How to write third-person omniscient POV: The all-seeing narrator
Determining your novel’s point of view (POV) is one of the most important decisions you, as an author, will have to make. It might seem like a simple thing or maybe one that you decided without much thinking, but your POV can really make or break your story.
One of those points of view is third-person omniscient, a type of third-person narration that grants you a bigger scope to play with than any other POV.
If you haven’t checked it out yet, click here to read our article on point of view. It will give you a nice primer on all the POVs.
Once you’ve got the feel for them, I’m going to cover why third-person omniscient might work for your story. In this article, we’ll cover:
- What third-person omniscient POV is
- Why you might want to use it
- How to write in third-person omniscient
By the time we’re done, you’ll be as all-knowing as the omniscient narrator you’re writing.
What is Third-Person Omniscient?
Let’s break down “third-person omniscient” into its two parts.
Third-person POV is a narration style where the narrator isn’t a character in the story. They’re detached from the events of the tale, providing more breadth for their narration than first-person perspectives.
Omniscient means the narrator is not limited to a single character’s perspective at any given time. This might mean they know everything or can know everything that is going on in the story, or they just know more than what any one character knows. This is the opposite of third-person limited point of view, where the narrator is confined to a single character at a time, usually the main character.
Smash them both together and you get third-person omniscient narration: a detached, non-character narrator who can tell your reader what’s happening behind closed doors, in multiple character’s heads, and interject some information your characters don’t know yet (how suspenseful!).
Before we go on, it’s important to note that, though a third-person omniscient narrator isn’t a character in the story, they almost become a character themselves. We’ll chat about this more when we cover how to use third-person omniscient POV, but know that this kind of narrator develops their own voice, quirks, and sometimes even flaws.
With that said, let’s look at why you’d want to use third-person omniscient POV.
Why Use Third-Person Omniscient POV
I opened this article with a bold statement: determining your POV is one of the most important decisions you’ll make for your story. Think of your favorite book. What would it be like if the author had chosen a different perspective? It might still be awesome, but it would be a completely different story, right?
So, with that in mind, here’s why you might want to use a third-person omniscient point of view.
The narrator becomes a character - As mentioned at the end of the last section, a third-person omniscient narrator almost becomes a character themselves. This can add extra depth, flair, and personality to your story. Whether your narrator is somber, serious, or hilarious, some omniscient narrators are the most beloved parts of their stories.
The author as a narrator - When your narrator isn’t a pseudo-character, they can use your authorial voice as their own. This is like writing yourself into a novel, but in a way that won’t make people mad. Authorial narrators are especially common in classic works, where it feels as if you get to know the writer themselves through their narration.
Suspense! - If you’re looking to build suspense, sometimes the best way to do it is by letting your reader know what’s on the other side of the door, even when your protagonist doesn’t. A third person omniscient narrator can tell us the killer is lurking in the shadows while describing how blissfully unaware another character is.
Share more about characters - One of the drawbacks to first-person or third-person limited narration is that we’re confined to a finite amount of knowledge, especially when it comes to characters. With an omniscient narrator, you can peek into the minds of any character, so long as it contributes to the story. This allows for smooth perspective switching between scenes and chapters.
How to Use Third Person Omniscient
We’ve covered what third-person omniscient narration is and why you might consider using it. If I’ve made you a believer, let’s talk about the things you need to keep in mind when writing with this point of view.
Choose Your Level of Omniscience
First and foremost, determine how omniscient you want your narrator to be.
I know, it sounds kind of silly. But try to keep in mind that not all omniscient narrators are created equal: some writers use a voice that is limited–to a certain extent–while retaining some degree of omniscience.
Take, for example, the Netflix series Never Have I Ever. First of all, it’s hilarious. Second, it’s narrated by John McEnroe who, while only in the series once as a cameo, becomes a character himself. He also has access to the main character’s thoughts and feelings, with a sprinkling of knowledge of external events and other characters’ inner machinations.
That said, McEnroe also expresses surprise at certain events in the show, indicating that he is not completely omniscient.
The same can go for your writing. Will your narrator know everything going on in the world? Will they choose to share that information? Or will they know some things but not others? That’s up to you.
Determine Your Tense
Next, decide whether you’re going to write in past or present tense. It might seem like a simple thing, but it can have a huge impact on your story. Here’s a quick rundown of your two options.
Past tense: The most natural, familiar way of storytelling, past tense tells us something that has happened already. It allows you to control the pace more easily but doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency or natural emotional turmoil as present tense.
Present tense: Immerse your reader by explaining the story as it’s unfolding rather than after the fact. It draws your reader in, ups the ante, and makes your story more engaging. Because of all that captivating you can do, present tense can make character development more effective, too.
