Omniscient Narrator: How to Work with an Old-Fashioned Storytelling Voice

by Marylee MacDonald, June 11, 2017 in Point of View

The omniscient narrator stands above the story, has a view of everything and everybody, can go anywhere, move around, enter any character’s mind, travel vast distances and cover long periods of time. The writer knows everything and can comment and summarize and shift from character to character and place to place. The voice of the omniscient narrator can tell us what any of the characters are thinking and feeling. The voice can even express opinions about what is occurring.

Omniscient Narrator old fashioned storytelling illustration

Omniscient narrators may sound a little old-fashioned, but there’s a reason why this form of narration is making a comeback. An omniscient narrator allows authors to dip inside characters’ heads and swoop through time and space. It’s more intimate than Direct Observer and more wide-ranging than Limited Third. Image from Pixabay via Prawny

Most 18th and 19th century writers were omniscient narrators: Fielding, Trollope, Dickens, Eliot, and others. Often these writers butt into the story and comment directly on what’s happening. When they want to, they give us access to the character’s thoughts and feelings.

An Omniscient Narrator Orients Us

Here’s the beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This passage sets the stage for the action to come. Dickens paints the backdrop, but the backdrop isn’t visual. It’s philosophical. He’s capturing the mood of the times.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Hardy’s Authorial Voice

Is an Omniscient Narrator’s voice identical to the author’s voice? In a preface to his novel, The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy steps from behind the curtain and writes in his persona as the author.

“Under the general name of ‘Egdon Heath,’ which has been given to the sombre scene of the story, are united or typified heaths of various real names, to the number of at least a dozen; these being virtually one in character and aspect, though their original unity, or partial unity, is now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland. It is pleasant to dream that some spot in the extensive tract whose southwestern quarter is here described, may be the heath of that traditionary King of Wessex–Lear.”

Why does Hardy spoil the illusion that the story is being told by a wise, all-seeing presence?

Thomas Hardy from "[Tess of the D'Urbervilles, etc.]"

Thomas Hardy uses both an authorial voice and that of an omniscient narrator in his novel RETURN OF THE NATIVE.
Image from Europeana via The European Library

Because Hardy wants to inform the reader that Egdon Heath cannot be found on any map. He may have worried that unsophisticated readers, thinking he’d made a mistake, would find the book as a whole unpalatable.

Hardy’s Omniscient Narrator

Okay, so that’s the voice of Hardy, the author. I love how he slips in that bit at the end about King Lear. Is that to alert readers to the novel’s dark tone? When he begins the novel, however, he draws the curtain.

Is the voice of Hardy’s omniscient narrator identical to that of the author? I think not. In Chapter 1 Hardy is writing out of his highest and best self. He takes the story firmly in hand and just tells it.

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.”

Moving Closer to Characters

What we’ve been looking at so far are long shots. The omniscient narrator trains a telescopic lens on a scene and gives us—in the case of Dickens—the mood of an era or—in the case of Hardy—an imaginary landscape. But how does a writer move closer to a character so that the reader can begin to get a sense of what makes the character tick?

Fortunately, omniscient narration allows you to move into the characters’ heads. An omniscient narrator doesn’t move into the minds of all the characters. That’s called “head hopping” in fiction workshops. Tolstoy could get away with it, but, most often, moving from one consciousness to another simply confuses the reader.

How Henry James Handled Omniscient Narration

When an omniscient narrator moves in closer to see what the character is thinking, the narrator puts into words a character’s inchoate thoughts. In Henry James’ The American, the protagonist is Christopher Newman, an American in Paris for what was once called “the Grand Tour.”

Up until this moment, James has shown us Newman only from the outside. We’ve seen his actions, strolling about the Louvre, standing in front of paintings, and stopping to chat with a pretty young artist working in the gallery.

The passage I’m going to quote is the first where James moves from seeing Newman from the outside (describing his suit, giving his background, showing his facial expressions) to seeing him from the inside. Please notice that the vocabulary is still that of the narrator. It’s the narrator’s “take” on Newman, not Newman’s take on himself.

“He wandered back to the divan and seated himself on the other side, in view of the great canvas on which Paul Veronese had depicted the marriage-feast of Cana. Wearied as he was he found the picture entertaining; it had an illusion for him; it satisfied his conception, which was ambitious, of what a splendid banquet should be. In the left-hand corner of the picture is a young woman with yellow tresses confined in a golden head-dress; she is bending forward and listening, with the smile of a charming woman at a dinner-party, to her neighbor. Newman detected her in the crowd, admired her, and perceived that she too had her votive copyist–a young man with his hair standing on end. Suddenly he became conscious of the germ of the mania of the “collector;” he had taken the first step; why should he not go on? It was only twenty minutes before that he had bought the first picture of his life, and now he was already thinking of art-patronage as a fascinating pursuit.”

