Friday, November 05, 2004

The point of view, part 2

Today we continue with the extracts from the chapter on the use of viewpoint in fiction which will, eventually, appear in my forthcoming book on the technique of the short story. Today's extract deals with the god-like vision.

The omniscient viewpoint

A writer who adopts the omniscient viewpoint writes as if she is one of the gods. In other words, she looks down from above, as it were, and sees everything with perfect clarity.

An omniscient author knows everything about everybody in the story. She knows what each and every character is thinking and feeling, at any given point in time, and she is free to tell her readers about those thoughts and feelings to whatever extent she wishes.

The omniscient viewpoint is sometimes called the novelist's angle, and certainly it was much used by novelists in the nineteenth-century. Such novelists, as often as not, commanded great armies of characters, and they told their readers, in enormous detail, about the characters' upbringing, tastes, likes and dislikes, moral character, and family history. The novelists told their readers these things, please note, and did not just reveal them to readers through the characters' actions. They also told readers about the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters.

The writer who adopts the omniscient viewpoint stands well outside the story, looking on. She is not a participant in the tale; she stands aloof.

Inevitably, and inescapably, the omniscient writer must write in the third person. She must say 'He climbed the stairs', and not 'I climbed the stairs', because if you write in the first person you are, of necessity, using one of the other two available viewpoints. (Which we will deal with in later posts.)

While it is possible, in theory, for the omniscient writer to enter the minds of all her characters, it is common for novelists to limit this practice to the half-dozen or so major characters. In a short story, it may be wiser to describe the thoughts and feelings of only one or two major characters. Other, minor, characters may best be dealt with by describing their actions only, ignoring their internal reactions.

And by the way, if you are going to enter the heads of your leading characters, and convey their thoughts to the reader, you should preferably be consistent about it. In a murder story, for instance, it is no good telling us what everyone is thinking except the murderer. Not only is that aesthetically unbalanced, and a form of cheating, but it also tends to send a signal to the alert reader. It is the equivalent of putting a neon sign above the guilty party's head, saying This Is The One Who Did It!

The omniscient viewpoint has a long and honourable history. And for that reason it is, perhaps, just the tiniest bit old-fashioned. Don't let me put you off -- you can certainly breathe new life into the old girl. But, in adopting a technique which was widely used 150 years ago, you can easily slip into the habit of writing in the style which the old-timers used. And that may not go down too well with modern editors and readers.

Author comment

Before moving on to describe the second of the three possible viewpoints, I want to say something about the extent to which an author may, or should, comment on the action.

As I mentioned above, there are numerous variations which can be worked upon the three basic viewpoints; and one of those variations is the extent to which the author chooses to comment, or nudge the reader's elbow, so to speak.

The omniscient viewpoint provides ample opportunity for the writer to say what she thinks about any of the characters, or about the unfolding events; and, if you are using this viewpoint, you really ought to decide, as consciously as possible, whether you are going to use this opportunity to comment, or not.

Not commenting means that you just tell the story. You simply relate what happens to the characters. You may, perhaps, take advantage of your godlike position and tell the reader what the major characters are thinking and feeling. And that would probably be a good idea; it helps to get the reader involved in the story.

However, the writer who chooses to comment can go considerably further than that. The writer may, if she wishes, give hints and tips about the unfolding action: she may choose to remind us readers of things we might have forgotten, and forewarn us of events yet to come. She may well tell us, for instance, that Mr Brown is a nasty piece of work, and that Mrs Green will one day be declared a saint. She may point out that Miss Jones is making a big mistake by agreeing to have dinner with that man from the sales department, and she may assure us that Mr Brown will one day be married and have four kids.

In the nineteenth century, particularly, writers took full advantage of their godlike status to bombard us with their own beliefs and moral judgements. Which is all very well. You can do that if you choose. But just remember that the modern reader is likely, on the whole, to be more interested in the unfolding events of the story than in hearing what you, the author, think about couples living together without being married, or the state of the modern Labour party. A writer can make herself the star of the show if she wishes, and inflict her opinions on the long-suffering reader. But be warned -- even the star can be booed offstage.

My advice, for what it is worth, is that you should confine yourself to telling the story, entering the minds of the leading characters from time to time, and telling us what they are thinking and feeling. Apart from that, keep your mouth firmly shut. No one wants to know.

Even if you refrain from telling us directly that Miss Jones is making a big mistake, you may still colour the reader's thinking by the way in which you present raw information. And here again, this may be done either consciously or unconsciously. I recommend the conscious and thoughtful approach.

For example, you could write: He was a seedy, unpleasant-looking man. By writing such a sentence, you are conveying to the reader, deliberately or otherwise, what you think of this character. If you refer to him as seedy and unpleasant he doesn't sound like much of a catch for a well brought up young lady, now does he?

On the other hand, you could write, of the same individual: His shoes were down-at-heel and his raincoat was streaked with dirt. Which is more objective, and doesn't ram home a moral judgement. It also leaves open the possibility that this character might turn out to be a perfect gentleman -- one who, for entirely understandable reasons, is temporarily down on his luck. And the reader might well be more interested in continuing to read your story if she is left to wonder about that possibility, than she would be if you put up another neon sign above the character's head, saying This One Is Up To No Good.

Some literary thinkers have referred to these two different ways of presenting the facts as writing subjectively and writing objectively. Nudging the reader's elbow, by describing a character as seedy, may be thought of as writing subjectively. Writing objectively, by contrast, simply means telling the reader that the man's clothes are shabby.

All too often a writer will fall into a subjective style of writing without being conscious of it. And that may be a perfectly satisfactory way of proceeding. But just try to be aware of what you are doing, and ask yourself whether that is really the best way to achieve the effect you are seeking. At the revision stage, try to recognise when you are falling into the commenting mode, and, if that is not what you really want to do, strike out the offending passage.


Janeve said...

Your discussion of the omniscient viewpoint was interesting. Thanks for making it available. I too have read lots of texts about writing technique; but it's always illuminating to read different exponents' opinions about the pros and cons. I've got what I think is a great story to tell, but I've been stumped by the problem of whose point of view to tell it from. (Sorry about clumsy sentence!) I agree that it's limiting and rather old-fashioned to take what seems like the easy option of omniscience - even though some of those time-honoured classics one originally fell in love with were written in that way. It's the 'once upon a time' method, is it not? The image is of settling down comfortably as a child and being told a story - perhaps by a trusted parental figure.

I'm starting to think I'll tell the story through a participating observer.

I'm looking forward to reading your next instalment.

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