The right way to be an all-knowing narrator

One of the numerous reasons why I HATED The Book Thief was the gimmicky, smirking, know-it-all narrator and his endless parade of spoilers. That’s seriously not the way to do omniscient POV. The modern-day writer using third-person omniscient (or an all-knowing first-person narrator) properly must learn to strike a delicate balance between all-knowingness and compelling storytelling.

I love third-person omniscient because it provides a relationship with all the characters, a chance to get to know all of them instead of only one or just a handful. This is why this POV has long been the standard in historical and fantasy, because of the large ensemble casts and sweeping, epic scope. It offers more flexibility, creativity, and intimacy than any other POV, since we’re not stuck in one person’s head for the entire book, or alternating back and forth among a few characters. It also provides more objective distance, telling the reader a story about these characters instead of telling the story through a particular character’s eyes.

However, sometimes you can bend the rules a little and slip into a quasi-God-mode. I still use this method of narration sometimes, but I’m very, very careful and selective about it now. This style works when there’s a reason to break the fourth wall and write as the all-knowing narrator. These are a couple of examples which I feel merit quasi-God-mode:

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“This is how Lyuba, Iván, and Tatyana finally leave Russia, running for their lives across the border in the ice and snow, a riot in Pskov, Cheká agents out searching for Iván, no looking back allowed, no crying.  Lyuba will remember this day for the rest of her life, the day she left her Motherland and wasn’t allowed to look back, scream, or cry” (You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, Chapter 21, “Goodbye to the Motherland,” probably 1999).

That kind of emotional reflection wouldn’t be possible if I were just relating the story about these characters and describing how they fled across the border by the skin of their teeth.

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“Mrs. Troy has carefully planned the celebration this evening.  School has just let out, and she’s going to use the occasion to have a festive supper in honor of Lucine and Jacob’s supposed upcoming marriage, and to celebrate Giovanni’s first birthday.  She’s also ordered Ernestine to come over.  Little does she know Lucine went into her room and stole her suitcase, now packed and sitting under Lucine and Emeline’s bed.  She also has no idea Gemma’s planning to use the occasion to give a piece of her mind to her family and to deliver some shocking news to Francesco” (Little Ragdoll, Chapter 14, “Gemma Gets Out,” December 2010).

This serves to emphasise the coming humiliation and shock about to be delivered big-time to Mrs. Troy. Right now she’s completely unsuspecting of anything, so this villain is in for an even bigger catastrophe than if she suspected her oldest two daughters are about to revolt.

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“….Five-year-old Adah had announced one recent day she was going to marry Alyoshka. She was no longer being dumped in his parents’ mansion, but they were in kindergarten now and constant companions. It was anyone’s guess as to what Aleksey Greenblatt would’ve thought of his young namesake being born and raised Jewish, after his fifteen last years on Earth, safe in America, he’d worked so hard to blend in and appear to be a Methodist from England, not some boy who’d lived in the Ukrainian shtetl till a pogrom in December 1902 left the family standing in the gutter with nothing. His shame was now the pride of the family, presided over by a man nearing eighty-five, the five-day-old son he’d masked their identities for the sake of. Aleksey Benjamin, after Aleksey Veniaminovich. Not the Anglicised and by now somewhat antiquated name Alexis he’d adopted. Nowadays Alexis had become a feminine name. Alyoshka, like the little boy in the shtetl.

“Not just a future marriage into the prestigious Green family, but a marriage to Cinnimin’s grandson. [Sparky’s] miracle seventh child would produce children through which would flow blood shared by Cinnimin Rebecca Filliard Kevorkian, Kit Theresa Green, and Katherine Abigail Brandt, the same way their three streams of blood had been running together through Cinnimin’s veins ever since that nightmarish July Fourth in 1964” (conclusion of Part XXXVIII, Saga V of Cinnimin, “Isaac’s Miracle Cure,” August 2002 plus my just-now edits).

This one I really like, because it lets me use my knowledge about the past, present, and future, and weave them all together without pontificating, making value judgments, or giving away any real spoilers. Just about all my childhood sweethearts marry, so there’s no ruined surprise here, and nothing else about their future relationship is revealed. No value judgments are made about the elderly Mr. Green’s late father either. And the name Alexis had become more feminine than masculine by 1987, so that’s hardly me providing my own opinion. You can’t do that kind of distant, wise, all-knowing narrative voice in any other POV.

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8 thoughts on “The right way to be an all-knowing narrator

  1. No, I will not strike any balance whatsoever in my stories. The pontificating narrator is my one and only acceptable way to go, and I will not be deterred from going it by any of your commandments.

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    • Who the hell are you, the same troll who left a similar comment a long time ago? Have fun writing with an outdated writing style and bashing anyone who dares explain how to do third-person omniscient in a more modern style. Why did you feel the need to write that rude comment if you’re already bound and determined to write in God-mode? If you disagreed that strongly with this post (which the vast majority of writers WILL agree with, contrary to your troll opinion), you should’ve quietly left the page. There’s no need to be snide and rude.

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    • And by the way, you’re now blacklisted from commenting due to that nasty, chutzpahdik comment. I have zero tolerance for people who can’t be civil when disagreeing. I wouldn’t go to your blog (if you had a real one) and lecture you on your own writing style and advice. There’s no reason to go to someone’s blog and, in your first and only comment on a very old post, say, “Oh, by the way, I totally disagree with your opinion and think you have no right to tell me how to do things! Just letting you know I hate your opinions!”

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