Prepared by: Patricia Johnson
Posted on: October 22, 2002
Reposted on: October 24, 2004
Omniscient point of view (POV) is not
often used by authors today,
though it used to be common.
How does an author narrate in omniscient
POV, given that the modern
reader will assume limited POV unless strongly clued in otherwise?
Using one POV per divided sections of a story, careful transitions, and
avoiding head-hopping will help an author write omniscient POV for a
Let us start out by defining omniscient
The omniscient narrator knows everything
about the story including
characters, action, places, and events. Because of this all-knowing and
all-seeing, the author can enter every character's thoughts. It is as
if we are observing through a surveillance camera. We step back and see
the whole picture, guided by the author. Omniscient POV is a
non-participant POV where the narrator keeps distance from the story
and explains, but does not participate in the story (see definition of
non-participant in the list below).
(By contrast, in limited POV, the narrator
- be it first or third
person - only has access to the thoughts or emotions of a single
character; other characters are seen only through what that one
character can see or hear of them. Going even further, in the
objective point of view, narration is limited to what can be seen
externally, without insight into any character.)
Once this omniscient authorial presence is
characters' POVs may be explored in the story. The narrator can also
provide information not know to any of the characters. At the extreme,
the omniscient narrator can speak directly to the reader, commenting on
the action; this is known as authorial intrusion, and when well used
can provide information or amusement. When used poorly, it can dispel
the reader's suspension of disbelief, breaking the mood of the story.
Omniscient POV can lead to confusion if
not carefully written. 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.
A common error in using omniscient POV is
to start out with a long
scene in the POV of a single character; the reader then assumes limited
third-person narration, so the transition to another character can pull
the reader out of the story.
Total omniscience becomes clear in a story
through various devices.
Total omniscience is clear when many or all of the characters' POVs are
shown within the story. Each character's thoughts are revealed while
in their unique POV. The author uses careful transitions to provide
information to the reader without confusion.
Often an author will write one characters'
POV per chapter or scene
keep the POV clear to the reader. Action adds to the each character's
POV and facilitates this easy transition between the characters' POVs.
The narrator's omniscient comments are a tool to provide seamless
transitions between characters' thoughts. When these devices are used
carefully, the reader always knows whose POV is expressed. There is no
confusion or head-hopping.
The following example shows total
omniscient POV using two
The action provides opportunities to carefully change from one
character's POV (Robert's) to the other character's POV (Audrey's). The
comments by the narrator clarify the POV. We know easily if we are in
Robert or Audrey's POV.
Robert thought it odd
that his supervisor was
his office. He bent over his secretary's desk,
"Audrey, run the
mail down right now, please." Robert was always one
bases, and sending his secretary out on an errand
would ensure she
could not hear what was about to take place.
Audrey lifted the single
letter from her desk and
turned to Robert,
she was tired of being sent away from her desk so
Robert, I just took the mail two hours ago, though."
She left the
office walking slowly. She stopped to talk to her
friend Amy before
taking the elevator to the mail room. "You won't
believe the latest
Amy, the boss is talking to Robert right now. He sent
me to the mail
room, like I don't know what is going on - he's the
only one who
doesn't know he's getting canned. I'll call you after
I get back
and let you know how he took it."
Note how in this example, the focus is
shifted from Robert to Audrey
through the use of intermediate action involving her.
To develop your understanding of
omniscient POV study these
and examples on the Internet.
definitions of POV:
definition and examples:
definition of participant and
non-participant aspects of POV:
head-jumping explained in third person
For more helpful POV information look at
Lani Kraus and Rhéal
exercises on POV at the Internet Writing Workshop website at
In 400 words or less, use two or three
characters to create a story
written in the total omniscient POV. Shift the POV from one character
to another, then again to a third (or back to the first). Make clear to
the reader when you have switched and which character is now in view.
Make your transitions/switches between characters as seamless as
possible by using the devices of dialogue, action and the omniscient
narrator's POV. Be sure to use omniscient POV, not limited omniscient.
Stay away from just summarizing by using action. Omniscient POV is
tricky, so give extra attention to verb tenses and pronouns and study
the examples at the sites given above.
Patricia Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: November 4, 2002
Hello Practice-W members,
OPOV is tricky, and thanks to everyone who
Here are some observations from the week
as noted by the members:
- Some members were afraid to crit,
but made great critiques
found it tricky to critique as well.
- Practice and critiquing OPOV increase writing skills.
- OPOV is flexible. That is part of why it is tricky to write and
and to recognize.
- To make transitions from one person's POV to another person's,
physical, tangible object. It passes the POV between characters with
This use of a tangible object usually includes action, which is another
great transition tool.
- Sticking to just three transitions within the submission made
much easier to follow. OPOV is easier to follow with smooth, less
changes in character's POVs.
- Limit the amount of internal dialogue used in a character. It
confusing, and is easy to fall into limited OPOV with this technique.
- Third person makes OPOV more recognizable. First person is more
found in Limited POV than in omniscient.
- Adding some information that none of the characters could
possibly know is
a firm indication of OPOV. Such authorial comments give the story
Distance may or may not be desirable as a technique an author wishes to
- Dialogue as a tool to transition between character's POVs can be
disorienting to the reader. Careful transitions and set-ups in dialogue
necessary for OPOV to work well.
In conclusion, OPOV is an antiquated
technique that has some strong
it works when an author wants to make comments and when distance within
story is desirable. With OPOV a sense of closeness to the characters
element of surprise may be compromised. Practicing OPOV is tricky, but
helpful to a writer's skills. Every time I do this exercise, I learn
the subtleties of OPOV and increase my knowledge of points of view in
general. I hope you honed your skills this week!
Thanks to everyone for participating.
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.