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.

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.

What’s Up Wednesday

Snowman Button (final)

What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly hop/meme with four simple headings. Anyone can write a post and add the link to Jaime’s blog or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

Still spending lots of quality time with the book I can’t name till my A to Z theme reveal for my names blog. This is one of my desert island books, and having a proper, modern translation has made all the difference in the world in loving it even more.

What I’m Writing

I’ve completed Chapter 114 of Journey Through a Dark Forest, and updated the table of contents yet again. Now there are 118 planned chapters plus the Epilogue. I think Chapter 115 will be another short chapter (by my standards). I’ve reached the 850K mark, and really, really hopeful my new 875K guesstimate will be my final prediction. Perhaps I can publish it in four “knots,” the way Aleksandr Isayevich, of blessèd memory, did with his massive Red Wheel saga.

Anastasiya really surprised me at the end of Chapter 114. After all the awful things she’s done and said over the last thirty years, she finally has a moment of humanity and thinks of someone other than herself when she’s forced to hold her grandson for some photographs after his baptism. She notices Rodimir (Rodik) strongly resembles her, and this in turn reminds her of her mother and grandmother. Finally, she’s crying for someone other than herself, and thinking of how this child is the eternity of her ancestors. She leaves to buy some gifts, and begs for family peace and a relationship with her grandson when she returns to the party.

My goal for this week is to finish Chapter 115. It’ll be set on Orthodox Christmas 1948, sort of a transition into the last few chapters.

What Works for Me

Learning how to write third-person omniscient which works well in the modern era is a delicate dance. I’ve got a post coming up in March about how NOT to write this POV, using eleven specific examples (e.g., God-mode; political, religious, social, or cultural commentary; making value judgments on characters; telling the reader how to think, feel, and react). They’re illustrated with examples from my own early drafts, with the date I wrote each in parentheses. This POV is much more flexible than first-person or third-person limited, but you still can’t jump all over the place with it or misuse your all-knowingness.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I went back onto my old computer to get both version of my résumé (though the job market in my area is pretty dismal), and while I was there, I used Word 2004 to open, convert, and reformat the 14 files of my eighth Max’s House book. Once again, there was bizarre data migration in the converted files. This has happened to a number of other files I created in MacWriteII, lines from other files which aren’t even on that disk, and even strings of words I taught the spellcheck on the ’93 Mac. I’d love to know if there’s a logical reason for this!

It’s always a headache to reformat these converted files, since there are so many floating and misplaced text blocks I have to copy and paste back into their proper place, as well as unnecessarily duplicated lines and words, and then all the gibberish characters. Meanwhile I barely had a problem with the ClarisWorks files I converted and reformatted.

I’d seriously love to move back to Pittsburgh (particularly since Pitt’s library school is so much better than Albany’s), but with this brutal winter, I’m once again tempted to move to Florida, where my aunt and surviving grandparents live. Pittsburgh is in my blood and bones, but I’d love nothing more than never having to deal with snow and ice ever again.

An omniscient narrator prevents a fragmented story

One of the current trends I personally don’t see the appeal of is dual/alternating narrators or POV characters. I only saw this rarely while I was growing up, and when it was used, it was for a carefully-considered reason. Now it just seems like it’s chosen to go along with a misguided trend and/or because the writers truly don’t understand how to write third-person omniscient.

I tend to write books with very large casts, from main characters, to important secondary characters, to supporting characters. I don’t have a problem with slipping into many characters’ heads over the course of a story. But there’s a big difference between following many stories that are woven together, and bopping around between 2, 4, 6, even 8 characters, one chapter at a time. That feels really disjointed, not cohesive.

I think two narrators or POVs works best for a book in non-linear format. For example, a book that’s being told as a flashback by a first-person narrator, with a few wraparound segments and an epilogue in third-person (e.g., Annie on My Mind). Or a book that involves someone in the present trying to solve a mystery from the past, and there are 50-100 pages at a time in the POV of the character from each era (e.g., Mal Peet’s Tamar, which is third-person omniscient in 1944-45 and first-person in 1995). That doesn’t involve constantly being jerked back and forth between characters.

In so many of these dual narrators/POV characters books I’ve read (or tried to read) lately, I can’t even distinguish who’s who. Other reviewers have also mentioned often having to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to remind themselves of who’s narrating. First-person is tricky enough to do well, despite the modern belief that it’s somehow easier, but for multiple narrators, you really have to nail the voice for each of them. Each needs a distinct voice. You can’t just substitute I, me, and my for third-person pronouns.

When everyone and everything is woven together through third-person omniscient, you don’t have to break up the narrative flow by only being with one character or storyline at a time. You can slip back and forth within a chapter or scene, and can even get into the heads of different people. This feels deeply personal for me, not impersonal and old-fashioned. It feels more impersonal to only focus on one character at a time.

