Writing How-To: Who's In Third? Omnipotent limitations.

Thursday, February 18, 2010
The first "official" (meaning not a freebie, one I had to pay money for) purchase I made on our new Kindle was Stephen King's "Under the Dome." Now, I cut my writing teeth on SK in high school. He was my first "writing idol," the one I wanted to be "just like him" when my "career took off." I devoured everything he wrote back then with the voracity of Pennywise the Clown. The last SK book I read was "Cell," simply because I've been busy. I've read a lot of books since then, and we have other books of his I haven't read yet, but "Under the Dome" is the first I snagged to read.

As I sat down last night and started reading, several things immediately hit me squarely between the eyes. One, he tells "UtD" in third person omniscient point of view. Second, I'm finding it difficult to really "get into" the characters like I can with first or third person limited. Third, I see why poorly executed third-omni can lead to head-hopping and telling instead of showing (or worse, author intrusion). And fourth, while SK is a master of third-omni, he's one of few authors I've read lately who should try it, but even then (see point two) just because he can do it doesn't mean it should be done.

Now, I'm not saying I don't like the book, because so far, it's a page-turner for me. I'm loving it and reminded why I've always loved SK for a good, pulse-throbbing read. But all the while, I'm finding...something lacking. That connection I feel with characters in a limited third viewpoint, where we're inside someone's head, the ability to get to know them.

Yes, I see why "UtD" needs to be in third-omni. It would be damned hard--if not impossible--to pull it off otherwise. But I'm also seeing why in many cases, especially in romances, it should NOT be used. In a romance, you want the readers to get into the characters' heads, to feel what they feel, to be wrapped up inside the characters as much as they are the story.

In this book, I'm wrapped up in the story, yes, but...I'm just not feeling it.

And now with this knowledge in hand, I'm really interested to go back and revisit some of my favorites, like "The Shining" and "The Stand," one with a limited cast and crew, the other an epic of...epic proportions, to see if I get that same feeling NOW about his books.

What changed? Well, I've got over 20 books published or pending publication, for starters, with plenty more in my brain's queue and screaming to be written. I've read a lot of books in the romance genre which, I will admit, wasn't one of my focuses before I started writing romances.

This is why it is DESPERATELY important for a writer to READ. If you don't read, you don't learn and grow as a writer. You can't grow a vegetable garden without adding fertilizer and plant food. Reading is that fertilizer (and not just reading bullshit, either *LOL*).

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

It really did shock me last night when this realization hit me. One of those, "D'OH!" moments you have as a writer when you know you've just learned something of monumental importance for your career. I'd never really been able to vocalize the differences before, even though intellectually I KNOW the differences. I've seen LOTS of poorly executed third-omni in older romances that is nothing but head-hopping. SK doesn't head-hop in this book, it's properly executed third-omni. Something to think about.

Happy Writing!

6 reader comments:

  1. Yep. That's the main difference, all right. Omniscient is NEVER preferred in romance. It works better in a couple of types of books...true storytelling (narrated tales of the past, especially ones with a mythic feel or fairy tale feel to them...fantasy at times molds this way) and "the only one/s left alive told me" stories, though it would be the narrator imparting what he/she learned from others of what happened to be third person and not first person.

    I hate to admit this, because I LOVE King. He's a god of characterization, and I'm another Pennywise of the older works, though I've grown away from him in recent years. He was one of my first writing idols. My first novel (actually a two book serial novel) was written with King and Eddings in mind as my goals for characterization and scope, respectively.

    All that is positive, I guess. So what was negative? When I got to my first editor, she had to break me of my King-isms. Back then, I wasn't breaking "the rules" skillfully enough to get away with what King does...if that makes sense. I knew what he was doing, but it took time to dissect it and figure out how to make it work for me and my voice instead of him and his voice, without making my writing sound amateur.

    Simply put, King can do things a newer writer can't, because he does it so skillfully and because he has an established audience that allows him leeway, because he's just that good. Grinning...


  1. Stephen King has skill honed on decades of practice...I love him...and as soon as I get a free moment from writing Under the Dome is on my "to read list"

  1. POV is a really interesting topic for me. First I have little recollection of learning the differences and no discipline at using POV. In point of fact, I find that the novels I plan and write seem to make their own decisions as to POV. In reality, of course, some kinds of stories seem to demand certain points of view, although a careful, adept writer could probably work against type and make it work.

  1. Brenna - Another thing I noticed about King this time around is some of his dialog just didn't feel very realistic to me, and that's not something that ever jumped out at me before. Again I'll need to go back and re-read some of his older stuff. And my book "Out of the Darkness" started as a high school creative writing project "homage" to SK. *LOL* (Fortunately for me, it went through a LOT of changes from then until when it was published last year! *LOL*)

    Roxy - So far, I'm enjoying it.

    Carl - POV is definitely a tricky thing for many writers to learn to master.

  1. Missy said...:

    Excellent post! I've only read one of King's books -- Salem's Lot. It scared me to much coupled with the movie that I couldn't read another one. Odd I guess because my co-author in Her Eyes, Jennifer Cloud writes pretty scary horror/thriller and I can read her.

    I too do not understand how an author cannot read. Yes, it can cut into writing time. I read 3-4 books a week most weeks because of my commute and a commitment to myself to read at least 10 minutes before going to sleep at night. But to hear an author say he or she doesn't read stuns me. How can you know where you've come from or going to if you don't have a yardstick like reading what's out there? Yet there are authors out there that do not read.

    As to POV -- when I was "just" a reader I had no clue what it was all about. I just knew any book that had a character that said "I did this" or "I was going to ..." it bored me to tears and it didn't get read. Now I know it's first person and I still don't much care for it. Too much of it reminds me of a neighbor going on about their vacation to a place I'd never consider going to. Unless there is some good emotion and story telling it leaves me cold. I just finished reading two of Robert Moss' early American fictions -- Fire Along the Sky and The Firekeeper. Fire Along the Sky was written in the first person and I sruggled to read it. Talk about bor ---- ing! The Firekeeper was written in third person and fairly crackled off the page. It was fabulous.

    I'm also not a POV purist -- which small presses insist you MUST be, yet I read NY pubbed books over and over with both characters' POV in a scene and I enjoy it, especially in romance. There's two people in the bed, tell me what's going on with both of them.

    Omniscient -- it's as difficult for me to read that as is reading first person. I have seen it work well in historical fiction and do read quite a bit of it.

  1. Third-person omniscient bugs the living hell out of me. There are only a few authors out there who can/could pull it off.

    I read Frank Herbert's Dune last year and it bugged the hell out of me the way he shifted viewpoint so fluidly.

    And you're right. It's difficult to connect with characters under these circumstances.

    When I write, I either go for first person present (usually urban fantasy) and have been experimenting with first person past for an epic fantasy. Another WIP is sitting with a deep-third, which seems to work out quite well, tho' I'm running the flashbacks as present tense.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is an author shouldn't be tied to any one favourite style. Each brings unique qualities to the fore.