Because of the nature of third person omniscient narrators, you have the ability to switch between tenses fairly easily, too. This POV lets you add in philosophical asides, insert relevant memories, or add in exposition that only an omniscient narrator can pull off, which might take you from present tense to past. Just be careful how you handle this switch; you don’t want it coming off clunky.
Establish Your Voice
If you jump back up to why you should use this POV, you’ll see that the narrator–and by extension, the author–becomes something of a character in your story. More than any character, the narrator needs a distinct, established voice.
It’s what the reader will be experiencing through the bulk of your writing, so we want to get this right.
Will your narrator be quirky, sarcastic, and full of jokes?
Will they be glum, pessimistic, and only see the negative in a story that follows a hopelessly optimistic protagonist?
Or will they have their own history, like a former detective describing the case that ended their career?
Figure out who your narrator is and establish their distinct voice. Otherwise, why the heck are you using this POV?
Write Distinct Characters
Just as you need to put the work into your narrating character, you need to focus on making your actual characters distinct. I know what you’re thinking: you should be doing this anyway.
You’re not wrong. However, it’s extra important when writing a third-person omniscient narrative. Since your narrator can get in the heads of your characters, it’s easy to muddy the waters between one character and the narrator.
Then, when that’s all blurred together, your other characters might become less distinct, too. Eventually you might end up with the narrator’s voice dominating every character trait and personality you’ve concocted.
The solution is to create distinct, well-written characters who can stand out without issue.
Don’t Go Overboard
With great power comes great responsibility, right?
When writing with a third person omniscient narrator, you have the ability to add in exposition, unique insights, and information that other perspectives could only dream of.
But–and it’s a big but–that means you must be very careful about going overboard with the information you share.
Remember, what you include in a story should be relevant and progress the plot forward. If you’re just throwing in flashbacks or philosophical rants every other page, it will bog your pacing and drag your story into the depths of DNF piles.
When you’re revising your draft, ask if the extra commentary from your omniscient narrator is helpful. Try to be objective about this, because your readers will be scathing.
Be Wary of Spoilers
In the same vein as the last tip, be wary of spoiling too much of your story. This isn’t just for the horror and suspense writers out there, either.
Even if your narrator can see everything, that doesn’t mean they must share everything. If you do, you run the risk of ruining any sense of tension your readers might feel. Tension is a central part of conflict. If there isn’t a chance that our character might not succeed, what’s the point in reading the whole book?
So, when you’re telling the reader about that killer in the shadows, do it for a reason. Share information to heighten suspense rather than diminish it.
What We Learn From Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, besides being Jane Austen’s most famous novel, offers some excellent insight into why we would want to use third person omniscient and how it can benefit the novel as a whole.
If you’ve read Pride and Prejudice, you may not have noticed that it is in fact third person omniscient. For most of the novel we follow only Elizabeth Bennet, but Jane Austen carefully reserves the right to slip into omniscience at key moments in the book.
To build into the dramatic irony of the novel, the omniscient narrator directs the reader’s attention to Mr. Darcy’s newfound attraction to Elizabeth Bennet.
This small bit of information from the narrator builds the reader’s enjoyment by knowing something that Elizabeth doesn’t fully know, that Mr. Darcy is crushing on the main character. This tension between what the reader knows and what the character knows can create dramatic moments in the story and is something that you can easily add with just a hint of omniscience.
Another moment from the story where Austen uses omniscience is in her descriptions of Lizzy’s world. We hear certain things, but the narrator then very purposefully (and admittedly) leaves out other pieces.
This works to get the reader on Lizzy’s team and sets up the story to control the reader's perspective and to create a more complex and nuanced story. By withholding information from the reader, Austen creates suspense and allows the reader to experience the story through Elizabeth's eyes. By revealing information to the reader that is not available to Elizabeth, Austen allows the reader to understand the characters and their motivations more fully.
The use of third person omniscient narration is just one of the many ways in which Austen creates a compelling and unforgettable story in Pride and Prejudice.
Craft Your Omniscient Narrator With Dabble
Armed with your imagination and these awesome tips (I say as humbly as I can), you are almost ready to write a story from a third-person omniscient point of view. There are a few other skills you’re going to need to round out your writing repertoire.
To help you out with that, check out all our articles at DabbleU. It’s totally free for everyone to access and brimming with information about writing characters, plot, conflict, different genres, and so much more. Be the best writer you can be by clicking here and seeing what articles tickle your fancy.
Then, once you’re ready to write that awesome story you have stirring in your head, you need a writing platform that will work with you to bring it to life. Dabble isn’t just a writing software with a clean, modern interface, but it is so much more. By housing your story and character notes just a click away, integrating the Plot Grid into your manuscript, and automatic syncing so you can write anywhere on any device, Dabble is a dream come true for writers like you and me.
Best part? You can try it for free without even entering your credit card info (because that’s how they always get you, isn’t it?) for fourteen days by clicking here.
And, as always, happy writing!
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