The italics above are mine. What do you think of those words? Are they Newman’s thoughts, or the narrator’s? When I selected this passage, I thought they were the narrator’s. Now, I’m not sure. Let’s look more closely.

In the first italicized passage the tense changes from past to present. Everything up until then had been past tense: wandered, seated, satisfied. Now, suddenly, the sentence switches to present tense. In the left-hand corner of the picture is a young woman with yellow tresses confined in a golden head-dress; she is bending forward and listening, with the smile of a charming woman at a dinner-party, to her neighbor.

Is James rendering Newman’s thoughts directly? Certainly, the second italicized passage– why should he not go on?—is identical to the passages of interior monologue below.

Let’s see if we can explore this further.

Narrators Project Into the Minds of Other Characters

I’ve been reading a fascinating book of nonfiction, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. The author says that what sets homo sapiens apart from similar hominids (who once occupied the same ecological niche) was that homo sapiens can project into the future.

From the standpoint of a fiction writer, I’d say something similar is going on in the stories we tell. Our narrators can project into other people’s minds, and often do.

Narrators of all stripes freely enter the minds of other characters in order to render what they suppose are the other person’s thoughts. But whose language do they use? Their own. Narrators impute thoughts to other people. It’s as if they’re walking around all the time saying a phrase my husband hates to hear: “What are you thinking?” And, then, I proceed to tell him before he can respond.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, the narrator imputes thoughts to a stranger.

That’s what’s happening with Anthony, the viewpoint character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. I’ve italicized the moment the narrator slips from being an observer to the moment he projects thoughts into the head of a passerby.

[He] passed a bewildered old lady borne along like a basket of eggs between two men who exclaimed to her of the wonders of Times Square–explained them so quickly that the old lady, trying to be impartially interested, waved her head here and there like a piece of wind-worried old orange-peel. Anthony heard a snatch of their conversation: “There’s the Astor, mama!” “Look! See the chariot race sign—-“

There’s no way Anthony could really know why the woman is moving her head from left and right, and yet the narration tells us that’s what’s motivating her action.

Moving Closer Yet

So far we’ve seen the omniscient narrator translating a character’s thoughts, grabbing them and putting them down on the page. Now, though, we’re going to move in closer. The author is going to allow us direct access to the character’s thoughts—in the character’s own words.

Another word for this is interior monologue.

Stepping into a sentence or two of interior monologue is like entering a lazy river–the kind found at a resort’s swimming pool. The reader is swept along in the thought-stream until the narrator grabs onto the side of the pool and climbs out.

What happens to that omniscient narrative voice? It goes silent.

The narrator turns over “thought-control” to the character. Suddenly, we’re getting that character’s vocabulary, sentence structure, and thought patterns; however, these come through indirectly because the narrator still maintains control over the tense and sentence structure.

How to Gracefully Enter a Character’s Thoughts

Authors attempting to enter a character’s thoughts often switch from third person to first and then italicize the thoughts. These transitions sometimes jar me, but there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with handling thoughts this way.

I’ll show two ways of handling interior monologue, one with a switch to “I” and one staying with “she.” In the second example, I shifted the verb tense from present tense (“I wish she’d…”) to past tense.

Anne sat of the floor, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. Wanting to give her roommate the benefit of the doubt [thoughts imputed by the narrator], she’d held in her rage, but all through dinner, Vera, picking at her salad, had said nothing about the afternoon. Now, back in their room, Vera kept fiddling with the bedspread, picking at the tufts of cotton and talking about their homework. I just wish she’d shut up about English 101 and get back to what happened with Frank, Anne thought. I saw them. The blanket spread out. Him bending over, brushing back her bangs. It looked kind of intimate. Like maybe he was banging her. I wonder if he did it in our room or his? I wonder if that’s why she’s picking at the spread? Is there some evidence I should be paying attention to? Anne noticed her fingers, the joints turning white. She covered her ears. “Can’t you shut up about class and talk about what’s really going on?” she said.

