Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Omniscient Voice -- Part II


Yesterday we talked about the difference between the close third person point of view, used most often in today's novels, and the omniscient point of view. As noted, most of the confusion in the terms seems to involve erroneously labeling close multiple third person POV as omniscient. And frankly, some authors make this mislabeling all the easier by writing in close multiple third person and moving from one character's head to another within a scene. This still does not make the POV omniscient. It is simply close multiple third person with "head-hopping." Which in my book is a no-no. Although, yes I know, some authors, even bestselling ones, head-hop.

In telling the difference between third person and omniscient, the main thing you want to look for is voice. The omniscient voice is a narrator's voice, removed from the scene yet reporting everything about it. It often sounds more telling than showing. In contrast, close third person puts the reader inside the character's head, thinking in the very way that character would think. It's a very intimate POV, with only first person being closer.

You may also hear the term "limited omniscient." This term still hangs around although it's not often used in today's novels. It still has the same removed narrative voice as omniscient. But instead of seeing everything within a scene, the narrator limits himself to only seeing what one character sees. The narrator may switch to another character in a subsequent scene. In this way it's similar to multiple third person, but again, it's the voice that makes the difference. Are you hearing a narrator's voice telling the story, or are you intimately inside the head of one character at a time?

As examples, first I'll run the opening to Dark Pursuit as it appears in the book. Then I'll rewrite some paragraphs for omniscient and limited omniscient.

From Dark Pursuit, written in close third person. Reader is in the head of Leland Hugh:

“Ever hear the dead knocking?”

Leland Hugh watches the psychiatrist peruse his question, no reaction on the man’s lined, learned face. The doctor lists to one side in his chair, a fist under his sagging jowl. The picture of unshakable confidence.

“No, can’t say I have.”

Hugh nods and gazes at the floor. “I do. At night, always at night.”

“Why do they knock?”

His eyes raise to look straight into the doctor’s. “They want my soul.”

No response but for a mere inclining of the head. The intentional silence pulses, waiting for an explanation. Psychiatrists are good at that.

“I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early.” Deep inside Hugh, the anger and fear begin to swirl. He swallows, voice tightening. “They’re supposed to stay in the grave. Who’d ever think the dead would demand their revenge?”

Omniscient (removed narrator seeing all)

"Ever hear the dead knocking?"

Leland Hugh blurts the question and instantly regrets it. He watches the lined, learned face of his forensic psychiatrist for a reaction but sees none. The doctor keeps his casual, confident pose, a fist under his sagging jowl. He thinks of all the serial killers he's interviewed. Nothing Hugh could say would ever surprise him.

The psychiatrist answers that he has not.

Hugh nods at the expected answer. His gaze falls to his feet. Behind him a cockroach skitters unseen across the dirty floor. "I do. At night, always at night."

"Why do they knock?"

Hugh's eyes raise to look straight into the doctor's. "They want my soul."

The doctor inclines his head, thinking that perhaps, after all their hours of talking, they are finally getting somewhere. Hoping for more, he remains silent. Hugh knows exactly what the doctor is doing yet cannot keep from saying more as the old anger and fear swirl inside him. "I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early." Hugh adds with a tighter voice than desired that the dead should stay in their graves. "Who'd ever think they would demand their revenge?"

Limited Omniscient (removed narrator, seeing/thinking only what Hugh see/thinks)

"Ever hear the dead knocking?"

Leland Hugh blurts the question and instantly regrets it. He watches the lined, learned face of his forensic psychiatrist for a reaction but sees none. The doctor keeps his casual, confident pose, a fist under his sagging jowl, as if nothing Hugh could say would ever surprise him.

The psychiatrist answers that he has not.

Hugh nods at the expected answer. His gaze falls to the floor. "I do. At night, always at night."


"Why do they knock?"

Hugh's eyes raise to look straight into the doctor's. "They want my soul."

The doctor inclines his head but says nothing. Intentional silence pulses as he clearly waits for an explanation. Hugh feels smug as he recognizes the old tactic. Even so he cannot keep quiet.

"I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early." Hugh feels the old anger and fear swirl inside him. He declares with a tighter voice than desired that the dead should stay in their graves. "Who'd ever think they would demand their revenge?"
-------------------

Hear the difference? See how omniscient tends to tell more, while third person shows?

By the way, please forgive the poorly written omniscient and limited omniscient--they're clearly not my voice.

You can read the rest of the first chapter of Dark Pursuit here. For a writing exercise, you might take a few more of its paragraphs (in third person) and rewrite them in omniscient and limited omniscient.

11 comments:

Pam Halter said...

I see the difference. Thanks for the example.

I have a question about the tense. You've written in present tense and I've seen a couple new novels in the same way. Is this a new trend? Because I thought only a synposis was written in present tense. Truthfully, it's distracting for me.

lynnrush said...

