Limitations of Writing in the Omniscient POV

Are there limitations in writing in the Third Person Omniscient point of view? After all the author is “God” and has full reign over the story! Could there possibly be any reason not to use this point of view? Of course, every point-of-view choice comes with its advantages and disadvantages, omniscient does as well. I published a post earlier about the advantages of using the third person omniscient POV, so lets look at look now at some of its limitations:

Issues One Might Run Into Using Third Person Omniscient POV:

1) Transitions: When the author has free reign over their whole world they have a lot of information at their disposal. It can become tricky to decide when to show action and when to transition into the mind of a character (and which character’s mind for that matter). In What’s Your Story by Marion Dane Bauer, she states that “often, writers learning to use third person have trouble moving inside the main character to reveal thoughts and feelings. More stories fail because the writer’s don’t get inside their main character than for any other reason.”

2) Moral Heavy-Handedness: When a writer opts to use a God-like perspective in a novel, they may start to offer God-like judgement for their characters. Beware! Too much “narrative” judgement can turn off a reader and cause them to feel like they’re being preached to.

3) Who’s Story is This? With the ability to pop in and out of multiple character’s thoughts and feelings it may be hard for the reader to know who the protagonist of the story is. Perhaps that’s the point, maybe one is writing an ensemble piece. But be aware that it may take extra care to let the reader know who’s side (if any) they should be on.

4) Distance: The omniscient POV can often be the most distant from the reader. First person offers intimacy, where third omniscient creates a distance. A skillful writer can still get inside a character’s head and offer emotions and feelings, but some writers find this difficult (this relates back to the first limitation of transitions). Distance can also be created through the omniscient voice as well as the narrator voice that tells the story.

What limitations have you found while using the Omniscient POV? What about as a reader? Do you prefer this POV or do you like one that’s closer? Why?

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7 thoughts on “Limitations of Writing in the Omniscient POV

  1. I started in omniscent, then switched to 3rd person limited, though I don’t like that term if you’re switching between POVs. I think it’s better to decribe it as 3rd person personal. I didn’t want to give up the multiple POV’s so I cut them down to three characters and stuck with one main one.

    Reason why – I didn’t want the limitations you mentioned above and some people hate the ‘head hopping’ in omniscent, as a new writer, I didn’t want to risk presenting a potential publisher with their pet hate.

    The tricky bit in 3rd person limited was making the POV changes flow. I made one main POV and one occasional with anything from around 4 paragraphs to 4 pages and another who is in a different time and place. I separated them with a blank space. It works now and is much more personal.

  2. “What limitations have you found while using the Omniscient POV?”

    I think the most distressing is this limitation:

    “Thank you for your interest in (redacted) Publishing. Our acquisitions committee has thoroughly reviewed your story. At this time we cannot offer you a contract because (redacted) Publishing does not accept submissions in the Omniscient Voice (ie. head hopping). If you would like to revise your work, we would be more than happy to revisit this work.”

    I chose the Omniscient POV for the very reason that my epic fantasy really need the narrator to step back–to allow the reader sweeping inclusion into the story. There are so many characters and so much to tell in do few pages, any other point of view would become too tedious. Also, the story was purposely built with a movie in mind. Movies allow viewers omniscience not available in non-visual mediums.

  3. Let me try that again without the misspellings:

    I chose the Omniscient POV for the very reason that my epic fantasy really needed the narrator to step back––to allow the reader a sweeping inclusion into the story.

    There are so many characters and so much to tell and do in so few pages, any other point of view would have become too tedious.

    Also, the story was purposely built with a movie in mind. Movies allow viewers omniscience not available in non-visual mediums.

  4. WordTickler –

    That’s hard to hear from an Editor/Publisher. My suggestion is to continue to study the Omniscient POV and if you really feel your book is best served by this POV become an expert in writing in that POV. Study other authors. We can’t change the opinions of the industry, but we can always focus and improve our own work, and make it so good they cannot deny us! :) Keep writing!

  5. One has to be careful of transitions and distance, but I find third person omniscient has its place. In particular, I like to use it to set the scene, then sweep down into the characters heads and stay there. Done well, this efficiently lets the reader in on context already known to characters living in the story, or richly paints the stage on which their actions are to take place.

    The transition is the key. A smooth sweeping “zoom” conveys information to the reader about the flow of the narrative. In most other cases, POV should not change within a scene. Writers are often, and correctly, admonished to “show” rather than “tell”, but an omniscient viewpoint can sometimes move the story along much more quickly. Ultimately, it isn’t WHICH narrative POV is used, but WHY, that counts.

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