So, on a discussion forum elsewhere the topic of omniscient came up, and I got cranky and wrote a post, and this post here is a very edited version of that one.
One of the things that made me cranky was an assertion that omni was an advanced skill and only highly trained professionals with safety equipment firmly in place should attempt it. It was also suggested that because readers are mostly used to limited third, one should only deploy omni if one had a really good reason to.
I’ve said several times what I think about “don’t try this at home, kids” advice for writers, so I won’t repeat myself beyond saying I think that’s bullshit and you should absolutely try anything at all that you think might make your story as marvelous as you want it to be. Or even anything that sounds cool and fun. There’s honestly no real downside.
So, that disposed of. Is omni really all that advanced?
I don’t think it is. It’s just that limited third has become fashionable, everyone trying to learn to write is using models that used it, and in limited third headhopping is experienced as obtrusive so beginners are told to avoid it but not how to make it work or how it’s different from omni. So if you haven’t read much that uses omni, you won’t understand how it works, let alone how or why it’s different from limited third.
It’s true some number of readers just aren’t used to reading omni. But this is really not relevant. If writers only ever produced the kind of thing everyone was used to reading, sweet merciful Mithras, all of literature would be one gray, formless mass of uniform goo. It would be easy to read but why would anyone bother? And is that really what you want for your writing?
The question isn’t “is this what readers are used to?” The question is, “How do I make this work?”
You’ll be ill-equipped to make omni work if you haven’t read much of anything that uses it, or if you assume you can treat it like limited third. So the first thing anyone should do who wants to use it–and you don’t need any excuse to use it beyond the simple desire to do so, or the feeling that your story would be better for it–is to read work that uses it. In the conversation that triggered this post, Middlemarch was suggested, and I heartily endorse that suggestion. By all means, go read Middlemarch, it’s fabulous. But while you’re reading, pay attention to the POV. Notice that there’s a narrator. There’s a “someone” to be omniscient, to know all and tell us about it.
Limited third has no “narrator.” In limited third, somehow the impressions and thoughts of the POV character are arriving on the page. Omniscient, by contrast, only works if you assume Someone is telling the story. That someone needn’t be made explicit–you can do it by consistency of voice alone, if you want. But once you’ve established that narrative voice, by and large the reader will let you do whatever you like, because you’re never actually violating the main POV–that is, your (nearly always unnamed and often unmentioned) narrator.
That narrator can be a character in the story herself, named or not. Or they might be just an unnamed someone whose voice and comments make it clear they’re sitting there telling you this story, commenting on it, providing incidental information, their own judgments and opinions. Or they might be nearly invisible, barely detectable but for a few value-laden descriptions or one or two wry comments, or possibly just a certain distance in the narration–though of course it’s entirely possible to do an intimate omni and a very distant limited third, still, one quick and dirty way to establish omni from the very start is to open with a bit more distance than you’d expect in limited third. (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…It is a truth universally acknowledged….Once upon a time…)
Now, if you don’t like omni, and have no desire to use it, then by all means, don’t. And if you don’t enjoy reading work that’s in omni, well, don’t, but of course I do think a writer ought to at least sample as broadly as she can.
But don’t avoid it because someone has told you it’s advanced, or hard to sell, or something readers won’t tolerate. Do whatever it is you think you need to do to make your story the most awesome thing you can manage to make it. Editors aren’t sitting around hoping for bland imitations of the last thing they published. And even if they were, is that what you’re really wanting from your writing, in your secret heart of hearts? Or do you want your work to be freaking awesome?
And you’ll never learn to do the awesome stuff if you don’t try.
(BTW, I also highly recommend Hal Duncan’s Rule 4 for New Writers: POV is not a communal steadicam. Hell, just read all the stuff he’s got for “new writers.”)