphs. Alternating paragraphs is more challenging than alternating scenes or whole chapters.

One device that allows total omniscience to be clear in a story is to use more than one character in the omniscient POV. Describe what each character thinks by providing careful changes in the POV. Combine this with action. Add narrator omniscient comments.

Example. Robert thought it odd that his supervisor was waiting in his office. He bent over his secretary's desk, "Audrey, run the mail down right now, please." Robert was always one for covering bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand would insure she could not hear what was about to take place. Note how we both read the thoughts of Robert and also read the author's comment that Robert covers bases.

At this point a transition takes us into the secretary's POV: Audrey was tired of being sent away from her desk so frequently. "Sure Robert, I just took the mail two hours ago, though." She left the office walking slowly. She stopped to talk to her friend Amy, then took the elevator to the mail room. It was obvious enough to anyone that Robert was in trouble, why he thought he could hide his troubles with his boss from her by sending her out of the room angered her. Here we see Audrey's thoughts and feelings about Robert's actions.


In 300 words or less, seamlessly shift the totally omniscient POV within one scene between two characters. Make your transitions between characters as seamless as possible. Make clear to the reader when you have switched and which character is now in view. Use the devices listed above to keep the reader aware of the shifting in the POV.

It may help to review Lani Kraus's and Rhéal Nadeau's exercises on POV at the Internet Writing Workshop website's Practice Exercises to review the different POVs. The URL is: http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/topics.shtml#pov

Patricia Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: Sat, 1 Sep 2001

The submissions were excellent. I wish I had been able to crit everyone's submissions. Omniscience was shown in the stories through action, nature, setting and dialogue. Sometimes the authorial omniscience was best shown in a summary of the scene or in several descriptive paragraphs interspersed throughout the story. Even when a submission missed the mark, the writing seemed strong. Practice is the key to getting OPOV.

Omniscient POV can be difficult to determine, as many people mentioned. Some of the submissions were not OPOV, but limited POV; with two or more characters POVs developed in the story. To be omniscient, there had to be an authorial voice with information. The omniscient author showed/told directly what we were supposed to think; and therefore had total knowledge. As one participant mentioned in a critique, it is a camera on the ceiling effect. We step back and see the whole picture, guided by the author. Once this omniscient authorial presence is established, then individual character's POVs may be added to the story.

Many critiques mentioned how difficult it was to decipher more than two characters POVs, even when the story was very well written. Some critiques mentioned the quick shifts from one point of view to another, but most submissions had easy transitions, even in dialogue. Mariane Kulick mentioned that it is a problem to change heads so much in such a small piece, and that we would probably not attempt it except that it was specific to the exercise.

Claire Brucker asked if all narrative POVs are telling instead of showing. Alex answered that no, the omniscient narrator can show us rather than tell, but we get a few more details along the way. Florence Cardinal answered. "And even in OPOV, I think you can show. Describe actions, scenery, etc., that your characters can't see. For instance, a person sitting in a cabin. You could describe the river flooding, something your character is not aware of - but you, as the author, are."

Some critiquers noticed changes from present to past tense in a story. OPOV is just tricky enough to require extra attention to tenses.

Practice, practice, practice makes OPOV understandable. Even if we as authors decide not to use OPOV, hopefully this exercise helped us understand and strengthen whatever POV we do decide to use.

Thanks to all who participated. I hope you enjoyed and learned at the same time.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.