Writing Advice: The All-Knowing Narration
By Emma Evans
With the opening of submissions for our latest issue – Gods & Monsters – I thought I’d take this opportunity to speak to the storytellers among you! While poets and non-fiction writers can hopefully find this useful too, I am going to be taking a look at narration. There are, of course, three main types of narration we know. These are, simply: first-, second- and third-person. These three narration types are often determined via the pronoun associated with them: I (first), you (second) and he/she (third). Specifically, I am going to look at a branch of third-person narration called third-person omniscient narration. What does that mean? Well, simply it means knowing everything, like God.
Recap of Third Person Narration
Before we discuss the specifics of omniscient third person narration, here is a recap of features of the third person narrative form!
Pronouns used: he/she.
Not part of the story/world of the story: distance is created, in a sense, between the narrator and the world of the story, as a character involved isn’t narrating the story. Removes character bias and restricted narration commonly found in first-person narration.
Multiple perspectives: unlike first-person, we aren’t attached to one character. We are able to move freely around a multitude of characters, therefore gaining multiple perspectives from each of them.
Objective: as the narrator isn’t associated with any part of the story and there is a sense of distance between them and the characters/world of the story, nothing in the narration is influenced by the characters themselves. The narration is – essentially – impartial, which means it isn’t influenced by the narrator’s feelings. In this sense, third-person narration – in general – can be thought of as a ‘messenger’ in a sense. The narrator is a link between the reader and the world of the story, essentially reporting from the world of the story what is going on to the reader.
Third Person Omniscient
As discussed above, omniscience simply means someone who knows everything.
It is specific to third-person narration; first- and second-person are often thought of as more restrictive, only being able to narrate on what the character themselves knows or what the narrator is telling you that you know/do.
It can be likened to giving a bird’s eye view of a scene – knowing everything that happens rather than just snippets of the full action. For example, think of a party scene. Third-person omniscient narration will ‘report’ what every person at that party is doing. Who is drinking what, who is spending too long at the buffet tables, who is talking to who and who is stood alone. What conversations are being had and, possibly, if it is useful to the rest of the story, who isn’t at said party.
Similarly to the idea of giving a bird’s eye view, third-person omniscient narration can capture a ‘fuller’ picture – likened to giving ‘both sides’ of the story because everything that is happening is known. The narration isn’t blinkered or restricted to what one singular character can see or is doing. If we take the early example of a party: if the narration were restricted to one singular character, the narration would only deal with what conversation they were involved in and who was drinking what within the circle having that conversation. Perhaps, they wouldn’t realise who was hanging around the buffet the longest or who was late or not in attendance to the party at all.
It is, however, important to remember that there is a branch of third-person narration that can also be limited so don’t confuse the branches of narration with one another! If anything, omniscient narration, and any form of limited narration are opposites of one another.
If you want to see third-person omniscience in action, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina would be a good place to look!
To sum up third-person omniscient narration in two words: knowing everything.
It may be helpful to think of it as a little like a relay race when you consider showing perspectives of multiple characters; think of switching between different characters to gain their perspectives as passing the baton on, like in a relay race. Telling a story, essentially through teamwork by getting all the characters involved.
It may be a useful narration to consider in your submissions. Whatever narration you use and whatever you write and submit – good luck!