How to Use an Omniscient Narrator

14 Apr

Ru Freeman's novel On Sal Mal Lane "soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor," according to a New York Times review.

Ru Freeman’s novel On Sal Mal Lane “soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor,” according to a New York Times review.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).

Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.

As everyone knows, Star Wars begins with a two-paragraph intro that scrolls up the screen, prefaced, famously, with the line, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Just as the text that followed laid out the basics of the war (who is fighting, what’s at stake, and one of the characters), the opening paragraphs of On Sal Mal Lane lay out the basics of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The problem, though, is that a novel is not like a film, or, at least a literary novel is not like a B movie (which Star Wars absolutely was). If the voice that opens the novel vanished suddenly like the text that opens Star Wars, the reader might close it and walk away. It would be like a film changing from color to black and white, which can be done, but only under very special circumstances. Rather than risking that readers might not make the jump, the novel creates a narrator that can handle both the large scale of the war and the small scale of a few characters affected by it.

Of course, many readers will encounter that narrative voice and quite naturally ask, “Who is telling this story?” So, the novel provides an answer:

And who, you might ask, am I? I am nothing more than the air that passed through these homes, lingering in the verandas where husbands and wives revisited their days and examined their prospects in comparison to those of their neighbors. I am the road itself…

This self-identification goes on for a bit and ends this way:

To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing. I am that.

You can’t state the problem and solution more neatly than that. Now, how does such a voice operate, on a practical level?

Mostly, it follows different groups of characters, with each getting their own sections in the novel. In these sections, characters will be spoken about as groups (an entire family, for instance) and as individuals. But the voice will occasionally speak about things in general, as it does here:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

So, it operates by speaking in a kind of godlike voice but also, quickly, zooming down to a more human perspective—a perspective that we’re more comfortable with, being, as we are, humans and not gods.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing from an omniscient point of view,  using On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman as a model:

  1. Create a reason for such a point of view. The reason should be practical: what about your novel cannot be conveyed by a narrator with a limited point of view? Freeman’s reason is the complexity of explaining the context and development of a civil war. Your reason may be similarly political. Does the novel’s conflict involve parties larger than a single person or handful of individuals? Does it involve groups and national or international politics or movement (like migration)? Does writing the book require the occasional use of a kind of professorial or journalistic mode? If so, you might need an omniscient narrator.
  2. Identify the registers the narrative voice must hit. What is the range the voice must cover? Every novel (at least every one that I can think of) follows individual characters. But what is the opposite end of the spectrum? To use the language of film, how far out must the camera move? Will the voice talk about a community as a whole? About a region or country? About the entire world? The universe? The range doesn’t really matter; the important thing is to know in advance how much ground you must cover.
  3. Identify the voice. This may be the trickiest part. Freeman writes that the voice is the wind and the road (in other words, the world itself and also the people as a whole). Some reviewers have found this identification awkward. You can probably imagine how such a move would be met in workshop: “How can the wind talk?” But the move is probably also necessary. Without the identification, the same reviewers might ask, “Who is telling this story?” There’s no perfect solution. The short passage about the narrator’s identity is a bit like the scene from the original Rocky, when Apollo Creed is choosing his challenger, eventually picking Rocky Balboa. It’s the most contrived part of the film, a scene where the mechanics are laid out in the open, and yet it’s necessary because, without it, Rocky will keep collecting debts and will never meet Apollo. In short, without that scene, one of the most iconic American films of all time doesn’t exist. In the same way, without the passage about the narrator’s identity, Freeman’s great novel might not have come together. So, think about the identity of your narrator. Is it God? Is it some manifestation of the world? If so, what manifestation would make sense for your novel’s particular world?
  4. Write from the broadest register. What is the grandest, largest scale the voice can manage? Think about the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” Or think about Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” How can you craft a voice that is vast enough to make such statements?
  5. Transition to a more narrow register. Unlike Star Wars, a novel must make this transition as smooth as possible. This is where Freeman’s novel really shines. In two sentences, she moves from “God was not responsible for what came to pass” to “surely, these children were beautiful.” The first part is vast and the second is beginning to focus on specific characters: these children. Freeman links the two with a single world: surely. It’s not a causal connection but a logical one. Here’s the full sentence: “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful.” Basically, the sentence says, “Beauty exists in the world, and these children are beautiful.” It’s moving from a general statement to an illustration of the statement. This is a great way to transition. Make a general statement and then illustrate it: “and here they are.”

Good luck. Take risks. Have fun with the exercise.

6 Responses to “How to Use an Omniscient Narrator”

  1. ShiraDest November 5, 2015 at 8:02 p11 #

    Thank you so much for writing this article. Putting it on my ‘work these excercises’ list!

    • michaelnoll1 November 5, 2015 at 8:02 p11 #

      Thanks, Shira. Let me know how it goes!

      • ShiraDest November 6, 2015 at 8:02 p11 #

        Will do! Shira

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  1. An Interview with Ru Freeman | Read to Write Stories - May 4, 2015

    […] To read an exercise on using an omniscient narrator and an excerpt from Freeman’s novel, On Sal Mal Lane, click here. […]

  2. 12 Exercises Inspired by the Best Writing from 2015 | Read to Write Stories - December 22, 2015

    […] Find the entire exercise here. […]

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