“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

What To Do When Your Narrator Knows As Much As God

This is part three of a series of posts based on Walter Mosley’s advice in This Year You Write Your Novel dedicated to exploring different narrative voices.  I have already discussed the first-person and third-person narrators.

Today we will conclude the series with the elusive, seductive, all-knowing omniscient narrator.

sunrise

The Omniscient Narrator Is All-Knowing

When you write using the omniscient voice you are essentially speaking from the point of view of God.

This narrator knows everything.

He doesn’t just know what John, Jessie and Jyoti are thinking, but also everything that has or will happen to them.  He knows the psychological profile of the lady waiting for the bus, why cats love boxes so much, and can identify every person who has the BRCA gene (and, by the way, what that gene is and who discovered it).

In other words, the omniscient narrator knows everything about everything and everyone.  Not even the meaning of life is beyond his reach.

The Omniscient Narrative Voice Can Be Tricky

Because his knowledge is so limitless, the omniscient narrator can be difficult to navigate.

Before using this voice try asking yourself the following questions:

How will you jump from different perspectives and topics in a way that doesn’t confuse the reader?  Can you convince your reader that your narrator is, in fact, all-knowing?  Can you maintain tension between characters while at the same time speaking with clarity and superior knowledge?

If so, you may be ready to use this technique!

For a first-time novelist, the omniscient voice may create additional hurdles to an already difficult task, which is why Mosley recommends the more limited third-person narrator.  That said, the art always comes first!  Don’t be persuaded against it if you think the omniscient voice makes the most sense.

Create Boundaries for Your Omniscient Narrator

Because you have the opportunity to discuss anything and anyone using the omniscient voice, you as the author need to create boundaries as to how you will disperse information.

You may decide, for example, that your narrator is so high and mighty that he doesn’t waste time wondering about the complex motivations of the characters he presents.

Or maybe your narrator only uses his power to shed light on characters’ feelings, and sticks to an approach closer to the third-person narrative for everything else.

You can also decide to only be all-knowing with respect to a specific time period.

The boundaries simply need to be clear.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write a scene using the omniscient narrative voice.  Share in the comments section below!

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

  • That is a POV beyond our understanding – maybe an apostle’s or prophet’s POV would offer some terrestrial limits yet provide God’s inspired perspective when needed. Leaving some gray areas of knowledge connects us with our readers and our own comfort zone too. Good to consider… guess that is why I am comfortable as first person narrator or write from third person story-telling.

  • Ok I’m going to give it a shot. This is just a 15-20 minute bash at the topic.
    Thanks Monica
    *******************************

    It’s a heart-breaking job but someone has got to do it right? Spread the love my boss says. Give them all a bit of a shake.

    Every night I see them, young and old, drunk and battling. The young guy in the suit at the end of the bar, just split from his partner. Five years they’ve had together and finally they let the minutiae of daily life implode their love, crush their dreams and drive an icy blade between them.

    And the blonde, two seats along, twiddling with her cocktail swirl stick and staring into the ripples looking for answers. Well, she’s not going to find them there, all she needs to do is go straight home and she’ll find the answer. Her best friend is about to knock on her door. Problem is she knows the blonde isn’t home. Her best friend has eyes for her husband.

    And the old fellow down by the door, in the dark corner next to the window, he can’t make up his mind. Should he go home to the wife and kids or should he pop over to his long time male lover’s apartment.

    Two middle aged corporate dressed types burst through the door, muttering under their breath. Throwing daggers at each other with their eyes. Panting for a drink. As if that will solve the problem.

    Nobody notices anybody.

    The bitter wind of winter bites in behind them, shrieking at the glass doors and whipping through the dim yellow light. Winter grabs a seat at the end of the bar and waits.

    Despair ripples round the dingy walls and the bar glasses shiver on their flimsy overhead rack. She takes a seat next to winter and shrugs. Winter doesn’t even look up. Looks like they’re about to crack too.

    Love is not in the air. In fact love is nowhere to be seen.

    A deep pause holds the nicotine light: the moment bends.

    Two gunshots ripple through the night outside. A scream; a long painful curdle of breath pierces night’s black glass. Then utter silence.

    Fear ripples through the blonde, her scalp prickles, her nails dig into the slimy bar top. She looks up. Old fellow by the door ducks for the floor, cowers onto the shadow beneath the table, reaches for his phone in his jean pocket, coughs blood.

    The corporates find each other’s arms and take temporary shelter in each others pounding heartbeat.

    The young guy is up and gone. He is flying through the half-cut night. Half way home by now. Panting, hoping, praying that his lovers threat was just a text and not a bullet.

    Just give them a little shake up the boss says. Every night – different bar, same deal.