Nice examples, Brandilyn. Very helpful information.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Aha, Pam, you've given yourself away. :] You haven't read Dark Pursuit, have you?

I don't usually write in present tense. In fact I've never written a whole book that way. Some authors do. There needs to be a reason for it. Present tense brings a more immediate feel. (Hm, I feel a blog post coming on the subject.)

This opening to Dark Pursuit is a novel Darell Brooke, one of the protagonists, is trying to write. After a page and a half of this scene, the "camera" pulls back to show Darell at his computer. The rest of the book is in past tense. I wrote his manuscript sections in present tense to help make the transitions clear and to give an entirely different feel to his manuscript and my story.

mixednutts said...

Thanks for this, Brandilyn. You explained it very well!

Lisa Buffaloe said...

Thanks, Brandilyn. And I loved the way you wrote Dark Pursuit. Another great job!

Anonymous said...

Great work. It cleared up a few things for me. I was also interested in the past/present tense ominiscient and how they might be alternated, if at all.

Jeffrey said...

Chaps. I think I'm writing in a kinda third person removed, a voice that knows everything Except the future. This, in My mind, is a distinguishing factor between Omniscient and Third Removed? Would someone please indulge me, read the below, and let me know? Being untrained, I'm looking for solid orientation before I go further. Thanks.

950 BC, JERUSALEM

Deep inside Mount Moriah, hidden under Suleimon's Temple, far below the earth there is a place of worship raised long ago to supernatural beings born at the Creation. A temple of the first religion——Kthon, the grave——a cult of blood, fire, birth, and death.

Cut from the mystic stone, great blocks soar ten times the height of a man and seem to float in the darkness. Torchlight flickers on frescoes of human slaughter, bestiality, Gods, and demons. Stone-cut ornamentation mimics the structural design of carved wood, trimmed molding, recessed coffers, and reinforced joinings. Designed to last ten thousand years, it is charmed architecture—lost technology.

In the distance, a stony blur of voices, humanity. Hundreds of richly dressed Faithful are gathered for ritual in a jangle of jewelry, charms, and murmurs of fear and desire.

The Pagan High Priest Bach-cha-mut says to his police, “There are infidels among us.” His voice is resonant, that of a dark angel, his black hair gathered in a knot, powerful limbs. He’s a stallion of a man, armored in black leather, mystic amulets, and an iron sword with silver wire grip. He radiates cold, he is felt in the air before he is seen; a disquiet in the flow, he pushes the atmosphere ahead of him.

He says to his agents, Circulate." He gazes into each of them, his eyes like slate. No one speaks. "Find me the unbelievers." No one moves. "I want them still alive when the God arrives." He glances from man to man, his eyes cold. "I want this conjure of the god perfect. Find the infidels, or it'll be you I roast over the holy fire, instead of them.” Unspoken, "I don't care who you bring me, anyone at all will suffice." And the men are gone——into the flickering shadows.

For Bach-cha-mut, what is not him is mere abstraction. He takes whatever he wants and destroys anything in his way. He was born without fear or a conscience. To him, good fortune consists of accident and disaster. He is less priest than soldier, more magician than wise man, and more murderer than anything else.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Jeffrey, sounds to me like you're writing in omniscient. The omnis. voice is characterized by knowing everything that's going on in the scene--not necessarily knowing or speaking of the future.

~ Brandilyn

Angela Young said...

It's difficult to thank you enough for this post. I Googled VOICE and OMNISCIENT and the first site to come up was your blog. I've read your posts of February 11 and February 10 and they have helped me enormously with an explanation dilemma ... :

My Literary Terms and Literary Theory is out of date and in a few days' time I shall be discussing a draft of my second novel with my agent and her reader and I wanted to be able to explain why I'd chosen the omniscient voice and why I think I've made the wrong choice. I also wanted to be able confidently to talk about the most common voice in novels today.

Thanks to your two posts I now know how to explain myself ... and I also know how to explain why the novel tells more than it should (and shows less). I'm planning to redraft the novel in close third.

And a happy coincidence: February 11 is my birthday ... a good omen I feel sure.

Thank you so very much.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Angela, so glad you found this post and that it was helpful!

WordTickler said...

Brandilyn,

Great post. Just great.

I'm quickly learning that omniscience comes with a price. For example:

"Thank you for your interest in (redacted) Publishing. Our acquisitions committee has thoroughly reviewed your story. At this time we cannot offer you a contract because (redacted) Publishing does not accept submissions in the Omniscient Voice (ie. head hopping).

If you would like to revise your work, we would be more than happy to revisit this work."

Do you suppose I will be seeing more of this? Either way, what's the reason for the stigma from publishers?

My Best,

-=Kerry=-