Friday, February 27, 2015

Power Can Go To Your Head: The Perils of Omniscient POV

Note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

Library of Congress
Some of my favorite books are written in omniscient viewpoint—and yet omni POV is my least favorite form of narration. It makes even the most modern of books sound antique—and don't even get me started on the almost ubiquitous head hopping to be found in novels with omniscient narration.  I am convinced that such head hopping is the leading cause of vertigo among avid readers. Seriously. The National Institutes of Health should do a study.

OK, let me remove my tongue from my cheek for a moment. If you have read the earlier installments of this web series on viewpoint, you will already know that I am just a teensy bit prejudiced in favor of single viewpoint.  I'm not all that fond of shifting or multiple POV; and I have just made it obnoxiously clear that omni POV, as I will call it for short, is also a member of my Hall of Shame.

That being said, I adore books like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket—both of which make use of omniscient narration. And I'm not just pinching my nose, holding my breath, and vowing to "get through it" when I read these books either. I actually enjoy what these two gifted storytellers are able to accomplish with their skillful use of omniscient viewpoint.

So what separates good from bad when it comes to omni POV? And why do I think that it is a very dangerous form of narration, especially for new writers?

Before I talk about that, let me back up and make sure it is clear  exactly what omniscient viewpoint is. It comes in several different flavors, the distinctions between which can get fairly subtle.  In the book The Power of POV which I have recommended multiple times in this web series, Alicia Rasley divides omniscient narration into three basic kinds: objective, classical omniscient, and contemporary omniscient.

For the purposes of this piece, however, I don't think it's useful to delve too deeply into the distinctions between them. If you're interested, read Rasley's book [which I think you should do anyway].

I think the most helpful way to look at omniscient narration is simply to think of it as another kind of third person. We are already familiar with limited third person, where a book is written using he/she but the perspective remains inside the mind of one or more of the characters.

Well, in omniscient narration you are for the most part outside the viewpoint of any of the characters. Thus you can think of omni POV as a distant or impersonal form of third person rather than a personal one; or an exterior form of third person rather than an interior one.

Photo by Steve Wilson
Whatever it is called, when you write in omniscient narration you are not limited by anything any of the characters know—hence the name omniscient, which means all-knowing. Omni POV is a good way to let readers in on information that you don't want your hero to know just yet. For example, if your main character is trying to sneak up on the lair of the villain, you can increase the tension and suspense for readers by letting them know about the evil minions lurking in the shadows, while at the same time keeping the hapless hero in the dark about the danger that awaits him. " Three men with guns stood as still as statues on the other side of the door whose lock Archie had just successfully picked."

Omniscient narration is also handy in certain genres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and sweeping historical sagas. Here a writer can use omni POV to do two things. First, the all-knowing author can use her omniscience to fill readers in on necessary history or backstory that again, no one character might know.

Second, if it's important to the book for the author to keep track of how multiple characters are affected by something like a war , natural catastrophe, man-made apocalypse, or epic quest, omniscient narration is a smoother, more seamless way to do that than a frequently-shifting multiple POV. [Which can end up feeling like a game of musical chairs; when the chapter stops, readers wonder, which character's chair do I have to scramble to sit in next?]

But in a touch of dramatic irony that fiction writers can appreciate, it is the very strengths of omni POV which can lead to its doom.   The all-knowing writer's ability to expound at length on absolutely any character's backstory, any event's history, any fantasy world's provenance,  or any sci-fi gadget's fascinating inner technology can all too quickly lead to the dreaded "information dump." That's what it's called when a writer allows the characters to go into hibernation and the plot to stall out while she goes on and on for pages of exposition, in what amounts to a term paper within the novel. Boring!

And if you're not careful, omniscient narration can lead you to reveal too much, too soon—which can ruin a good thriller, ghost story, or mystery.

I also think that omniscient narration can sound old-fashioned to today's readers, since many of the classics that we grew up on—or were forced to read by our English teachers at school—were written in omniscient narration. So even if a book was published in the 21st century, if it is written in omniscient POV, we feel a sort of literary déja vu when we read it—a flashback that makes the modern story feel as if it were a relic from the 19th century.

But to me the number one failing, the Fatal Flaw, of omniscient narration, is its impersonality. Readers don't know who it is that is dispensing this encyclopedia of information. Is it some god-like narrator, or is it the author? If it's the latter, is he or she wearing an invisibility cloak that we're supposed to pretend not to see, or is this some kind of purposeful meta-fictional insertion of the writer's persona into the book?