    • Already I realise I got it wrong… But hey it was still a great practice. 🙂

    • AB

      Your writing just sucks a person in! I really like the way you personified winter and despair. Omniscient or not, this is good writing 🙂 .

      • Thanks AB
        I appreciate the feedback, it’s encouraging.
        Regards Dawn

  • It’s been a while since I posted practice, but here goes:

    ####

    Rob strode through the darkness, cussing under his breath. The battle with the Soul Eater had distracted him from watching over Jennifer. A man in black had left with her from the café, but he also seemed to have disappeared.

    He heard moans coming from an alley near the Super House fire station on Eutaw Street. Walking rapidly, he saw a couple leaning against a wall. The man had his back facing the alley. Shadows cast by the building prevented him from seeing more. As he approached, the sounds the woman was making seemed to be of pleasure. He sighed. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy to find her again. Rob turned to continue, when something about the woman’s moans caught his attention. He moved closer. Both were too into what was occurring between them to notice his approach.

    The noise the woman was making signaled an undercurrent of pain to it. Soon, Rob heard sucking sounds and could see the man had his face buried in her neck. He punched other man in the base of the skull and gripped the guy by his forehead. Rob pulled his head back. The moon came out from behind a cloud. Blood coated fangs gleamed in the white light. ‘Vampire. F***ing parasite.’ Rob’s fingers sank into the parasite’s skull as he slammed its face into the brick wall beside the woman. As she slumped from the vampire’s grip, the moonlight fell on her face. ‘Jennifer.’

    The vampire twisted in Rob’s hands, trying to fight back. The chronomancer spotted writing on the back of its neck. It appeared to be a serial number like the Nazi’s had branded their victims with. This one was identified as a Gypsy.

    “Salutari, vampir. Hrănire pe oameni? Timp sa moara,” Rob said in Romanian, before slamming the monster against the wall again. There was a wet crunch and the vampire howled. He hurled the vampire across the wide alley. It struck the wall of a parking garage and slid, senseless, to the ground. Turning back to Jennifer, Rob reached within himself and summoned the energies to manipulate the time stream. He wove a temporal bubble around her unconscious form and turned back to deal with the undead.

    The vampire shook its head and snarled at Rob, seeking to intimidate. The Chronomancer laughed. “I wish I had time to play with you, but I don’t.”

    The undead creature leaped at Rob who sidestepped. There was a flash of blue and the vampire hit the ground, decapitated. Rob sheathed his crystal sword and headed to Jennifer. Lifting her in his arms, he concentrated on his home and the two vanished. The air rushing to fill the void left by them scattered the ashes of the destroyed vampire.

  • Helaine Grenova

    This really isn’t my strong point as a writer. I am much more comfortable using third person limited and first person, but I will try my hand with a Greek mythology inspired tale.

    Every day the tall spinning wheel whirrs
    and groans as Clotho weaves the thread for a new life. She is the fate that
    determines when a new human is born. The thread is then sent to Lachesis, who
    weaves the new thread into patterns and divines a destiny for each of the human
    babies. Atropos is also busy snip, snip, snipping at other threads ending the
    lives of the weak mortals. These three fates think that they are in control of
    every life on Gaia’s fair back, but in reality they are controlled by the whims
    of the other gods. Each god and goddess use their manipulative way to force
    Lachesis to weave the new lives to befit their own whims.

    Atropos is the only fate that gets
    the final say. She is unmoving, no matter what the gods try, she can choose to
    cut the thread of fate, or she can let Lachesis weave on. No god has ever been
    able to influence her and today is no different. Hera, the most manipulative
    goddess, has come to beg the fates yet again to end the life of Heracles, her
    demigod stepson. She hates Heracles with a passion, even though he has been
    named to appease her. She begs the fates to either end his life or to make his
    life a living Field of Punishment.

    Lachesis, after a brief whispered
    conversation with her sisters, will agree to give Heracles a rough life and a
    painful death. However Lachesis and Atropos have also come up with a way to get
    revenge on the vengeful queen of the gods. Heracles will suffer and die, but
    just before his death he will be turned into a minor god and allowed to live an
    eternal life of luxury.

  • Diane Turner

    In silence, her family gathered around Elie’s bed. Her mother leaned in and kissed her cheek. Her father, bent and stoic, watched her hair flying wild as she rode her first bicycle. Lagging back, her brother looked wooden and pale, taking back every mean word he had ever flung at her. The others huddled at the end of the bed. Pamela, holding Ellie’s foot, watched the sparkly young mother and her infant son dance into her life. David saw Mark’s young face grow old before him. Ignoring the shell on the bed, Hannah was seized by a debasing urge to run. Mark stared at them, dazed, the crush of grief already on his shoulders. The nurse asked if it was time.

