Three words perfectly describe the essence of this perspective: You. Are. God. As such, you know everything about everyone. To be specific, third-person omniscient is a narrative mode in which the reader is presented the story by a narrator with an overarching, seeing and knowing everything that happens within the world of the story, regardless of the presence of certain characters, including everything all of the characters are thinking and feeling. The only question is, how much will you reveal to us lowly readers?
Third person omniscient (TPOmni) is a complex style and not easy to pull off well as you always run the risk of confusing the reader. It is most often used in large-scale sagas like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or, more recently, Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but most often doesn’t mean always. Many novels of the nineteenth century employ this perspective, perhaps most memorably the works of Jane Austen, including Pride and Prejudice. Below you’ll find my not at all memorable example of the perspective:
Shelby leaned against the door frame, trying not to let him see that she was as tense as a coiled spring.
“What do you want, Luke? I told you I didn’t have anything else to say. If you don’t believe me then it never would have worked anyway.”
Luke sighed. He’d known this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, but it looked like Shel was going to make him battle for every inch she gave. He saw the twitch in her hand that she never even realized gave her away every time she felt overstressed.
“You don’t have to say anything, Shelby. I came to say I’m sorry.”
Her eyes widened, but otherwise she didn’t move. She had already given up hope that he would ever believe her. Surviving another crushing disappointment didn’t seem possible. Now that he knew the truth, however, Luke held onto hope that he still had at least a snowball’s chance in hell of Shel accepting his apology. Neither of them could really bring themselves to embrace a future that didn’t involve the other. The trouble would be getting her to admit it.
Serves me right if she tells me to take a hike, he thought. I should have trusted her.
This is not the best example, but it illustrates the ability to tell what multiple characters are thinking.
One option you have to help corral the extensive amount of information available within TPOmni is to create a narrator that almost becomes another character (for examples of a narrator as character, see the double narrator of Princess Bride by William Goldman or the musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim which you can watch in pieces on youtube starting here or watch the entire opening performed by students at NYU here).
Personally, I have yet to generate a story idea that demands the scale of TPOmni storytelling, but when it’s done well, this perspective is a powerful tool. Definitely not one to be used lightly. How do you figure out if this point of view is right for your novel? Here are a few possible questions to ask:
- Are there multiple characters who play a pivotal role in this story?
- If so, am I going to lose tension or heighten it by revealing their thoughts? (Think about what would have happened to the Harry Potter series if you’d been able to read Snape’s mind the entire time. The build up of tension as readers flip-flopped between believing him evil and thinking that maybe he wasn’t so bad would have been ruined.)
- Can the goal I have in mind be reached by revealing short scenes in the objective third person?
- If it seems like the main character is missing out on too much, am I sure I have the best person in charge to tell the story?
These questions are by no means comprehensive or final, but they’re a good starting place if you’re unsure whether or not TPOmni is for you. Hopefully, though, with the information I’ve presented in this series on perspective you’ll have a better road map to help get you from conception to completion.