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Or is the narrator an eerily amorphous no one at all? That's the hallmark of what Rasley calls objective  or camera's-eye POV.

And not only are readers unsure of who the narrator is in omniscient viewpoint, and what their relationship to that narrator is supposed to be, they also aren't given the opportunity to get know any of the characters all that well. As a consequence,  readers may never bond with any character. That emotional distance heightens the risk of alienating readers from the book all together, to the point that they put it down for good.

Writers who use omniscient POV know this, which is perhaps why you see a lot of what is called "dipping," or momentarily slipping into the viewpoint of one of the book's characters. JK Rowling is a genius at this. The first chapter of  Goblet of Fire is a superb example of how to write omniscient narration well.

Midway through the chapter, Rowling makes the graceful narrative glissade that is called dipping. Within the space of one paragraph, she descends gradually from the stratospheric heights of omniscience. First she slips into the heads of several nameless village boys, all at once, in a kind of joint or communal POV, telling us that they teased the crippled old gardener Frank Bryce simply for the cruel fun of it.

Then, in the very next sentence, Rowling descends even further. This times she dips into Frank's head to tell us that Frank has misinterpreted the boys' motives. He believes that they torment him because they blame him for the murders of Tom Riddle and his family—though we already know that those murders bear the unmistakeable stamp of dark magic.

The fact that Rowling changes POV twice in one paragraph could mark this as head hopping—the worst of the writer's Deadly Sins. Indeed, it can be difficult to know when a writer has transgressed, crossing the line from dipping to head hopping, and I am probably a harsher judge of that than most.  Nonetheless, I think Rowling avoids being branded with head hopping here primarily because for the rest of the chapter, she stays in Frank's head. If she had jumped back out of Frank's head again, that would have been head hopping.

But it's a narrow escape, and that's my point; it's devilishly difficult to avoid head hopping when you write in omniscient narration and try to dip. Harsh judge that I am, I think that  author Trenton Lee Stewart made that mistake in his best-selling middle grade novel The Mysterious Benedict Society.

Stewart uses omniscient narration throughout the book, though he frequently dips into several of the characters' viewpoints. Most of the time, he stays in a POV long enough to avoid head hopping—but not always. Look at this passage where the adult mentor is telling the four young characters about a challenging task ahead. One of them gets a little nervous and needs a bathroom break.

...and then Mr. Benedict added, “Now, do you truly need to use the bathroom, or can you wait a few minutes longer?” [Omni POV]
Sticky truly did, but he said, “I can wait.” [Sticky's POV]
“Very well...” Mr. Benedict said [Omni POV]

To me, going into a character's head for just one sentence, and for no compelling plot purpose, is head hopping. So with apologies to Mr. Stewart, I do believe that's what he's done here.

The point is, if a  talented and experienced author can make that kind of slip-up, what hope do the rest of us have of avoiding the same trap? It is just too perilously easy to go astray with omniscient POV.

So proceed at your own risk. If you are writing the kind of book that might benefit from the peculiar powers of omniscient viewpoint, then go for it! Just keep your wits about you at all times, and stay on the lookout for the pitfalls that await the unwary writer with this form of POV.

[© 2015 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Next—Which POV technique is best for you?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Priming the pump: my home-brewed writing practice

Photo by ProjectManhattan
After lamenting the failure of my morning page experiment last week, I vowed to cook up a little something of my own to try instead. No way I was going to give up entirely on my search for  a method that would help me get back on track in terms of my writing.

What I wanted was some regular discipline that would do more than help me be creative in a general sense—which is what Julia Cameron’s morning pages are designed to do.

I also wanted something more than a technique to merely get me started—to get me past that brain-petrifying paralysis that afflicts many of us when we first sit down and try to begin a work session. Giving one a “jump start” like this is what Natalie Goldberg’s freewriting exercise is designed to do.

No, I wanted a more laser-like focus on productivity: on having something useable and at least halfway decent to show for my sweat and tears at the end of the day.

And I did come up with something—although I can’t claim that it is original or unique. Other writers and teachers before me have devised a modification of freewriting, one that gives it more structure by targeting a specific topic or goal for each session.

Once you do that, however, can you call it freewriting anymore? So I’m not naming my “method” that, if you can dignify what I’m doing with that formal a designation. I call it Priming the Pump. It’s simple, but in the first week that I’ve tried it, it’s accomplished just what I hoped it would—it has helped me produce something tangible at the end of each work day, something that moves my work forward in a measurable and substantive way. I’m quietly ecstatic about the results so far.