Anne sat of the floor, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. Wanting to give her roommate the benefit of the doubt, she’d held in her rage, but all through dinner, Vera, picking at her salad, had said nothing about the afternoon. Now, back in their room, Vera kept fiddling with the bedspread, picking at the tufts of cotton and talking about homework. As far as Anne was concerned, Vera could shut up about English 101. The class was a no brainer anyway. What mattered was Frank. She’d seen them. The blanket spread out. Him bending over, brushing back Vera’s bangs. It looked kind of intimate. Like maybe he was banging her. Had they done it in their room or his? Maybe they’d done it on the bed. What the heck! Of course. That’s why Vera was picking at the spread–removing the evidence. Anne noticed her fingers, the joints turning white. She covered her ears. “Can’t you shut up about class and talk about what’s really going on?” she said.

The first example used the the words “Anne thought.” When you have an omniscient narrator switching to internal monologue, you’ll often find phrases like “she thought” or “she wondered” or “she guessed.” (You don’t need those words for a story told in limited third. In limited third you’re with the character and in their thoughts all the time. In omniscient narration you’re moving in and out, so you need those markers.)

You probably noticed that I had to tinker with the sentence structure when I changed from the passage from “I” to “she.” However, both passages retain the tone of the character’s voice. We’re inside her head, not seeing her from outside. We’re also not hearing the omniscient narrator giving her gloss on what Anne is feeling. We’re hearing Anne in more or less her own words.

Zooming In, Zooming Out

When you have an omniscient narrator, the reader often senses this telescoping movement, from close-in to more distant.  When we’re getting the character’s interior monologue, either in first person or third, we hear that character’s unfiltered voice. We are more likely to make an emotional investment because we’re close to the character’s feelings.

The wonderful thing about omniscient narration is that it allows readers to see the character from the outside and to zoom into the character’s thoughts. It allows the story’s narrative voice to be wise, all knowing, or irreverant. It allows the story to do what humans do so naturally, which is to speculate.

Although omniscience gives an author breadth and flexibility, when that omniscient voice resumes, the reader is apt feel that the author has temporarily closed a door. Sometimes a writer will start out telling a story as an omniscient narrator and then home in on one consciousness and stay with that point of view. That’s more likely to help readers sustain a sense of intimacy.

omniscient narrator graphic

Direct Observer, the point of view on the left, is the least emotional of all the points of view available to authors. First Person, on the right, is the closest to the feelings of a character. For this reason, first person is often thought of as the most intimate.

Here Are Your Choices

Most writers begin writing from a first person point-of-view. “I did this. I did that.” The first person is the most intimate of all the options in a writer’s toolbox because we are close to the feelings of the narrator. But there’s a danger. The reader can feel trapped inside the mind of the character. The relentless “I” voice begins to sound self-involved.

The second most intimate point of view is limited third. “She did this, and gosh, did she ever wish she hadn’t.”

The least intimate is Direct Observer, and that’s because we don’t have access to the characters’ feelings. We’re just seeing them from the outside. “He bought a drink. He ordered another one.”

For more, please go to these other blog posts: Limited Third Point-of-View Explained Simply and Direct Observer Point of View.


4 Responses to “Omniscient Narrator: How to Work with an Old-Fashioned Storytelling Voice”

  1. Sonni Quick says:

    This hit an area I’m working on now. The book I’m writing has me directly inside his thoughts with him observing his life.He also had to go back in time to understand how he got to where he is. This is creative non fiction taken from abt 600 letters we shared. I’m at the point in time where my letters are going to be a major factor in his life. I’ve thought of 3 possible to have those conversations 1. Use the letters themselves to show back and forth answering of issueds 2. enter his head and use his thoughts to have a conversation with me using the letters 3.be with him in a sense8 (series) kind of way or like a ghost and Mrs.Muir type of conversation with an apparition of me to talk to. He can’t leave where he is (prison cell) and I can’t be where he is. It has to strictly be through the words of the letters to keep the authenticity. Your post today helped me understand how presenting it one way can be broken down even farther.

  2. Roberta says:

    Thank you for clarifying the different points of view. Getting it right isn’t as easy as I originally thought. I’m leaning towards direct observer too much, so no wonder my writing seems flat. Very helpful posts.

    • It’s definitely not easy, but it gets easier. An interesting thing to think about, along with point of view, is “voice.” What special qualities of voice can make a character more vivid? I heard an actor say he got the voice for a character from a cab driver in NYC. Once he’d gotten that voice fixed in his mind, he could imitate it and know that he was speaking with authority. The same thing is going on for writers. The more particular we make the voice, the more we can count on that voice whispering in the reader’s ear.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: