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Exercise: Omniscient point of view (version 3)

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: September 21, 2003
Reposted on: July 11, 2005

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.

In a short word count submission, such as this exercise, it may be difficult to tell whether third-person limited POV or omniscient POV is being used.

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.

   An 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. This moves the focus away from Robert, and eases us into a transition to 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.

So we have see the scene from both Robert's and Audrey's POV -- omniscient POV.


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.

When critiquing look for points to mention about omniscient POV such as, if the transitions worked; was the omniscient viewpoint achieved; and did the author go inside the character's thoughts.

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: October 7, 2003

There were many observations from participants about the difficulty level and success of this exercise. Even though this wrap-up is late, I wanted to be sure to post the comments and observations. These will help to strengthen this exercise on the rewrite.

One of the most important points brought up involved head hoping. In a short word-count, OMNI POV might be read as merely head-hoping. It is in fact more like a camera in a location that allows recording everything within the story, The camera is all-seeing, an observer with a big picture, or God-like. OMNI goes beyond a camera's viewpoint OMNI POV allows expression of unique observations such as information on the scene and sensory input, action, historical data and details, and back story, as well as information about characters' thoughts, habits and physical details. As one member mentioned, OMNI allows the author's narrator to step outside the story to make comments.

It may be beneficial to have another OMNI exercise that focuses on observations of an overall scene or history outside of the characters' minds.

Word count of 300 may be too limiting for this exercise leading to head-hopping and confusion. The limited word count did not allow OMNI to develop and led to the use of limited third person in many cases. In addition, the fact that OMNI POV is not used frequently in today's shorter stories led to the difficulty of identifying it. An increased word count would make the submissions more successful and identifiable as OMNI POV.

Thanks to everyone for your insights and participation.

Patricia L. Johnson

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