The Omniscient Narrator

Posted on March 17, 2011


It has come to my attention that there are some people who don’t know the difference between second-person narration and an omniscient narrator voice. It has also come to my attention that I am extremely picky about point-of-view (perhaps because that was such a serious problem in my latest bit of fiction).

Why is this important? There is a huge difference between third-person omniscient and third-person limited (and an even bigger one between third-person and first-person, but we won’t get into that today). And if you want to write well, you sure as hell better know the difference between them and the rules for each.

For example, in third-person limited, you cannot ever, ever change point of view without a scene break. Ever. There are people who say there are no hard-and-fast rules to writing, and I say… bullshit. There are things you don’t do until people start calling you the next Steinbeck (and those people had better be the New York Times, and you had better not listen to them). Switching point-of-view in the middle of a scene is one of them.

Well, in third-person limited, anyway. In third-person omniscient, that’s pretty okay. I’d say it’s still a little weird, but that’s just my personal taste. Third-person limited is a wide-angle lens: you can zoom out and give us the whole picture, and if that means switching (carefully) from John’s perspective to Jane’s, you can do it. It’s hard to do well, but it’s not forbidden.

Anyway. Third-person omniscient versus second-person.

The use of “you” is not an instant signifier of second-person, all right? I feel like this should be obvious, but apparently it isn’t. When considering whether or not something is in second-person, you have to look at the pronouns used. If, but for the use of you instead of he or I, this could be a piece of ordinary prose, it’s in second-person. (And if it is in second-person, you should probably either set the book down… or start switching those pronouns, boy. You are not a post-modernist genius.)

If, however, it sounds like you’re having a conversation, then it is third-person omniscient with a narrator. That brings up all sorts of questions about whether your narrator is a character, and where it’s appropriate to step and say things and where it isn’t, but at least you get the basic idea. We’ll keep things simple for now.