Managing omniscient viewpoint

The following is the craft essay I wrote for my MFA applications.

Writing with an omniscient point of view provides a special challenge to the author. In a first-person or close third-person narration, the reader will view the action exclusively through a single character’s eyes, with the possibility of changing the point of view character at a chapter or section break. This limitation allows the reader to feel confident in the perspective in which they view the story being told. In an omniscient narrative, however, the author allows the narration to reveal things beyond what any single character could know. Managed poorly, this comes across as head-hopping. In a good omniscient narrative, the reader is prepared for the style that is to follow and transitions are handled in such a way that the narration can move from within one point of view to another without disorienting the reader in the process.

For example, Ann Patchett opens her novel Bel Canto by giving us the collective impression of the characters present at the party:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was just lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss (1).

These opening sentences provide a distant view of the action, not putting us in any individual character’s perspective. Even as Patchett transitions to an interpretation of how the people present might have been able to understand what had happened, she maintains her distance. The narrator knows more than any single observer could have known of what happens, and even has some glimmering of what will happen in some unspecified future which isn’t part of the novel at all.

In this manner, Patchett manages to establish her story as being told without a point of view character, but as one with access to the interior minds of the characters. She describes the actions of the men and women present at the party as the actions of groups: “The Italians and the French were yelling, ‘Brava! Brava!’ and the Japanese turned away from them.” (1). We are given access in this way to the interior lives of the characters through their membership in groups, but only the accompanist manages to stay aloof from any group, perhaps a foreshadowing of events to come where the accompanist, having fallen ill, dies and never partakes in any of the activities of the captives and terrorists.

Patchett continues with a distant narration even as she gives some hints of interiority of the characters on the second page. The characters remain anonymous, a way of reminding the reader that there will be no point of view character, preventing the inevitable transitions from one mind to another in the narration from becoming too jarring:

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing her music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that opera was a collection of nonsensical cat screechings, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken. (2)

Only when we reach the end of the second page does Patchett focus on a single character with the introduction of Mr Hosokawa. But the distance remains: he is introduced through his devotion to the singing of Roxane Coss, the “her” of the opening sentence. After a long paragraph describing the circumstances surrounding Mr Hosokawa’s invitation to the unnamed country where the novel is set, Patchett finally brings us to interior narration, transitioning us with the phrase, “As far as Mr Hosokawa was concerned” (3).

A reminder of narrative distance comes at the beginning of the next section when the narrator directly addresses the reader. “But first remember another birthday,” (4) Patchett writes before she turns to Mr Hosokawa’s childhood. In this section, what might have been a close narration from the 11-year old Hosokawa’s perspective is interrupted with:

In a different time, such a production would have seemed to complicated for a child, but this was only a handful of years after the war and children then were much more likely to understand a whole host of things that might seem impossible for children now. (4)

The tone of this sentence places it not only beyond the ken of the 11-year old Hosokawa, but also of the older Hosokawa. It becomes clear that this was not the sort of thought that Hosokawa would ever have had about his own perspective, even though “he knew (though he did not completely understand) that opera wasn’t for everyone.” (5). She allows her narration to enter Mr Hosokawa’s mind, but keeps one foot outside of the characters to enable a transition in perspective between Hosokawa and his daughter:

… He remembered this time as happily as any vacation because he played Handel’s Alcina continually, even while he slept.

It was his eldest daughter, Kiyomi, who bought him his first recording of Roxane Coss for his birthday. Her father was a nearly impossible man to buy gifts for, and so when she saw the disc and a name she did not recognize, she thought she would take a chance. But it wasn’t the unknown name that drew her, it was the woman’s face. Kiyomi found the pictures of sopranos irritating. They were always peering over the tops of fans or gazing through veils of soft netting. But Roxanne Coss looked at her directly, even her chin was straight, her eyes were wide open. Kiyomi reached for her before she even noticed it was a recording of Lucia di Lammermoor. How many recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor did her father own? It didn’t matter. She gave her money to the girl at the counter.

When Mr Hosokawa put the CD in the player and sat down in his chair  to listen, he did not go back to work that night. It was as if he was a boy in those high seats in Tokyo again, his father’s hand large and warm around his own. He set the disc to play over and over, skipping impatiently past anything that was not her voice. It was soaring that voice, warm and complicated, utterly fearless. How could it be at once controlled and so reckless? (5–6)

From a viewpoint firmly in Mr Hosokawa’s mind, Patchett brings us into his daughter’s mind, using a sentence in passive voice to ease the transition. Had she written the opening of that paragraph in an active voice, “His eldest daughter Kiyomi bought him his first recording of Roxane Coss for his birthday,” the shift in perspective would have been abrupt. The use of passive voice here manages to act like a temporary pull back of the narrative camera allowing the reader to adapt to the change.

The second transition is similar. She begins with a sentence in an objective third person, then introduces Mr Hosokawa’s thoughts with a sentence in the passive voice. By the time Patchett reaches the final rhetorical question, “How could it be at once controlled and so reckless?” the narration is is firmly in the mind of Mr Hosokawa.

At this point, having conditioned us to accept the transitions between perspectives, Patchett is able to be more flexible in her transitions between the two characters. Note how she describes the interior actions of both Mr Hosokawa and his daughter (using italics to indicate Kiyomi’s interior actions and bold to indicate Mr Hosokawa’s interior actions):

He called Kiyomi’s name and she came and stood in the doorway of his study. She started to say something—yes? or, what? or, sir?—but before she could make out the words she heard that voice, the straight-ahead woman from the picture. Her father didn’t even say it, he simply gestured towards one speaker with his open hand. She was enormously pleased to have done something so right. The music praised her. Mr Hosokawa closed his eyes. He dreamed. (6)

With one exception, we have a short passage in objective third person between shifts in perspective. Even when there is no transition, the reader has been prepared for the change in point of view and is able to accept the rapid shift in perspective. Having established an idiomatic language of perspective shifts in the opening pages, there is a freedom available to Patchett in the rest of the book to move between characters’ points of view throughout the novel.

WORKS CITED

Patchett, Ann. Bel Canto. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

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