This method requires that you have a writing project already underway. This is not a brainstorming technique, though I suppose you could use it for that as well. There are five steps to Priming the Pump.

  1. Do a Preliminary Review of a work in progress
  2. Write down a Question of the Day
  3. Spend either a period of time [ten to fifteen minutes?] or a number of words [100 to 700?] sketching out Starting Notes about the question
  4. Seamlessly Shift into Writing actual sentences, paragraphs, and [hopefully] pages
  5. Do a Summary Review of work done. At the end of the session, write down the answer to the initial question, to see what tangible progress you’ve made
I’ve used this five-step practice this week to help claw my way out of an uncharted swamp in the middle of a middle grade novel. I had lots of plot ideas swirling around my head, but they were confusing and contradictory and unclear. After writing the first ten chapters and being stalled for ages, I needed to blow away the fog by figuring out precisely what happens in the remaining chapters of the book. Yes, this means a dreaded outline, which I don’t always use but which I have come to think I desperately need on this particular book.

Photo by Yann Richard (Ze)

The first thing I did was briefly glance over what I had already written of the book, and the notes I’d made for what was to come: Step 1, the Preliminary Review.

From that a clear Question of the Day arose, almost asking itself: Step 2. I wrote it down on a sticky note [an electronic one] and left it floating on the screen of my laptop where it would always be visible. You could do the same thing by using a paper Post-It note, an index card, or by simply jotting down the question at the top of the page on which you’re about to write.

It’s important to be as specific as you can when framing your question, because that specificity will help steer you in a fruitful direction. If you simply ask yourself, “What happens next?” your mind may seem even emptier of words and ideas than before. But if you ask, “What happens after the Hero finds the treasure map but before he meets the nefarious guide?” you will have a much better chance of finding the answer during your daily writing session.

Photo by Jaypee
I think it is also important to write down the question in twenty-words or less, and to keep it somewhere that is always visible during your writing session. Then if you start to feel lost again, you have only to glance up to find your writing “compass” right there to steer you back onto the path.

In Step 3, I don’t think it matters whether you have a time goal for your Starting Notes, or a word goal. Do whatever works best for you. I can dash off 700 words in about 15 minutes, if I’m writing on my Macbook Air or iPad, so 700 words was the goal I set for myself.

But in practice, I found I got so quickly immersed in puzzling out the answer to my question that the goal disappeared. I would look up an hour or so later and realize I had burned up those 700 words a long time ago, and was already well into Step 4: Shift into Writing.

Work as long as you can—whether that means as long as you continue to produce useful work; as long as your poor stiff joints hold out; or as long as your dog, cat, family, or boss at your day job will let you.

I do think it’s important to know when to stop. This is going to vary with every person; we all seem to have only so many hours of good writing in us each day before the juices stop flowing. Pull the plug when you realize that are doing more harm than good by continuing to write: either producing drivel, haring off on a wild detour, or bogging down in a quagmire of confusion or needless complexity.

But before you leap up from your desk and race off to celebrate with a glass of wine, don’t forget Step 5: the Summary Review. Briefly read back over what you’ve written during the session, and write down the answer to your Question of the Day. Don’t skip this step, as I’ve found it helps keep you on target—and often leads to the question you’ll work on the next day. This week while I was experimenting with it, the next day’s question often arose spontaneously while I was writing, which was an unexpected gift.

Writing down the answer to your daily question also keeps your mind working. Even while you are going about the non-literary part of your life—wiping your kids’ noses, doing the taxes, vacuuming the carpet—your writer’s brain is hard at work at a subconscious level, wrestling with a thorny problem although you’re not actively thinking about it. And that will make it all the easier for you to not only get started the next time you sit down to write, but to make actual headway on whatever it is you’re writing.

That’s the crux of this “priming” method: to have useable work to show for it at the end of the day. It may be a completed outline for a novel or non-fiction article. Or it may be a page, a scene, or even an entire chapter. Yes, these pages may “only” qualify as a first draft, but a solid one: much more than what I call “word salad,” a chaotic, loose jumble of raw ideas. 

In one week of using this system, I have not only mapped out a plot route through the second half of my novel, but I’ve also generated this blog post, and written the lead to an article on omniscient POV on which I have been stalled for months.

Photo by Editor5807
If this pump-priming method works as well for you as it has for me, then I hope you have a draft cohesive and clear enough that you can revise it without needing to either deconstruct it completely or throw it all away.

No method works for every writer, so there is no money-back guarantee for this free advice. :D But if you try it, I’d love to hear what your experience with Priming the Pump is.