In Praise of Omniscient Narration

Once upon a time, a Narrator, either named or unnamed, told stories from on high. This narrator, like a deity, could see all, and was therefore in a position to tell all. At some point, literary boffins decided to call this style of storytelling omniscient narration, and it began to fall out of favour.

Nowadays, authors of literary fiction, women’s commercial fiction and thrillers in particular favour a more intimate style of narration. They tell stories in the first person, or from the viewpoint of two or three characters, (which literary boffins call third-person limited) to help readers feel they’re right inside the minds of these characters.

I think it’s a pity that omniscient narration is somehow seen as inferior. Yes, it can be more impersonal, but when it’s done right, it leads to big, sumptuous stories that can dazzle you with their scope. Capital by John Lanchester is a fine example of omniscient narration. It’s a multi-layered narrative that tells the story of modern London through the eyes of the inhabitants of a single street.

Capital John Lanchester

Here are three reasons why omniscient narration works so well.

God-like Status

As I said earlier, omniscient narrators are like gods. This means that they can see around corners. When you write in a more intimate style, you’re limited as to what you can reveal about your characters, because your narrator mightn’t be familiar with important details about the other characters’ lives. But with omniscient narration, you have the flexibility to reveal whatever they need to reveal about their characters to make the story flow.

Create a World

When you choose omniscient narration, you can create a panoramic view of an entire world. You’ve got a wide canvas to work with, and you can fill it with rich background detail about the world the character lives in. This kind of storytelling allows readers to completely immerse themselves in a new world, and it’s still possible to create intimacy by giving character portraits of the people who live in that world, as John Lanchester does in Capital.

Concentrate on Story

If you’re naturally a more plot-driven writer than a character driven one, omniscient narration gives you the chance to put your story centre stage. The story becomes th cornerstone of the book and you can use your large cast of characters to help you carry that story forward.

Do you favour omniscient narration, as a reader or a writer? Or do you prefer more intimate forms of narration?

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Omniscient Narration

  1. I write nowadays exclusively omniscient narration, as I detest any intimacy between reader and characters.

    I also despise character-driven fiction, as it requires a certain degree of intimacy between reader and protagonist. Neither do I write much plot-driven, but more idea-driven, with lots of exposition, fourth-wall breaking, and lampshading. I now constantly address the reader in virtual arguments about what is going on and why.

    As a reader, I equally detest any intimacy, and so I avoid third limited completely.


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