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Copyright 2004, 2005 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Omniscence vs. Intimacy

Omniscence vs Intimacy
The Power of Third Person Narrative:  Omniscence -- An Example
The Power of First Person Narrative:  Inside the Mind -- An Example

Omniscence and Immediacy

Both first and third person can be powerful nrrative forms for telling a story.  The difference is that one is an omniscent view, and the other is often more intimate, since our perspective, as readers, is actually inside one person's mind.  The power of third person is in its ability to offer readers different experiences, perspectives and insights through a variety of characters.  The power of first person is in its ability to make us dwell so intimately through a single character's perspective, that we become that person as we read.  A skilled writer will give readers both perspectives, regardless of which point of view he writes in.

One caveat:  Writing in the third person allows a writer to see and understand all elements and characters in the story, to show the story from more than one set of eyes.  However, being omiscient does not mean that you should scatter the focus of your story.

It is a common misconception that writing in third person allows you to show the POV of all characters fairly equally.  The reality is, you can show all those POVs fairly, but not usually equally.  Readers still need something specific with which to identify.  (Refer to the articles on first person and third person, and on multiple points of view in the Writer's Workshop.)

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The Power of Third Person Narrative:
Omniscence -- An Example

The power of the omniscient view is not the ability to get into more than one mind, but the ability to point out elements to the reader that the main character might not have noticed or cannot (because of the circumstances) have noticed.  This is the overview, the information, the 'big picture' that you can give the reader until the main character catches up with you at the end.  For example, third person allows you to find out what else is going on even if the main character:
   a) had turned away.
   b) had just stepped out of the room.
   c) was on the phone with X and so couldn't see X's expression, etc.
   d) isn't in the scene at all, etc.

When the main character (Joe) is interacting with other characters (for example, Ester), third person allows you to record the reactions of those other characters for the reader. You should never be "telling" what is going on in someone's head.  But, you can say things like this:
  Joe reached down to pick up the shards of glass around Ester's bare feet.  Bright, tiny beads of red welled up from between her toes.  She didn't move, but the sting of the splinters was like a file to the anger she hid with her smile.  Fine, she thought nastily.  He could dump her, alright, just as soon as he paid the bill he'd racked up on her credit card for that Germany trip.  Until then, he'd be lucky to use the bathroom without her behind him.  "It's alright," she said with deliberate calm.

At her feet, he gathered the glass too quickly and caught a shard in his thumb.  Ester felt her stomach clench with satisfaction.  Now they both bled on what was left of the sculpture.   "Joe, you've cut yourself," she said quickly.

"It's just a scratch."  He looked up.  "I'll get the broom.  Don't move."  He glanced at the splinters and turned away before Ester saw what he really wanted to say.  God, but he wanted her out of his bed, out of his house, but she could make a scene like a dozen harpies, and his son was due home any moment.  He'd been an idiot to think that smile had ever been for him, not his wallet.  Five minutes, he thought, and he'd have her out the door.  Then his biggest problem would be explaining to Tommy why the bi -- the girlfriend, he corrected, wasn't coming back, and trying to say that without grinning.

Ester smiled brightly at his back, shrugged casually, and kept her voice smooth as she reassured, "I'm not going anywhere."  She wanted to laugh as she saw his shoulders almost flinch.  And as her ex-lover stood and hurried to the trash, her green eyes followed him coldly.  She looked down at the glass that now burned in her toes, then deliberately ground it in more firmly.


In third person, you get the scene from both points of view.  We also get some tension because both characters are blind to something the other party knows.  In this case, Joe doesn't see Ester's cold gaze and doesn't see her grind the glass into her own skin.  Ester doesn't know about little Tommy due home, nor that he's going to try to kick her out of the house in spite of the glass splinters.  Each little detail that isn't known by one or the other character can be built on to create or resolve more tension, can be used to forward the story.  In third person, the reader can see all of these little tensions, not just the ones from Joe's point of view.

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The Power of First Person Narrative:
Inside the Mind - An Example

The power of first person is the intimacy you can develop with the reader.  It is the "I" story, the ultimate in being submerged in another mind.  This doesn't mean that you should spend the book thinking or remembering or wallowing in that mind.  It means you can use that intimacy to provide insight that would not otherwise be apparent to the characters or readers of the story.

Consider the previous example of Joe and Ester, but in first person:
  I reached down to pick up the shards of glass around Ester's bare feet.  She didn't move, but her tension was like the skin on the bright, tiny beads of blood.  I stifled my curse, and, like an idiot, grabbed at a piece of glass.  It pierced my thumb like a knife.

"Joe, you've cut yourself."

"It's just a scratch," I said impatiently.  I must have looked up too quickly -- I could have sworn there was something in her expression other than that smile on those perfect lips.  "I'll get the broom.  Don't move."

I glanced at the splinters that sprayed out across the floor and got to my feet.  I wasn't about to admit that my thumb now stung like hell, not when Tommy was due home any minute--Ester could stretch out a mothering spell for an hour.

She smiled brightly and shrugged.  "I'm not going anywhere," she reassured.

Like hell, I thought.  You're going out that door like an unwanted cat, as soon as I get a bandage.


In first person, you get a different perspective on the scene, since Ester's point of view is no longer available.  We see her only through Joe's eyes, and so lose her anger about the unpaid bill, her determination to stay, etc.  This first-person scene is not better or worse than the third-person scene; it's just different.  Figure out why you want to write first- or third-person, and then see if your story lends itself to that form of narrative.

Copyright 2004, 2005 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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