If you have more than one important character, it feels obvious you should use third-person omniscient. Writers a few decades ago wouldn’t have bopped back and forth between double-protagonists, one chapter at a time. They’d spend some time with one, then another, within the same scene or chapter. I won’t name names, but I’m aware of at least one book in this current trend that has some ridiculously short chapters. Since when is one sodding line considered a proper, complete chapter?! God forbid you have told the story in third-person.

As I’ve mentioned, I thought it was just ridiculous how Andy Mulligan’s Trash bopped around between EIGHT first-person narrators, with a few of the final chapters bopping around between 3-4 narrators. A couple of these people only narrated one chapter each. I already forgot who Grace was the very day I read the book! This was so clearly a book that should’ve been third-person omniscient, with so many important characters.

But no, it could only be split up EIGHT ways, among narrators who essentially all sounded exactly the same. What was so wrong with choosing just ONE narrator and sticking with him, or doing third-person omniscient to include all these diverse characters? The story felt so fragmented. I felt the same sense of disconnect with books like Bright Young Things and Vixen. We’re missing so much of the story by only being in one character’s head at a time.

Just imagine how silly a sweeping saga like War and Peace or Exodus would feel if each chapter kicked off with a line like “Hey, it’s Pierre’s turn!” “Now it’s Kitty!” “Time to talk with Prince Andrey!” “I’m handing it over to Jordana now.” “Ari again!” “Still Karen!” “This is Princess Mariya.” “I’ll hand it over to Natasha now.” It’s annoying and seems immature, like the writer truly didn’t know how to write a cohesive story with multiple viewpoints without constantly breaking up the flow.

Why I prefer third-person

In spite of my current overall weariness with the first-person trend, I really don’t dislike it at all. I’ve read quite a few books that were absolutely perfect and natural with first-person, and can’t imagine how they would’ve been in third-person. These include Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (one of the most haunting, unforgettable books I’ve ever read), several of Hermann Hesse’s novels, anything by Mark Twain, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Adventures of Motl, the Cantor’s Son, and of course the classic Catcher in the Rye.

But since first-person has become so common in the last 5-10 years, it really seems to have lost a lot of the zing it used to have. When every other book feels like it’s first-person these days, it makes it harder for a distinctive first-person narrator to stand out. It’s really hard to capture that POV well, and there needs to be a compelling reason why this person is telling the story in the first place.

Some of my reasons for preferring to read and write third-person:

1. It obviously differs by genre, but in the genres I most prefer to read, there are many characters and storylines. You can’t cover all that ground when the story is being filtered through only one person’s POV. Breaking a complex story up into alternating narrators just feels disjointed to me, like watering the story down.

2. It feels easier to create a distinctive voice and personality for each character, even minor ones. You’re not limited to deep character development for only one person.

3. There needs to be some important reason why a story can only be told by a first-person narrator. When in doubt, use third-person. To me, it’s not about needing to feel super-duper close to a narrator and right in his or her head. It’s about the overall feel of the story. A more personal story like Demian or The Painted Bird works in first-person because it’s so focused on the journey of just one person.

4. There are some situations I’d hope that everyone, at least 21st century Westerners, would find morally repugnant, like a 13-year-old having a sexual relationship with a guy in his twenties, a 15-year-old dating a 30-year-old, or incest. But sometimes these situations arise out of very complex circumstances. It’s harder to convey that this kind of relationship is wrong and can’t end well if it’s in first-person. Third-person also gives us more backstory into it than “SQUEEE! I must be soo mature if a college guy wants to sleep with me! We’re soulmates after only two dates!”

5. The misuse of first-person leads to the unreliable narrator, someone who might be lying about everything, someone without enough maturity or distance yet to put any kind of self-reflection on things.

6. If I hate the character or find him/her boring, I don’t want to spend 300+ pages in his or her head. It’s easier to take a flawed character if there’s that distance of third-person. We have a better sense of their motivations and backstory, and don’t just have to take their word for everything.

7. If the stakes are high, I basically know a first-person narrator will survive. In third-person, the suspense is there all the time. Will this soldier survive the war? Will this family escape Vietnam? How many of these characters are going to survive the Shoah?

8. I like to see things beyond just one person. We’re stuck with one person’s experiences and voice for a whole book in first-person.

9. Third-person feels more like reading a story about someone, instead of someone telling me a story.

10. There’s a strong tendency for less-experienced writers to put too much of themselves into a first-person voice. Sometimes it feels more like the writer’s voice and opinions, not those of a fictional character.

11. If a book is set over a long period of time, it’s easier to change someone’s voice in third-person. I don’t want to read essentially the same voice from the 12-year-old in the beginning, the 16-year-old in the middle, and the 25-year-old at the end. A first-person voice needs to mature along with the character.

12. You can use more mature language and thoughts in third-person. Just because a typical 13-year-old might not know a word like gregarious, xenophilic, or pilfer doesn’t mean the narrator can’t use it when describing his or her thoughts or backstory. And if I have to see one more young narrator reflecting with a maturity way beyond his or her years…

13. I just like the objective distance that comes with third-person, and the ability to follow multiple characters and storylines.