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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

point of view, omniscient and otherwise

I wrote this for a mailing list I'm on, where a discussion of POV was underway...


In my mind at least, point of view can be discussed in two sets of terminology. Specifically, there's internalized or "tight" POV, and externalized or "loose" POV. Call it a range from "objective" to "omniscient," which is to say, a point of view can range from an external POV, which can speak to what it knows and observes at that very instant, to one that can tangent off into anything and everything in the universe because it knows all.

There's another set of criteria, which revolves around *who* the narrator is. There are three options there--first, second, and third person. Simply, "I," "you," or "she."

For these purposes, we'll do 'em all in third person. To get a feel for the difference without confusing the issue with who's talking.

Let's start first with one of the two real oddballs, objective POV (the other real oddball is first person omniscient, which I have seen used twice.). The classic point of view of Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON, this POV *never* offers us internalizations. It observes the characters from the outside, and it's an unwinking camera eye. Like so:

Robert James was a gray-haired, beetle-browed man in his forties, with a square chin, square shoulders, and a perpetually quizzical expression. One Saturday at the office, he spent fifteen minutes organizing his files, and didn't finish. Halfway through the Js, his unhappy secretary Maryanne brought him coffee, a doughnut, and a revolver, which she squared on his blotter without comment.

He set the files aside after she left the office and checked to be sure the revolver was loaded. One bullet, as was traditional. He closed his eyes as he slid the barrel into his mouth.


Okay. The entire scene is told from a camera's-eye view, and we're not privy to the character's thoughts. The difference between this and the other end of the scale--omniscient--is that, while omniscient still allows that external picture of the character--the narrator's voice to emerge, in other words--it also allows us to flit sylphlike into anything within the scene we choose. We can see from the point of view of the narrator, any of the characters, any observer. Anywhere.

It's tremendously difficult to manage, and done poorly, it can be very jarring. The writer needs at all times to be aware of the POV choices he's making, why he's making them, and how he's transitioning between POVs. He has to lead the reader smoothly from one perspective to the next, without confusing her. WATERSHIP DOWN is a good example of omniscient. (All of these POVs can also have intrusive or invisible narrators. That's a different lecture.)

This is the same scene in omniscient:

Robert James was a gray-haired, beetle-browed man in his forties, with a square chin, square shoulders, and a perpetually quizzical expression that reflected what he would have called a deep curiousity about the world, though some might have considered it a sort of wariness. One Saturday at the office, when he'd spent fifteen minutes organizing his files and only made it to the Js, his secretary Maryanne entered his office.

She saw him hunched over a pile of manilla folders, sorting through them with a distracted expression. The tray in her hands was heavier than other mornings; in addition to his usual coffee and doughnut, it held a revolver loaded with a single bullet. She couldn't stand to look at it, and had draped a napkin over the gun after she readied it.

She set it on his desk without speaking, and he pushed the papers aside and checked the gun before she left. It's about time, he thought. Then his lips closed, warm around the barrel, and he fired.


See? I can even go into the POV of the revolver, if I like. The trick is to maintain the narrative thread, and always be aware of the transitions and smoothing them out, so the reader is never jarred or confused. ("head-hopping.")

There's also cinematic omniscient, so called best-seller omniscient, which is an often clumsy use of omni that does not partake of that narrative discipline, and often suffers line of direction problems. DUNE is one example of this kind of omni. I'm told that whassisname Brown book I haven't read is also in this POV.

In between these two lies limited omniscient, what we frequently--and sloppily--refer to as "third person limited."

In this POV, we are privy to the thoughts of only one character. It can be written on a sliding scale--from so firmly in the head of that character that we never see or think anything he doesn't see or think first (this is the POV recommended by many for beginning writers (and considered de rigeur by some, in genre, though I think that's amatter of fashion and I'll bloody well wear bell bottoms if I want), because it teaches the discipline one needs to handle other POVs firmly) to what I like to call telepathic steadicam POV, which is to say, you see the scene as if from over the shoulder of the POV character, and can read his mind. ("Loose" third person limited.) (Difficult to do well.)

Here's a very tight limited third person:

It was a Saturday. James was bent over files at his desk, brow furrowed as he sorted papers into the J folders, intent enough that he jumped when Maryanne bumped the door open with her hip. He didn't look up until she set the tray down, and then the napkin-covered outline of a revolver beside the coffee and doughnut caught his eye.

She turned on a pointed shoe and left him staring at the thing. Slowly, he reached out and brushed the napkin aside, then checked the load. One bullet.


He closed his eyes as he slid the room-temperature barrel into his mouth, tasting gun oil. It's about time, he thought, and fired.



Great post but ACK! While reading it I realized that my current story-in-progress has morphed from omniscient to limited omniscient without me noticing. Oh phoo. Back to the draft. (But thanks for triggering my sad realization!)

Okay, I know I'm also all impressed by how well you described the difference between the POVs, but damn... I wanna read this book. All multiple versions of it.

Well, the 3pL version is the surrent opening for Undertow. But that could change. *g*

Bitching icon.
This is something I've thought about a lot recently. I started thinking about it in 2000 when someone harshly criticized a story I was writing because the POV switched characters. To her, this was the sin of sins - and I believed her for quite a while, which caused me to pay vigorous attention to POV, and for that I'm grateful. On the other hand, after some consideration, I decided I felt she was wrong to be so rigid about it.

I'm glad you mentioned Dashiell Hammett; I recommend to you, if you've never read it, another novel of his, less well known, called The Glass Key. It's a first-person narration which is just as crystalline and impersonal as his third person narration in Maltese Falcon. It's a very strange read. Hammett could write a first person narration of the protagonist being beaten half to death with more distance and clarity than most people can use describing the placement of silverware at someone else's dinner party.

