Trains (Of Thought)

There’s a common misconception around the idea of third person omniscient storytelling.  Third person omniscient, according to me a few months ago, is “pretty straightforward– you’re inside everyone’s head at once”.  Someone hit the button to drop the guillotine, please– that definition is wrong.

Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story.
–From an article on About.com

I think this definition is false as well.  The worst third person omniscient I’ve read, most notably in the works of yours truly, focuses on bringing out the thoughts of everyone in the room.  Every characters’ thoughts are available for the reader to pick apart, and when it comes time to change trains of thought, there’s a bit of a hassle getting your tickets sorted out.  If you’re not careful, the reader will be thrown out of the story entirely by frequent bumps in the storytelling.

I realized that I was doing this somewhere around the second sentence of my prologue in my last novel.  I kept realizing this for the rest of the novel because I didn’t want to change anything lest I lose the momentum of the story.  After the thing was done, however, I went back to some of the masters to see how they do it.

In short, I went back to Brian Jacques.  I read one book of the Redwall series just for the storytelling.  There I discovered that my definition of third person omniscient had developed a fault; namely, it said you could skip from one person’s train of thought to another, when we all know train hopping is illegal in real life or in storytelling.  In third person omniscient, you cannot change thoughts.

Now, this sounds like I’m changing the definition of third person omniscient to third person limited omniscient, which is where you stay in one person’s head for the duration of the story or scene.  That isn’t what I’m saying.  Instead of showing everyone’s thoughts at once, you shouldn’t show any at all.

Think about it.  A movie is written in third person omniscient.  The viewer sees it in third person omniscient and still understands it– there aren’t frequent voice-overs for the characters’ thoughts unless you’re watching a BBC Jane Austen remake.  Movies are exclusively third person omniscient.  They don’t show thoughts, they don’t show feelings except through facial expressions– everything the viewer needs to know can be seen on the characters’ faces or heard through their conversation.  Scriptwriters are masters at third person omniscient and making their viewers assume things that are only slightly implied.

Brian Jacques does the same thing.  He wrote books in third person omniscient where no thoughts were available to the reader.  Occasionally the narrative would turn to the feelings of a certain person, but there was never a “(s)he thought” at any point in the narrative.

In other words, in third person omniscient you should never show what a character is thinking– you should tell it.  “He felt sad” or “She was happy” or “He was vaguely disappointed”.  Overuse “he was” and “she felt”.  This is the opposite of the description proverb of “show, don’t tell”– “tell, don’t show” is correct in this case.  Don’t show the character’s thoughts in italics; tell what he or she is thinking in regular script and in the storytelling voice.  Showing what a character is thinking is for third person limited omniscient or stories including mind-reading– never third person omniscient.  In first person storytelling, the main character seems to be speaking directly to the reader, so there won’t be any “I thought”s anyway; the character just confides to the reader as if he’s an evil overlord with his archenemy tied to a chair, delivering a monologue about the greatness of his plan to get his kid a puppy for his birthday.  People think of third person omniscient as third person limited omniscient 2.0; not only can you listen to the thoughts of your main character, you can listen to those of everyone else as well– for only half the price!

Omniscient means “all-seeing”, not “all-hearing” or “all-thinking”.  You ought to be able to see any of the characters you wish to see, but never their thoughts.  You can go off and find someone else viewing the apocalypse from a higher position than any of your characters, but don’t enter their thoughts.  You can briefly follow the maid as she walks upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chambers, but you can’t say what she’s thinking as she takes the man by his left leg and throws him down the stairs.  You can say the man was indignant as he bumps his way down several flights of steps, but you can’t show what he’s thinking or you’re straying into very loose third person limited omniscient.

I think this is the main reason a lot of books with third person omniscient storytelling do not work.  Thoughts are too prominent in third person omniscient.  If you want all those italic statements, read and write in third person limited omniscient.  I think, with a little bit of restraint, you’ll find stories flow much more easily.

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13 Comments

  1. Charley R

     /  September 12, 2012

    Hmm, how fascinating! I’ve never gone near omniscient because I viewed it as the definition you saw above . . . not that I stand a chance of succeedin with your way of doing it either. My characters think too vocally, it seems. Or I do. Or both. It’s complicated 😛

    Reply
  2. Td

     /  April 27, 2013

    Actually, I’m sorry, but I think the misconceptions yours.

    First of all I’ve never heard of third person limited omniscient. It’s either, third person limited subjective or objective, and then third person omniscient.

    Second omniscient does not mean all seeing. It means all knowing. I have no idea what all-thinking is…

    Sometimes omniscient will focus on only one character, or one character per chapter. What makes it different from just serial third person is that there’s a distinct narrator and often there is a lot of “Little did he know.”

    There is also the version that is only like a movie camera like you say but regular omniscient is all knowing and therefore knows the characters thoughts.

    That doesn’t mean you have to hop into everyone’s head, but that you can occasionally hop out as long as the transition is necessary and not jarring. Scene breaks help, but for smaller hops, a new paragraph works, or slowly changing the focus to the new character will work. The break has to be clear. It can’t look like character A you were focusing on knows what character B who you are switching to is thinking: “Bob looked across the bridge. Jane stood there thinking about him.” That’s one reason it’s hard to right. It should be more like: “Bob looked across the bridge. Jane stood there. /Paragraph break/ Jane was thinking about him, but he never would have guessed it.”

    It’s also hard to write precisely because people think you MUST show everyone’s thoughts, but that’s not necessary.

    I think the best way to put it is, pretend you are god (which you technically are of your characters) and you want to tell someone a story. First, you’d focus on the story (not the whole world and everything that’s happening), than you’d focus on a character for a while, changing occasionally as necessary. You’re not documenting/logging every thought and movement. You’re telling a story and so choosing to omit things or there would be no suspense because you could just tell the ending.

    As for thoughts, some will say not to use italics, but sometimes like with direct thoughts and reactions they do come in handy. The he/she thought tag gets annoying. If you were telling a story out loud you’d have to add the tag but because its paper you have the advantage of more tools to express it. Just as filming it, there are better ways to include thoughts than having the narrator state them.

    Reply
    • To be honest, even I think I was much mistaken in that post. I wrote it a while ago, and can barely remember it. Thanks so much for your corrections!

      Reply
      • Td

         /  April 27, 2013

        I might have gone a bit overboard, but I was searching for something about third person omniscient and people’s thoughts were all over the place on it. Corrected quite a few blogs. Can’t stand the wrong information being out there… I’m a bit obsessive.

      • It’s best to research for yourself, from books– especially on this topic.

  3. *begins to hum random songs from that album*

    I’ve never been able to even wrap my mind around the idea of writing in third person omniscient. I only ever write in limited third person…

    Reply

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