How not to write third-person omniscient

It seems as though many people who mock and dismiss third-person omniscient either don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, or genuinely have no experience with reading or writing it, and thus assume amateurishness or mistakes where there are none. And to demonstrate specific examples of how not to write third-person omniscient, I’m going to use lines from my own work, written at a much earlier stage of my writing development.

1. God-mode. “As Tiffany opened the door for the three Kevorkian children, whom she’d taken in to house temporarily till they found something better, and behind her own father’s back too, she had no idea that the middle Kevorkian child, Levon, would soon see a very beautiful girl and fall in love with her on the spot, the third Mrs. Kevorkian, and his life would never be the same again” (Max’s House #4: The Start of AS, 1999). This is typical classic, outdated God-mode, which no one wants to see in modern literature.

2. Inappropriate political, religious, social, cultural, etc. commentary. “Cinnimin quickly found a record of Just Us 6, the absolute crappiest group in the city. Their singing was so sucky you had to be insane to actually listen to it!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993) It doesn’t matter if the commentary is valid or the reader agrees with it. Pontificating on things well outside the immediate story is really inappropriate and obnoxious, and can really alienate readers who hold differently.

3. Exclamation points outside of dialogue or something like a letter or journal entry. “[Violet] kept her eyes on Robert’s greeny-brown ones as she opened her pencil case, so that explains why she handed him a tampon instead of the planned pencil! Everyone but her began laughing hysterically!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, October 1993) Yeah, this is kind of funny, but there’s no need to emphasize the humor with exclamation points.

4. Awkwardly, unnecessarily drawing attention to the fact that a story takes place in a certain year or place. “In 1941 in late December, $50 was a lot to be paying for a sailboat” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993). First, I’m not sure that’s actually true, and second, we already know it’s Christmas Day 1941.

5. Making obnoxious value judgments about characters. “Tiffany and Marc stared at Max, but most of all at the fat blob who had just wandered into their midst” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and second draft [1999]). Mrs. Seward’s morbid obesity is often used for comedic purposes, but sometimes it really goes too far.

6. Too much jumping around among characters and scenes. “By now Spencer and Camille were on birthday cake number eight. Kit and Frankie were searching for treasure and were in the actual grounded latrine, and Sheri had dropped twelve more cookies into the deep water. Ed had lost himself again” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Pick one character or group of characters to focus on, don’t just hop around in the same paragraph!

7. Too distant from any one character. “Elaine, on the advice of a number of articles she’d read in women’s magazines, kept calling him silly pet names and giggling.  He had no way of knowing she was only acting so flighty to try to impress him and hold onto his interest during the uncertain early days of a relationship” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and third draft [2011]). Deep POV isn’t necessary, but at least stick to one character’s thoughts or actions at a time!

8. Outside knowledge way outside of any character’s purview. “A rosary from Italy was on the [rock], followed by a dead man from Romania” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Seriously, how would any of them know the national origins of either? Why does it even matter? It’s one thing to state something as the narrator, like when I specified Lucine’s footsteps as saddleshoe footsteps on Page 1 of Little Ragdoll, but entirely another to state such a bizarre, unnecessary detail that adds absolutely nothing to a scene. And as the all-knowing narrator, I should’ve said this refugee was merely unconscious, NOT dead!

9. Beating the reader over the head with all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith film and essentially telling him or her how to think, feel, and react. “She feels like a Ragdoll too, kept on a shelf because the prettier dolls are more popular, unloved and alone, with the sad wistful eyes of a Ragdoll that look right through you and tear a knife through your heart, if you have one to be torn” (discontinued original first draft of Little Ragdoll, possibly early 1994). Enough said!

10. Specifically drawing attention to symbolism instead of making it more subtle and letting the reader figure it out on his or her own. “Childhood innocence was having a multiple funeral all over the world that night” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). That’s the least offensive or obnoxious example I could find. Seriously, just don’t do it, and don’t use symbolism just to try to make your story seem all deep. Forced, awkward, unnecessary symbolism is a writing DON’T!

11. Overstating established information. “Shampoo dripped into Donna’s eyes. She began howling with intense pain” (Saga I of Cinnimin, November 1993). When it’s already clear from the context or previously-stated or -inferred information, there’s no need to tell us all over again.

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11 thoughts on “How not to write third-person omniscient

  1. #6 is fine. It suggests lively action and chaos. # 2 is also fine, if it declares a character’s opinion in her own voice (Free indirect speech). #8 has me fascinated. Why was the dead (ok, unconscious) Romanian following a rosary anyway? Where was the rosary going?

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  2. Interesting and humorous post. Thanks Carrie-Anne.I was drawn to your blog when I learned you were writing books set in Atlantic City. I grew up near there and my first novel is set in the NJ Pine Barrens. Will be back to check out more as it looks like I can catch you in the A to Z challenge?

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  3. Your examples were very descriptive and to the point. I agree with all of these and in fact just put down an book I won’t finish because of 1, 9 and 11. Thanks for sharing, and for commenting on my blog. Great to have you visit. lisabuiecollard.com, A to Z Challenge Co-Host 2015

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  4. I like to read the god-like narrator and so on. None of your censorship and propaganda will ever deter me from writing accordingly.

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