    Mark’s head moved not a whit, but his gaze fell on his father-in-law, and for a fraction of time, their eyes locked; the first, perhaps the only, entente between the two men. No one moved, the only sound the measured whoosh of the ventilator. Reaching up, the nurse flipped the switch to off. Silence and a collective holding of breath, as Ellie’s chest fell and didn’t rise again.

  • AB

    This is new to me – it feels a bit uncomfortable to inhabit more than one body at once! I would love feedback as to whether I am actually accomplishing omniscient point of view.

    Jessi crumples to the floor, her shoulder and the side of
    her face sliding hard against the cold, gritty tile. “Oh no,” she thinks, “It’s
    happening again.” Her limbs feel heavy and immovable. She is unable to cry for
    help. Frightened, she waits in the stillness of the hallway for someone to
    notice, both welcoming and dreading the response.

    Marla is the first to
    notice, rounding the corner with a stack of papers in her hand. “Jessi!” she
    cries. “Oh my god, what’s wrong?” The
    papers tumble from her hand and fly across the floor as she kneels by her
    friend, and with shaking hands turns Jessi’s face upward. A sharp call brings
    other teachers out into the hallway, and someone calls 911.

    Marla is in full emergency mode, opening Jessi’s collar so
    she can breathe better and cradling her friend’s head in her lap. She notices
    how her hands tremble. She hasn’t had to deal with this type of trauma for
    several weeks now, but it all comes back to her like second nature.

    Jessi can hear everything – the panic in her coworkers’
    voices, the muted hum of students left unattended in classrooms, the wail of a
    siren in the distance – but she is unable to respond. She relaxes as Marla’s hands stroke her face,
    and she can feel the softness of Marla’s jeans against the back of her head. “Damn,”
    she thinks. “And just when everything was going so well.”

  • EndlessExposition

    Ah, you’ve arrived! I’ve been expecting you. How, you ask? Well, I know things, young one. Many things. Sit in this chair by the fire and I shall explain. Come come, do not be afraid. What is there to be frightened of? See, I am an old man, no flesh on my bones anymore to give me strength. I couldn’t harm you if I tried. I’m sorry if this wizened,
    toothless mouth is off-putting, but there’s not much I can do about that. Yes, sit down. That’s it. Would you like some tea? It’s my own special brew. I know you are weary from your journey, it is a long one and that ogre gave you quite a nasty bump on the head. Here, take a cuppa, I insist, the herbs will calm your dizzy spells. Don’t look so alarmed, young one! I told you, I know many things. Make yourself comfortable, take off your cloak. Throw it there by the hearth, it will be dry within the hour. Now, there is a tale I must tell and here you must hear it! Hush, no protestations, I know you were expecting something quite different from this. Riches, glory, fabulous beauty. Well, there’s much beauty to be had in a good yarn, young one, if not in my wrinkled face. And do believe me, by the time I’m done you will be glad to have heard this tale, although parts may sound familiar. It is a tale of a young one, much like yourself, who came a long way chasing a wish he made on a star. It is a tale of heaven and hell, of forests and deserts, of mountains and seas. It is a tale of witches and faeries, ogres and serpents, kind princesses and diabolical lords. It is a tale of treachery and wrath, wonder and danger, sorrow and love. Most of all it is a tale of sacrifice, of choices to be made. It is the tale of a life most extraordinary, that of a mere boy. The boy who would be King of the Worlds.

    • AB

      Sounds like a wonderful tale!

  • Claire

    I don’t know about this, but here’s my practice.

    I see him every night when he comes home from work—dejected, disheveled and depressed. I sit at the end of the dining room table and watch him eat, head down and twirling his food. Every once in a while, he lifts his head to look at the picture on the coffee table. it’s a picture of her; no longer around because she walked out on him. He stares at it with sad eyes, and I can at times see tears almost pricking his eyes.

    “Do you miss her?” I ask, but he drops his fork and brings his hands to his eyes and brusquely rubs them before getting up from the table leaving his plate behind. As he walks to the bedroom, I follow and slip into bed with him. I know he feels my presence, my breath, my touch, but he just turns on his side until sleep conquers him.

    He leaves and I follow him everywhere. He walks hunched as if he would like to recede into himself—until one day when I see him straighten up. He sees her, and she approaches him. They exchange some pleasantries and as they walk in separate directions, she turns to him and asks. “Who’s this shadow following you now?”

    He stops and turns to look at her. He puts his hands in his coat pocket and sighs. “It’s my solitude.” He turns and continues to walk away.

  • For a short story the omniscient POV is generally not used, but for this practice I’ve used it in this story.

