Why omniscient narrators have fallen into disrepute.
When the ‘invisible camera’ zooms out too far, or captures conversations beyond the main character’s earshot, we sense that the invisible narrator has inadvertently donned the gown of omniscience—or fallen victim to the inconsistencies that so often spoil the efforts of an inexperienced writer.
The all-knowing narrator need not be banished; however, readers will soon resent this mode if it is executed with excessive wilfulness and whim. It might be of critical importance for the reader to learn what things, not meant for the main character’s ears, are being discussed in an adjacent room, or—even better perhaps—for the main character himself to hear the murmurings behind that shut door and to suspect a conspiracy is being hatched against him. If, however, the invisible camera is at liberty to float right through that door, without so much as leaving a scratch, we may come to doubt the door was ever there, and the carefully constructed suspense is lost.
Sustaining the fictional dream
Once the suspense slackens for no apparent reason , the ‘fictional dream’, the illusion of reality surrounding and infusing the action, is jeopardized. In the course of the 20th century, literary pundits came to regard omniscient utterances as authorial intrusion or whim, as fat-bellied moralism unworthy of true art. And insofar as omniscience occurs as glitches in an otherwise limited third person perspective, this critique is quite justified.
During the course of editing previously written scenes, check whether all that occurs is possible within the adopted point of view; whether it’s sustained by the narrative’s logic. Can the character hear the conversation? In what direction do those doors swing open? If seated next to the fireplace, will the marquis be able to see what goes on in the street outside?
The power of omniscient narration
Sometimes, a novel expresses a cogent, all-encompassing vision of the world’s folly, of universal human vanity, of the trappings of power, or of the dearth of true bonds. In brief, the lamentable condition to which humans are in thrall, though each may respond differently. We are grateful that Cervantes exposed both Sancho Panza’s and the noble Don’s thoughts; it is the juxtaposition of these two voices that engenders the exquisite irony in Don Quixote.
Likewise, we are grateful to Milan Kundera that he, in a similarly omniscient manner, grants readers of The Unbearable Lightness of Being access to the thoughts of Thomas and the subconscious of his last love Teresa, who towards the end of her life inexplicably dreams of two croissants and a bee. Come to think of it, what would be left of A Hundred Years of Solitude had Marquéz shorn it of his utterly delightful authorial intrusions—leaving that execution hanging in mid-air and hovering over his scenes like a god? But as the great names in this section suggest, a firm grasp is needed on what seems wanton whim at the surface.
As a rule of thumb, we would advise you to adopt one limited point-of-view in a short story or in a novella. However, larger canvasses may contain several subplots, and several points-of-view, unrolling simultaneously. In this case, we need not openly ‘lapse into’ omniscient narration; we can do it on the sly. We could shift perspectives each time a new chapter or a new paragraph commences, adding rhythm and variety to the twist and turns of the intrigue.
Omniscient narration implies a kind of helicopter view. The camera is zooming out, as it were, encompassing several goings-on in various locations in one swoop. However, you will need to adapt a limited third person point-of-view once you zoom in on one particular scene. In some cases, you may need to adopt a—temporary—first person point-of-view, for instance in a longish episode told by a witness in court.
Sections with a limited third person point-of-view, or a first person point-of-view, need not be inconsistent with the omniscient mode of narration, provided they are suitably embedded in the larger canvas. If done well, they may add ironic counterpoints. For instance, the monologue held by that witness in court could jeopardize the views held by the main character hitherto; which in turn enhances the conflict or the main theme.
A firm grasp
In regard to point-of-view, consistency is key. Pick whatever ‘rules’ suit you—or rather, your story—best and stick to them. You, the writer, are the one who creates the pieces (also known as ‘characters’) and who must find out how your pawns, bishops and kings will traverse the board.
But if it is true that by writing you must conquer yourself as well, you can’t alter the rules halfway through the game. Unlike some digital games, literary prose does not allow for ‘cheats’.