Please consider a donation to help fund Vision: A Resource for Writers
Issue # 55
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Table of Contents
Critiquing Omniscient Viewpoint
By Linda Adams
Copyright © 2010, Linda Adams, All Rights Reserved
When I decided to switch my novel from third person to omniscient, I thought the most difficult thing would be the viewpoint. Instead, it's been getting critiques.
But sometimes a story is done in omniscient, so it's important to know how to critique it. Critiquing is a great way to build on our own writing skills, and working out of our comfort zone expands our knowledge. Even if you never use omniscient, you may be able to take something back to your stories from the critiques.
First up are the Golden Rules:
GOLDEN RULE #1: A story in omniscient viewpoint is still a story. Critique as you would critique any other story, using whatever methods work for you.
GOLDEN RULE #2: Critique the way you would want to be critiqued.
Pretty much, if you are already critiquing, you can critique something that's written in omniscient viewpoint. There are just a few things that are unique to the viewpoint to watch for.
Choice of viewpoint Some writers pick omniscient because they haven't settled on who's important in the story. They usually flag themselves by saying something like, "I picked omniscient because I wanted to show what all the characters were thinking." Avoid trying to steer the writer to an "acceptable" viewpoint and instead focus on the actual problem.
Head hopping Everyone associates omniscient with head hopping or multiple viewpoints. It's actually one viewpoint where the narrator slides from character to character, dipping into their thoughts. But done badly, it can turn into head hopping.
When I was learning omniscient, the first thing I did was look at books to find out how other writers did this dipping. Sometimes I would be reading and suddenly realize the story had shifted to another character. There was a subtle transition--usually a new paragraph and dialogue, sometimes a sentence that shifted away from the other character.
If the writing is head hopping, the author has either switched to third or she hasn't gotten the transitions right.
Telling One of the differences with omniscient viewpoint is that it uses a lot of telling. In some types of thrillers, telling works better because showing would be tedious. That's why you might see an info dump of a technical explanation or a mini-biography of a character's life. One of the reasons I did mine in omniscient was because of the very complicated back-story. Resist the urge to tell the writer to "show and not tell" and instead analyze the section to see if telling is appropriate or might be too much. But explain your reasons why, which will help both you and the writer.
Distance Omniscient is more distant than third or first because the scenes are viewed by the overall narrator rather than through a character's eyes. However, it is possible a scene could be too distant. The story will feel too stiff or like it's shoving you away from the story. Resist the urge to just tell the writer that it's distant and consider why it might need the distance. If it is too distant, think about what is giving you that impression and comment on that. Be specific. The hardest thing for me is interpreting comments--I can't tell if there is a problem or the critiquer is reacting badly to the distance.
Obviously a lot of this is a judgment call, based on each individual piece. Probably the most difficult thing you'll have to overcome is the years of how-to books and writing magazines saying omniscient is bad and not to use it. Which goes right to the things not to do in critiques that are also unique to omniscient.
Admonishing the writer A writer who posts for critique is likely to get stern comments telling them they'll never get published if they use omniscient. It's not a helpful comment, and is frustrating when ten or twenty people say exactly the same thing. Be the one who doesn't do it and offer genuine, helpful comments.
Fixing the Story The critiquer assumes the story is broken because it's in omniscient and tries to fix it. Can you receiving a critique on your third person story that says, "I'm sure you know your story, but here's how you would do it in first"? Assume the writer intended the story to be in omniscient and critique it appropriately.
Not Critiquing the Work A common problem is that once a critiquer realizes the piece is omniscient, she focuses on trying to get the writer to change to a more acceptable viewpoint. So basics like "Does the story hang together?" get forgotten in favor of converting the writer.
These three negative--unhelpful--types of critiques waste not only the writer's time, but the critiquer's time. And it's a lost opportunity. Sure, omniscient may be different from what you're writing--some parts may feel like an alien from outer space. But critiquing it will give you a broader perspective that you can take back your own stories.