effective narration 101: narrative omniscience, part two

Before we jump into the second installment of our examination of narrative omniscience, here’s a link to part one and to the rest of the entries on effective narration, if you’d like a brief refresher:

  1. First-Person Narration
  2. Second-Person Narration
  3. Third-Person Narration, Part One
  4. Third-Person Narration, Part Two
  5. Narrative Characterization 
  6. Narrative Orientation in Time

So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the implications of perspective (first person, second person, etc.) on narrative omniscience.

Narrative Omniscience in First Person

First person narrative omniscience is the easiest of all the perspectives to conceptualize, but it’s the one that causes the most trouble in execution. Why? Because–unless your character is magical in some wayfirst person narrators cannot have omniscience in either scope or future knowledge. Period.

If you are writing in first person with a normal human as the main character, they are as limited in their omniscience as you are. Can you tell what’s going on in your kitchen from the basement? Neither can your character. Can you definitively dictate what’s going to happen at 12:37 PM next Wednesday? Neither can your character.

First person narrators are telling the story from their point of view–and, in order to be effective, that point of view cannot change. While editing books in first person narration, I find the most egregious offenders are chapter starts like this: “The next day would turn out to be one of the most exciting days of my life. I woke up refreshed and looked around the room, happy to see that the sun was finally out.”

Look at what’s happening here. The first sentence tells the reader about the course of the entire day. In order to know what the rest of the day entails, the narrator has to either A. be telling the story from the far future, or B. be able to tell the future. But the second sentence pulls us back in time to the morning, and, instead of narrating from the future, the narrator is describing the events from a perspective just after they occur (immediate past narration). Either we have inconsistency in narrative orientation in time OR we have a narrator that’s able to tell whether their day’s going to be a whopper upon opening their eyes.

Either way, this narration is ineffective for the following reasons:

  • First, you have potential time orientation conflict. When is the narrator telling the story from? Are they recalling something long ago, or are they telling the story as it happens?
  • Second, if the time orientation is consistent, you have a narrator that can tell the future. Why can they tell the future? Who knows! But if they can tell the future about the events of the day, why didn’t they already know it was going to be sunny outside the next morning? Does their future-telling ability only encompass events in their personal life and not the weather?
  • Third, by telling the reader what the day is going to be like before the reader witnesses the day unfold first-hand, you are blatantly reminding the reader that they are, in fact, reading a story and that someone is narrating the events to them, which is really useful only if you want to prevent your reader from actually being engaged in your narrative.
  • And, finally, by “prepping” the reader for the day, you effectively sap all tension that might have been building up prior to this scene. One of the greatest sources of tension is that feeling of concern about what is going to happen next. If you tell the reader that something exciting is going to unfold before they see it happening, it’s like forcing them to read the last page in the book before they read the climax. Not effective.

What it boils down to is this: once you establish a narrator, the story has to unfold in a logical way given the parameters of that narrator’s character. With first-person narration, unlike third person, your narrator is very strictly defined–your narrator and your main character are the same person. You are limited by the parameters you set for your main character when you’re telling the story–and this affects your narrator’s ability to be omniscient.

Of course, everything here goes out the window if you have a main character who has a reason to know things outside of their immediate perception. If your character is a witch or a deity or if they have a hive mind connection with another being in a distant location, your first person narrator can transcend the otherwise limited scope of first-person narrative omniscience.

But. Even then, the narration needs to proceed logically. If you set parameters for your first person narrator’s powers, your narration cannot transcend those powers. Consistency! It’s all about consistency.

So, in summary: first person narrators are not going to have narrative omniscience–in either field-of-view or future telling abilities–99.9% percent of the time.

Narrative Omniscience in Second Person

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll remember that my general policy with second-person narration is this: don’t do it. That being said, if you do want to tackle the beast, remember that second-person narrators must have a degree of omniscience.

Because the second-person narrator is describing what is happening to the reader, you have to allow the narrator to see more than the reader/main character sees, and you have to allow them to have some idea of where things are headed. Otherwise, it’s just the blind (narrator) leading the blind (reader). And, if you’re going to write in second person, you don’t want to actively make the experience worse.

In practice, most second person narrators are going to have limited omniscience in both scope and future telling abilities, but you could certainly push the envelope and have your second-person narrator know all, see all, and tell all–as long as you are consistent.

Next Up–Third Person Narration

To round out our examination of narrative omniscience, we’ll address third-person omniscience next time we revisit the effective narration series. Until then, remember one thing: consistency is key!

I’d love to hear about your own struggles (or victories) with first-person narration in the comments. Do you have any questions I haven’t answered? Let me know!

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