Friday, 9 March 2012

Using the Omniscient Voice Isn't Wrong

I usually advise students to avoid the Omniscient Voice in their prose. This is because the current market prefers the 'up close and personal' feeling you get from using first or third person. But that doesn't mean using the omniscient voice is wrong.

The omniscient voice is when the story is told by an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. It's also called the authorial voice. The narrator knows what's going to happen in the future, what each character is thinking, what the implications are of actions and so on. 19th century novels use authorial voice a lot - "it is a truth universally acknowledged..." or "All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" can only be said by an omniscient narrator.

It can be a distancing voice, putting us at one remove from being inside the heads of the characters directly ourselves. But it also has its uses. I was re-reading The Hobbit, and was struck by how JRR Tolkien's omniscient voice added to the telling of the tale. It told where they made mistakes - "actually, as I have told you, they were not far off the edge of the forest; if Bilbo had had the sense to see it", poked gentle fun at Bilbo and his fondness for home comforts and food, went into amusing digressions such as how the game of golf was invented and filled us in on what was happening when Bilbo wasn't actually present.

So, the omniscient voice isn't wrong. For the right book it's just right.


Derek said...

I think it works especially well for fantasy, where having a broader perspective (culture, history, etc) really adds to the sense of experiencing a different realm. And it enables the reader follow several characters over a long period of time.

Full marks for your early post, by the way. As Punch would say, "That's the way to do it!"

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s a well known fact that that, at a late stage in the writing process of Until I Find You, John Irving made the fairly dramatic decision to change everything from the first person to the third person. What I find interesting is that halfway through my last novel I chose to do the very opposite. In my case I had a woman who doesn’t know what’s going on and it felt unfair to have a narrator (and hence a reader) who does. That said in Milligan and Murphy the omniscient narrator is the only person who does know what’s going on. It’s horses for courses. I’ve read a couple of novels where the writer alternates between third and first person to good effect.

Penny said...

Reading 'Middlemarch' at the moment, where the authorial voice took a while to get used to once more.. which is odd, really, since I suppose [being so ancient] I accepted it easily enough long ago!
I like the chapters which end 'Little did they know something far worse was about to engulf them...' or something like that. Sometimes!

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Derek! I agree, there are certain genres where it works particularly well. It's good for humour too - think Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

Jim - third person isn't the same as omniscient, although the effect can be similar.

Penny - as far as I remember Middlemarch is pretty heavy going full stop, omniscient narrator or not! Sometimes that 'little did they know' voice works really well - but other times it can cause a loss of tension.