Omniscient point of view isn’t generally favored in contemporary fiction, and it’s difficult to write well. But that doesn’t stop writers from trying to write it. I can certainly understand the appeal—when you’re writing from an omniscient point of view, it makes things less complicated. You don’t have to worry about how to impart information to your readers that your protagonist couldn’t possibly know because a true omniscient narrator can be in all places and know all things.
The problem is, many writers who think they’re writing in an omniscient point of view, aren’t. They’re writing in a third person limited point of view, and usually not quite close enough for my taste. But when the character whose point of view they’re writing from can’t know a thing, for example, what another character is thinking or feeling, they simply hop into the other character’s head for a line or two and call it omniscient. This isn’t omniscient point of view; it’s called head hopping, and it’s one of writing’s cardinal sins.
Merriam Webster defines “omniscient” as “having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight” or “possessed of universal or complete knowledge.” To effectively write using an omniscient narrator, though, it isn’t enough to decide, “I’m going to use a narrator that knows everything, can be everywhere, can see everything that happens, and can access every character’s thoughts and feelings.” That decision solves a lot of little logistical problems, doesn’t it? But it creates another massive problem, a fatal one: it makes your story less engaging.
To become immersed in a story, contemporary readers like to experience the world through another character or characters. The easiest (and I think best) way to accomplish this is with a first-person or close third-person limited point of view. Omniscient can be engaging, but in my opinion, it’s only engaging if the writer creates an omniscient narrator who feels like a character in and of themself, with a strong and unique voice. That, writers, takes a lot of work. Take it from me—it’s a lot more work than writing in third person and avoiding head hopping.
The difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping can be quite subtle and confusing for even the most experienced writer. If you’re writing from a third person limited point of view, stay in that single character’s head, even when it’s tempting to hop into a different character’s head. You may be writing a novel with multiple points of view, and that’s fine, although I don’t generally recommend it to beginning writers. But whatever character’s point of view you start a chapter or scene in, stay in that character’s head and only that character’s head, at least until the next chapter or scene, when you can switch into another character’s point of view.
And if you want to write from a true omniscient point of view, do your homework, study the masters, pull up your sleeves, and get ready to work. It’s difficult to write an omniscient point of view that isn’t more of a distant third person point of view with some head hopping thrown in. But when a writer pulls it off, it’s amazing.
Here are a few helpful resources on omniscient point of view and head hopping. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything these writers say, I respect them, and I think they are all good sources of learning. You’ll notice several of the articles are from K.M. Weiland’s website, Helping Writers Become Authors. She’s an excellent source of information when you want to learn more about an aspect of the craft of writing.
Limited vs. Omniscient: How to Choose Your Point of View (John Matthew Fox)
Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 62: Head-Hopping POV (K.M. Weiland)
9 Examples and Excerpts of Third Person Omniscient Point of View in Fiction (A Place of Intent blog)