    A Christmas Story

    “I brought in the tree and boxes of ornaments from the garage,” Arthur said as soon as Lynn came home. He expected his wife to be delighted that he had done it without being asked. He had already half assembled the artificial tree in the family-room and was rather pleased that he managed to do it without the directions, which he couldn’t find. Arthur usually let Lynn “grow the tree” while he would test the lights and string
    some outside. It was less than two weeks before Christmas and Lynn had been
    ignoring the holiday completely.

    Lynn looked at the half assembled tree and the boxes and felt a rush of annoyance rather than pleasure. For her, there was no joy in this season. Every day she replayed in her imagination the scene of her daughter’s death. A head-on-collision with a truck. The driver, too tired to be driving and too stupid to stop and take a nap. All her grief over Nancy’s death had pushed aside thoughts of Christmas.

    Arthur knew Lynne was still grieving, that she didn’t feel like celebrating. By bringing in the tree and ornaments he hoped he could nudge her into a holiday mood. He wasn’t in any joyous mood himself, but there were the other children and grandchildren to think about. Life had to move on.

    “I’d like to have the tree decorated,” he said as he continued putting the limbs into their slots on the trunk, “even if you don’t feel like it this year. There are others we have to think about.”

    “But how can you just move on as if nothing happened?” Lynn turned to look out a window at the sound of a car coming up their driveway. “Oh, drat! It’s that woman down the street, the one who is such a busybody.”

    A middle-aged woman in a red and black plaid coat stood at the door holding a large canvas shopping bag. She had a wide mouth and her smile filled her face. “Merry
    Christmas, Mrs. Fraser. I’m collecting non-perishable food for the local food
    pantry. Do you have anything to give? Just a couple of canned soups or
    vegetables or a box of pasta will do.”

    The woman scanned the outside of the house and stretched her neck to look inside. Not one sign of the holiday. Of course! Now she remembered about the horrific death of their
    daughter. Well, she was here now. “Sorry if I came at a bad time.”

    “No, it’s okay, Mrs. Doyle. Come in and I’ll find something.”

    “How have you and Mr. Fraser been? Keeping well, I hope. I had a bad cold right after Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t let that slow me down. There’s always so much to do this time of year. I plan to make all my Christmas cookies tomorrow for family and friends and for a few neighbors. Not for the entire block, mind you. I’d be baking forever if I did that. You and Mr. Fraser are on my list. I gave you some last year, remember?”

    “Yes, I remember. Arthur’s in the family room putting up the tree. And, we’re fine, thank you.” Lynn pulled out from the cupboard two cans of soup, a box of cereal and one of pasta and dropped them into Mrs. Doyle’s bag. She wanted the woman gone. She didn’t want to make useless chit-chat with this woman who was so full of stories about her family and the neighbors and people she didn’t know or care about.

    Arthur popped into the kitchen. He liked Mrs. Doyle’s stories. Her exuberant pleasure in telling stories was evident as well as her genuine spirit of goodwill. Although, he had to admit, she did go on and on sometimes. “I suppose you’ll be having a large family gathering at your house on Christmas,” he said.

    “The family holidays are not so large as they used to be with my parents gone and our two children living thousands of miles away. It will be just Bill and me this year. Jack
    and Andy can’t get time off to fly East, and, what with Jack’s new baby, travel
    is hard. Maybe for Easter, I hope, God willing.”

    “Well, have a good holiday, Mrs. Doyle and say hello to Mr. Doyle for us.” Lynn hoped that would get the woman out of the house.

    Mrs. Doyle had a sudden feeling that Lynn Fraser didn’t want to celebrate Christmas. It was the fact that there was nothing cheerful about the house. So close to Christmas and not one bright ornament or bow when in past years the Fraser house was lit up right after Thanksgiving. Mrs. Doyle had thought about skipping the holiday, as well, but why deny herself the pleasure of decorating even if it were for only herself and Tim.

    “Oh, would you like to help make the cookies tomorrow?” Mrs. Doyle was at the door when the inspiration came to her. “I usually do the work with my two daughters-in-law, but not this year. It’s always fun and you get to take home some cookies. This year I’ll have to mail my cookies to my son’s families, but you’ll get to take yours home right away and you can help me bake them. Just come to my house in the morning. Eight o’clock. I like to start early.”

    “Go,” said Arthur. “You may be surprised. I think Mrs. Doyle would like the company.”

    Mr. and Mrs. Doyle were going to have a lonely holiday, and Lynn and Arthur would feel an emptiness without Nancy. Maybe these two women needed each other. Maybe baking cookies could be just the right prescription for both of them.

    In the morning, after a restless night of jumping thoughts about Janice, about Mrs. Doyle, about her remaining children and grandchildren, Lynn was up early. Putting a bag of walnuts, a pound of butter, a bag of chocolate chips and a carton of eggs in a
    shopping bag, she left the house a few minutes before eight o’clock.