Third Person Omniscient: The All-Seeing Eye (With Examples)
Third person omniscient is the point of view where the narrator takes a "God's Eye View," freely relating the thoughts of any character and any part of the backstory. The word literally means “all-knowing,” so third-person omniscient narrators are not usually active characters in the story but have an external narrative voice. For example:
Arjun didn’t know what lay behind the screen door: a 70lb Dobermann, asleep and dreaming of chasing a train.
Third person omniscient is probably the oldest narrative form of recorded storytelling. Tales of Odin, Heracles, and Amun-Ra would have been told by bards around the fire, with what we’d consider an omniscient narrator. There are no limits to what the narrator may tell the reader — though, compared to more intimate perspectives, you may need to work harder to ensure that your book remains enjoyable to modern readers.
The power of third person omniscient
Omniscience can be a thrilling experience for readers, and third person narratives furnish this knowledge with a distance that comes with some cool perks. Let’s look at what makes this point of view so powerful.
It can conduct multiple character studies
The power of omniscience is such that the narrator can slip into the minds of several characters, simultaneously or in turn. This gives the author plenty of room to experiment with the pacing of the story and presents a unique opportunity to delve into the psychology of multiple characters.
In this passage from Annie Proulx’s "Brokeback Mountain," we are privy to two separate, private moments of longing.
The fact that, unbeknownst to each other, both Ennis and Jack look for each other during the day, demonstrates how they are present in each other’s thoughts. With this brilliant example of show, don’t tell, we can see the strength of their connection in its quietest, most private expressions. This particular moment is not possible with any other type of viewpoint.
Create an unfettered narrator voice
Writing with an omniscient narrator allows the author to create a persona of sorts, who sits outside the story's world. These narrators aren’t technically characters, but their narration will be distinctive from the voices of characters inside the story.
Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams both wrote using omniscient narrators. The tone they adopted in the Discworld and Hitchhiker’s Guide novels could be likened to that of a historian, relating details of their worlds using narrative asides. Pratchett’s narrator even uses footnotes like you would see in a non-fiction book, often to sneak in extra jokes.
In this passage from a Discworld novel, Pratchett goes on a tangent about the Bursar of the wizarding university:
These details are completely incidental and would almost certainly never make it into the final draft of a book written from limited or first person POVs. Pratchett’s omniscient narrator is not unreliable and can comment heavily on the events and characters of his books.
Play with dramatic irony
Because the omniscient narrator can know something that the viewpoint characters do not, it allows the author to use dramatic irony in their story. That is where the reader knows something that the main characters do not.
For example, in the early books of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the (fictional) author Lemony Snicket acts as an omniscient narrator. He chronicles the misfortunes of the orphaned Baudelaire children as they attempt to uncover their family secrets. At many points in each book, this narrator reminds the reader that even worse things are to come for our heroes.
Even though Snicket often slips into the first person and directly addresses the reader, he is very much an omniscient narrator. He knows what has happened before the story and what is to come — and is gleefully playing with the reader’s desire to unravel the mystery.
Give your story the “cinematic treatment”
Of course, what we’re talking about here will predate the language of cinema, but for the sake of simplicity, imagine an omniscient narrator working like a film director. They may start a scene with a wide establishing shot that shows the environment before tracking in and focusing on specific characters. This is from the opening chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series':
Tolkien starts this passage with his ‘wide shot,’ establishing the hubbub rippling through the Shire. He then zooms into a pub, and in particular, to an old Hobbit about to recount his personal tales of Bilbo. This ability to move swiftly between the small and big picture is harder to pull off with a limited POV. It’s also easier to quickly switch between various story strands — bearing in mind that doing this too often will make it harder for readers to latch onto any one of the plots or characters.
The option of cold, objective detachment
Many new writers are led to believe that third person omniscient is an inherently ‘objective’ point of view. It’s not — just see Lemony Snicket above!. The way a narrator frames the story and describes characters and their actions will almost always suggest some level of subjectivity. But that’s not to say that an author can’t use ‘objectivity’ as a device in their writing.
In this opening passage from Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, her narrator takes a detached, fly-on-the-wall approach:
There’s a matter-of-fact tone that weaves its way through Jackson’s narration. This section almost entirely focuses on the logistics of running this mysterious lottery — which itself is introduced in an almost incidental way. We have taken the narrator's viewpoint, observing these events from a distance. In the final passages of the story, when we (spoiler alert) discover that the ‘winners’ of these lotteries get stoned to death, the brutality of this ritual is made even more harrowing by the narrator’s emotional detachment.
Common mistakes when writing in third person omniscient
Third person omniscient is a viewpoint where the narrator can say just about anything. However, there are certain pitfalls that authors should avoid if they want to ensure an enjoyable reading experience.
Too many flashbacks, asides, and lectures
Critics of Tolkien often point to his tendency to break away from the action of his main story to deliver lectures on the history of Middle Earth. Doing this allows him to expand the scope of the world he’s built, but the danger of doing this is that it can break up the book's momentum, slow down the action, and turn your readers off.
Tipping your hand too early (by hinting at twists)
While an omniscient narrator may wish to foreshadow crucial plot points to deepen the payoff, they should be careful not to over-egg it. After all, modern readers are particularly tuned-in to story conventions: if you show a character loading a gun in your opening chapters, many readers will understand that someone’s going to get shot.
Without the ‘filter’ of a viewpoint character, the reader might assume that anything an omniscient narrator draws attention to (like a loaded gun) will be important to the story.
With a limited third person or first person narrative, the viewpoint character can observe a gun being loaded through their personal filter. Maybe they’re ex-military, and they’re admiring the weapon from a professional perspective. Perhaps it reminds them of hunting with their dad. In these cases, a plot clue can be more easily disguised as a character detail.
Speaking of unexpected developments: if you need some inspiration, check out our list of 70+ plot twist ideas.
Telling, not showing
Again, another downside to third person omniscient’s seeming lack of rules is that it can often encourage writers to revert to bad habits. In this case, we’re talking about creative writing’s golden rule: show, don’t tell.
Sure, your narrator could just tell the reader something about a character:
Prathima suffered from a fear of heights.
But it's always more satisfying for a reader to be shown this part of her personality. It doesn’t take much to write in a quick piece of action that shows Prathima deliberately hugging the wall when descending an emergency staircase or looking up at the Empire State Building and feeling a knot in her stomach.
So, always remember the basics of good writing — even when you aren’t held to account by any formal writing rules.
Murder at Reedsy Manor: An Omniscient Mystery
In our previous post on the third person limited point of view, we shared a comic strip showing that particular viewpoint in action. To round out this post on omniscient narrators, let us return to that fateful evening at Reedsy Manor.
Now that we've wrapped up our pitstop of third-person viewpoints, let's finish off our POV grand tour by looking at what happens when you have multiple viewpoint characters.