Narrative Tense and POV


Omniscient Viewpoint

Read the following explanation of the omniscient viewpoint. It comes from James N. Frey's book, How to Write a Damn Good Novel:

Omniscient Viewpoint

If the narrator reveals what is going on in all the characters' heads, the story is in omniscient viewpoint. This is, of course, the most subjective of all possible viewpoints. Omniscient viewpoint was extremely popular in the Victorian novel. The main concern of the Victorian novelist was society; it was thought best to have access to everyone's thoughts and motives in order to create a clear and total picture of society. Victorian novelists would often reveal the thoughts of any and all characters in in given scene in the following manner:

Henry arrived at two in the morning, feeling tired and numb (his interior state, his viewpoint). Kathryn greeted him at the door, thinking he looked like a drowned rat (her viewpoint). She showed him immediately into the library, where the old grandfather waited, pacing back and forth under the chandelier. He had been pacing there since noon, his stomach churning, his feeble mind in a terrible turmoil (the grandfather's interior state, his viewpoint).

The result was interesting and succeeded in giving the reader a powerful portrait of society and its workings, but, because of the constantly shifting viewpoint, the reader was not exposed to any character's viewpoint long enough to establish reader identification. The reader therefore lacked intimacy with these characters. For this reason, very few novels are written today in omniscient viewpoint.

Limited Omniscient Viewpoint

The modernized version of omniscient viewpoint is limited omniscient viewpoint, a very powerful technique indeed. Limited omniscient viewpoint works like this: the author claims the right to go into the heads only of of certain characters and not others. These selected characters, usually the protagonist and two or three others, are called "viewpoint characters." While the narrator is in the head of a character, because of the magic of identification, the reader is living the character's life. Unlike omniscient viewpoint, in limited omniscience the reader is not asked to switch viewpoint too often yet has the chance to enjoy intimacy with more than a single character.

This is how the Victorian scene above might be written in limited omniscience:

When Kathryn opened the door, she was aghast: there stood Henry, wet, drawn, and tired. He l looked positively numb from the cold. She showed him immediately into the library where her old grandfather was pacing, his back bent, under the chandelier. He'd been there, she knew, since noon. She guessed his feeble mind was in a terrible turmoil (all from Kathryn's viewpoint).

A severe form of limited omniscience is single viewpoint. It has most of the disadvantages of a first-person narrative, except that the narrator can relate events that happen out of the viewpoint character's purview.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.