“Partway through writing my first novel, I had a terrifying realization: I needed an omniscient narrator.” -Celeste Ng, Dead Darlings post April 7, 2014.
Writing a novel is all about making a series of decisions that add up to a well-crafted story. I think I can speak for many of us when I say that we all hope that the decisions we make are right the first time around. It’s wishful thinking, I know. Early on, the writer needs to pick a setting, create the characters, and figure out which of those characters is the best narrator for the story that is being told.
The setting and characters of my novel came easy to me. I thought I knew whose story it was, and I set out to tell it from the point of view of a mother and a daughter in close third person point of view. It worked for a while until I figured out the story included a third woman, whose point of view I felt was necessary to understand the complete story. Ignoring my own advice given here, I added this third point of view, the addition of which made things more complicated and unwieldy. Instead of feeling freed by having another perspective I could tap into, I felt more restricted. Now, I had to determine who was best the best narrator for each scene. Frustrated, I pared back down to one POV, and my novel’s voice, the thing that carries me through my writing sessions, got lost. My frustration continued, and I grew further away from the story I was trying to tell.
Then I went on a writing retreat in November. Three full days of writing, not interrupted by laundry or work or walking the dogs, where time suddenly opens up, and I felt like I could play around more instead of feeling the pressure to get words, words that move the story along, on the page. During one of the nightly readings, I read what I had been working on. The reading felt tinny to my ears and not surprisingly it fell flat. I, as the typical self-doubting writer, asked myself why I was even in the same room with all of the gifted and talented writers around me. I went to bed with a pillow over my head.
The next morning I decided I had to redeem myself, somehow. I needed to write a new scene, not churn through something I already had. I was on a retreat. I had hours. I decided what the hell, I’ll try something in omniscient (cue all those bloggers and teachers and writers, who would say that the most complicated point of view is exactly not the way to redeem myself.), a point of view I have been fascinated with every since I read Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout.
I ignored all of the conventional wisdom reverberating around in my head and wrote a brand new first scene completely in omniscient. The piece had a voice and it had a cadence when I read it out loud. I wasn’t embarrassed by it and didn’t want to quit reading halfway through. It worked, or at least, I think it did. I decided to take the plunge and start converting my entire novel into the omniscient point of view.
The writing is coming more easily now. I enter that magical writing zone more often these days.
In a weird sort of way, I actually am heeding my own advice to simplify things. To me, the omniscient point of view is less complicated. There is one person telling the story, the omniscient narrator. Gone is the decision regarding who is best to tell any given scene. Gone is the need to figure out how and when it’s best to release information to the characters and to the reader. Gone is my trying to figure out how convey how the town feels about the little cluster of trailer parks that sit across the creek.
There are a lot of detractors out there, still spouting how difficult the omniscient narrator is to do right (But what if I do do it right?), how the contemporary reading public doesn’t like the distance inherently built into the omniscient narrator (Why the popularity of Elizabeth Strout’s novels and the success of Celeste Ng’s debut novel?). I still have decided to give it a try. It’s time to take a chance. If it doesn’t work out, there is always the first person point of view.