Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The omniscient narrator in all her glory

You don't see many books written with an omniscient narrator in modern literature. The omniscient narrator knows the whole story and can add her opinion about the events as they unfold, but on the flip side, it can distract from the characters themselves, keeping us from getting close to the characters and getting "into" the story. But a really, really good writer can pull it off... and I'm about to wax analytical (and fangirly) over one that worked.

Most young adult fiction is written in first person point of view (see my footnote for a famous, or perhaps notorious example).  I've read a few YA books in third person point of view (see footnote for another example), but the only two young adult books I've read with an omniscient narrator were The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, and one I just finished: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, mostly written from Frankie's point of view but often interrupted by an anonymous narrator.

Now, I loved The Disreptuable History: not just because of the opinionated narrator but for SO MANY REASONS (which will be listed later). But before I go all fangirly about this book, first I have to analyze WHY the book makes me go all fangirly.

First, a one sentence summary of the book: Frankie is a sophomore at a boarding school and doesn't like it that her boyfriend won't tell her about the secret, all-boys club he's part of, so she secretly one-ups the boys in the club by out-performing them in all their pranks... but with unexpected consequences.

Next, I simply have to share the first spot in the book, in the first chapter, that made me fall in love with the omniscient narrator in all her glory:
By summer's end... Frankie was curvy, lithe, and possessed of enough oomph to stop teenage boys in the street when they passed her. But if we are to accurately chronicle Frankie's transformation  and so-called misbehavior in these pages, it is important to note that her physical maturation was not, at first, accompanied by similar mental developments. Intellectually, Frankie was not at all the near-criminal mastermind who created the Fish Liberation Society, and who will, as an adult, probably go on to head the CIA, direct action movies, design rocket ships or possibly (if she goes astray), preside over a unit of organized criminals. At the start of sophomore year, Frankie Landau-Banks was none of these things. She was a girl who liked to read, had only ever had one boyfriend, enjoyed the debate team, and still kept gerbils in a Habitrail. She was highly intelligent, but there was nothing unusually ambitious or odd about her mental functioning... 
She had never been in love.
After the narrator spouts her opinion about Frankie's transformation and how it will likely lead to impressive future scenarios (head of CIA, movie director, criminal mastermind), the story immediately zooms back to a close focus on Frankie and what she's going through right before school starts, and the narrator doesn't interrupt for a while, which is important. Because we've got to get close to Frankie in order to get INTO the story, not just be amused from a distance like the narrator is.

How to use an omniscient narrator but still form close connections to the characters:

1) an omniscient narrator can start a story off with a real flare, by raising anticipation about cool things to come in the story, by inserting wry/witty opinion, and by layering on hyperbole

2) after a short introduction, the omniscient narrator has to step down from the spotlight and let the main character(s) become the focus, so we can connect with them

3) the narrator can reappear again at the beginning of some, but not all chapters to impart a little more opinion-laden information, but must pass the spotlight back to the characters after a few pages. Any information imparted by the narrator before the real action begins again with the characters should be delivered with distinctive voice and must be somewhat quirky information, maybe even a bit soap-opera-y, (for instance, details about Frankie's parents' divorce), but also modestly insightful.

4) The narrator can appear again at the end to impart some omniscient wisdom about how things all turned out, but the characters must also be allowed to show the same thing by their actions.

Okay, now that I've got all the analytical stuff out of the way, here we go with the fangirly part. I LOVED this book because:

1) it reminded me of a version of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler for teenagers

2) loved how Frankie was a strategist: how she thought about everything before she said anything; she'd consider all sorts of possibilities and consequences in a matter of seconds and then (almost always) come up with a response that kept people guessing about her

3)  loved how Frankie beat the boys at their own game in so many clever ways, but also, she was vulnerable, too (can't go into much details without being spoilery about that part)

4) loved how Frankie manipulated language (like using "nocuous" as a word, the opposite of innocuous)

5) loved the pranks she came up with

6) I loved the ending, so perfectly bittersweet: how Frankie gained something very important to her, but lost something too, but most importantly "she will not be what other people tell her to be"

End fangirl part, and on to footnote part:


Lots of discussion and examples of the different types of narrators and point of views for fiction can be found from far more reputable sources than myself, but of course I want to share examples from my own experience because it allows me to showcase books I love.

So, here are three examples of different points-of-view from the beginning paragraphs of three famous books.

First person (main character identified by use of "my" and "I")
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.
(If you know what famous book this is from, tell in the comments; then again, you might not want to admit you know what book this is from).

Third person limited (main character identified by name and by his/her perceptions)
Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark--in the dead of winter the sun didn't rise until eight--but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze.
                                 -from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

Third person omniscient: (main character identified by name, but described by a narrator or storyteller)
Though not, in hindsight, so startling as the misdeeds she would perpetrate when she returned to boarding school as a sophomore, what happened to Frankie Landau-Banks the summer after her freshman year was a shock. Certainly upsetting enough to disturb Frankie's conservative mother, Ruth, and to rile several boys in Frankie's New Jersey neighborhood to thoughts (and actions) they'd never contemplated. 
                               - From The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Do you have any memorable stories told by omniscient narrators?


  1. Off the top of my head I'm thinking The English Patient! Beautifully done and utterly lovely!

    This book sounds lovely too - thank you for introducing me to it! Take care

    1. I loved the movie the English Patient, but couldn't get into a book... definitely a case where I couldn't connect with the characters. But that might just be me, too, I connect better with kid or teenage characters in books :)

  2. The Penderwick series is omniscient (if I'm remembering correctly) and very well done. But, you're right. It is a rare POV, probably because it's so hard to do well.

    1. Great example! The Narnia books have an omniscient narrator too. Come to think of it, omniscient is more common in MG books...

  3. Omniscient is SOOOO hard to write... if it's done poorly it can be either too invasive or too detached... ugh. But it is wonderful when it's done well.

    1. Oh I know!!! I would love to try writing omniscient someday, but I'm no where near good enough now.

  4. The Tale of Despereaux. And I think many of Kate DiCamillo's books are omniscient. She's pretty masterful at it.

    And I totally don't know what book your first footnote example is from. By your funny comment, I'd almost guess Twilight, but I haven't read it, so it's just a guess. ;)

    1. I've only read one of her books... need to read Despereaux (my daughter is reading it in her class right now!). And yup, it's Twilgiht!

  5. Ooh, now I want to read it. I loved loved Science Fair, a middle grade book by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. That's the first one that pops into mind. And he followed the rules exactly you said. :) Hope all is well!

    1. Ah ha! so there is a proven method for making omniscient work!

  6. I love The Book Thief. I recently saw the movie. I think they did a lovely job with it, but of course the book is so much more amazing. Probably my favorite book written in third person omniscient is The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King.

    I like reading and writing in third person limited best, though!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

    1. Good to hear the movie version of the Book Thief wasn't butchered. Curious to see how they did Death as a character!

  7. The first Harry Potter book slipped into omniscient POV at times when Rowling would give us an opinion or tell us something that was about to happen beforehand. I enjoy omniscient if the author has a great voice.

    1. I missed that omniscient touch in her later books...



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