Third person omniscient (all-knowing) point of view allows a writer to present a lot of information from a lot of different perspectives. While this can be liberating and even powerful, it also has drawbacks. Its lack of restrictions forces you as a writer to think carefully about what at first seems the easiest of perspectives.
Defining Third Person Omniscient
Third person omniscient perspective uses third person grammatical forms– he, she, hers, his, theirs, etc. The narrator does not exist inside the story, but tells it from the outside, sometimes intruding with their own perspective, as with the humorous footnotes in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
Unlike third person limited, third person omniscient doesn’t restrict you to a single character’s experience, even within a scene. Everyone’s thoughts, feelings and experiences can be included. Even things your characters don’t know about can feature, and the narrator is free to include opinions and explanations that belong to none of their characters, such as Jane Austen’s ironic observation at the start of Pride and Prejudice that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Benefits of Third Person Omniscient
A third person omniscient narrative creates incredible flexibility for a writer. You can show anything that is happening in your story, regardless of whether characters know about it. Multiple viewpoints can be included, and any details of the world you consider interesting. It creates a panoramic perspective on the story, enlivened by a range of character voices.
These different voices and thoughts let you build up connections within the story. You can contrast the experiences of different characters and show how they all react to an event. If three characters are in a scene, all hiding information from each other, the reader can know it all and relish seeing what is revealed and how. This also allows the reader a more objective understanding of events.
Because the writer can speak directly to the reader, they can also present more information in a small amount of time. Telling rather than showing fits naturally into this way of writing, and direct explanations are a common feature.
Limitations of Third Person Omniscient
That space for telling highlights the greatest weakness of third person omniscient – its artificiality. No-one can really know all that is going on in a situation, and it may feel odd to readers, especially modern readers who are not used to this.
The tendency of the narrator to intrude upon the narrative can be unsettling. It reminds readers that they are reading a fiction, rather than immersing themselves in real events. This is less of a problem for humour – Pratchett’s asides are made funnier by the way they disrupt the flow. Literary fiction, where form is as important as content, can also get away with this more. But it can reduce a reader’s emotional investment in character and plot, the fundamental experience of most stories.
Third person omniscient can be harder to follow than limited perspectives. The reader has to keep track of whose thoughts and experiences they are currently reading, even as this jumps within a scene. Unclear writing or inattentive reading can make a mess.
Readers may find these things problematic because third person omniscient is currently uncommon, or it may be uncommon because many readers find them problematic. Which came first is a moot point – omniscient perspective and the tricks around it will be unexpected to readers, and you need to be ready for that.
The Nuances of Third Person Omniscient
So how can you make third person omniscient work for you?
Firstly, use distinctive voices. This doesn’t mean adding accents to dialogue, but writing differently as the point of view changes. Pratchett’s voice as a footnote commentator is subtly different from his voice in describing events within a scene, which is in turn different from the way his characters think once we get inside their heads. These distinct voices create clarity for the reader.
Even having created this clarity, be careful when and how to move from one perspective to another. You can shift around within a scene, but should normally not do so within a paragraph. When you do shift, make clear whose perspective you are now seeing the world from, perhaps starting with action or speech by the new perspective character. Try not to skip around too frequently, as each time the reader has to do the work of adjusting their expectations and perspective.
Third person omniscient allows you to present a story from many directions. It’s a powerful tool, and one worth trying. But for all the flexibility it offers, you have to create a structure within it or your story will fall apart.