One convention which I see as becoming more common is the segmented third person limited POV - The first section is written from the point of view of one character and shows only that person's perceptions and thoughts, but after a chapter break or some other kind of clear break in the narrative, the story is - still in the third person - taking place from the point of view of someone different. Terry Pratchett is one writer who does this. John Grisham - as well as plenty of others, he's just the first one who comes to mind - uses this convention to double up the story-line and give a double-perspective. If chapter three is told from Jane's point of view, ending with a conversation with Michelle, then chapter four may very well start a fe minutes back in time, and rehash the end of the conversation from Michelle's point of view, and then follow Michelle (rather than Jane) from the end of the conversation into whatever happens next. Or, even more frequently, a scene will start with one character (whose thoughts the reader is privy to in /this/ scene, but not the preceding one) re-hashing what happened from their point of view.

Writing which switches regularly/habitually throughout the story, and has a consistent way of doing so, seems to read smoothly. Writing which has been 4/5 from person A's POV, and then suddenly switches, once, to person B's just to serve some immediate need of the plot--not so much.

There's an attraction for me in the Hammett end of things, I think partly because there's always so /much/ going on inside a person's head that if you try to spell it all out, you create a shop-window mannequin, not a person. If you only describe the actions, then the complexity is left intact. It's a little like the way it's possible to have special effects on radio that you could never carry off in a visual medium where you needed to actually /show/ things. (And if you ever seen Fritz Lang's M, you understand the power of that which is not shown.)

The fictive letter exchanges I've been doing have been very interesting, in this regard. On the one hand, each letter is written by a first person narrator who, of course, knows what she's or he's thinking. On the other hand, the letters themselves aren't the story - it's the aggregate of all of them and how they're arranged and what they say and what they don't say which are the story. The story - the sequence of events and emotions - is created by the reader. It's pointilist writing. And the limit on what information can be given isn't just what the characters know to say, it's what they /would/ say. (I have one character who's thinking is very disjointed a lot of the time, and getting more so. The person she's exchanging letters with obviously wants a clear explanation of what's been happening on my character's end, but my character simply can't think in the straight lines required to provide such an account. It has to be deduced from the things she says and doesn't say and how she says them.)

...I'm rambling. What I meant was, I suppose, that POV is one of the primary ways that the story-telling filters information, what the reader is told and what s/he isn't, but it isn't the only filter.

ANYhow. Cool post. Thanks for reposting it here.
WHOSE. Not who's. And I proof-read, too. Sigh.

Also, The Thin Man is also, if I recall correctly, a first person narrative, but it's a little more...human...than Hammett's other stuff.
"For these purposes, we'll do 'em all in third person. To get a feel for the difference without confusing the issue with who's talking."

For me, there's always the issue of who's talking. The third person narrator is an implied character (who may or may not be the implied author) in the implied frame story.

When reading, I can ignore this. But not when writing. (Including, I've just realized, when writing nonfiction.)

On viewpoint switching: There've been at least two stories in which, until the end, the viewpoint character doesn't know which of several brains/minds is his/hers -- and tries them on, one after another. Diana Wynne Jones's Witch Week is one; the other is a short story by Robert Silverberg whose title I can't remember.
Diana Wynne Jones's Witch Week is one;

Could you perhaps mean Time of the Ghost, rather than Witch Week?
"We"? Follows the same rules. *g*
Would you mind explaining what "line of direction problems" means? Thanks!
The line of direction is the line that the audience's attention follows through a scene.
I started Unmagicked in omni, but didn't have the skill to pull it off and switched to tight third (with scene breaks for POV switches.) If I dare omni again, it will be with a short story. I really, really don't know how you do it. Really.

Terry Brooks writes in cinematic omniscient. When I was a kid, I didn't notice. Nowadays, I pick up a book of his and get whiplash.
*g* I didn't try it until I'd written 12 other books.

And then I begged for help from better writers.


Why bother with the coffee and doughnut, if he's not going to eat them before he dies?

Or does he plan to eat them after he dies?

Re: Nitpick

So you're suggesting the secretary's a precog?
Oh, yes. Just what I needed, because I never know how to crit something that isn't in the tight limited 3rd.

It was a Saturday. James was bent over files at his desk, brow furrowed as he sorted papers into the J folders, intent enough that he jumped when Maryanne bumped the door open with her hip.

I'm going to be a cheeky monkey, though, and ding you for the "furrowed". Please feel free to spank me for the baby writer I am, but that's more of a visual description than how James would be describing himself, isn't it? And I know, quickly typed out and marginally edited, and certainly with no ageing process involved, but I'd choose a description like "scowling at the J folder", which would be more in line with the POV character's thought processes.

Uh, heh. Here, you can use my paddle.

You can't feel your brow furrow?

Because I can.
Thank you for posting this; I enjoy considering this side of the craft of writing. Solace is being written in a tight, present-tense limited omniscient, which I find altogether very freeing and very draining. It's a new style of writing for me, because my previous manuscripts are all in cinematic omniscient... Even though the present-tense limited omniscient is a bugger to write, I rather like it :)

Gee, I could do with a reference guide to all these writerly terms -- I have guides from a literary student's point of view, but not from a writer's. Any suggestions?
Um. I dunno where you'd go for a reference guide. Purdue might have one online--they've got everything else under the sun--

here's a page with some suggestions:

Thank you for this interesting post - to which I in no way can contribute, but I hope you don't mind if I link to it in my lj? I've been discussing pov both at work and in fandom lately, and your entry gave so much food for thought.
Oh, link away. It's on the internet, it's fair game for linking.

Did I mention that I love your icon?