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Viewpoint and Voice

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Woollybear

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Hiya.

I seem to recall a few people here have referred to Ursula Le Guin's "Steering the Craft" book now and then. She describes a mode of narration in chapter 7 called "Involved Author" which she also calls Omniscient Author. (She does not like the term omniscient). She describes this mode of narration as the most overtly manipulative, because the narrator can pop in and out of any head (or stay outside of all heads) to make their case--whatever that case may be.

The writer may tell us what anyone is thinking and feeling, interpret behavior for us, and even make judgments on character.

...the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view--and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.


Sounds like a good challenge, and I'm working on the accompanying 2000-word exercise, from this chapter, today. I was curious if anyone wants to chat about Involved Author narration, or has maybe worked with it. I'm not sure I am 'doing it right.' I am not sure that I am not simply head-hopping. I believe one difference is that new 'heads' are sign-posted in the narrative, before popping into them.

I'd love to hear ideas from other writers about this mode of story telling. Conversation is not intended to be a reductive "Omniscient narration means the author knows everything" --in part because examples of this style are so varied. Le Guin points to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tolkien, Tolstoy (by the end (of War and Peace) you feel you have lived many lives; which is perhaps the greatest gift a novel can give) and others.

Any interest in chatting about the Involved Author (also called the omniscient narrator)? I'm curious what you think.
 

Cobalt Jade

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I haven't read the chapter, but I'm pretty sure LeGuin used the technique in her Earthsea trilogy. I call it storyteller mode -- the writer is telling the reader a story, the reader isn't experiencing it along with the character(s). The unknown and unseen narrator of the story is as much a character as any of the other characters.
 

Woollybear

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Oh yes! I started Wizard of Earthsea and it had that storyteller vibe. I remember thinking it felt old-timey.

I am really intrigued by the idea of the narrator being, and all the ways the narrator can be, a unique character in their own right. It is a remarkable tool.

The excerpt I'm working on today feels like it is half-essay (the narrator determining their view of things) and half head-hopping between the characters proper. I'm pretty sure that's wrong, but hey it's a start.
 
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Tocotin

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A lot of 19th century authors do that, I think. I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Three Clerks right now (I seem to be always reading something by Trollope, lol), and the narrator would stop every now and then to give the reader his own take on the situation, to put it in a historical context, or to talk about a similar situation from his own life. He also would tell you openly if he's withdrawing certain information from you. Another example of that approach is the narrator in Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

There is this feeling of being told a story by a distinct narrator character, yes, but there's something more to that. It is, I think, a much more pleasant, comfortable, outright warm feeling of being in the hands of a competent storyteller who is treating you, the reader, as a guest to whom he is serving the best meal he can cook, and who is not being above talking about the ingredients. The feeling of satisfaction at the end comes from this treatment. I admit that sometimes it can be too much, especially if the narrator is prone to moralizing (Count Tolstoy, I'm looking at you), but in general, I like it. Some authors are better at it than others.

:troll
 

ap123

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I love omniscient POV. (Can't remember if I read this specific chapter in Le Guin's book, I know I skipped around when I read it)

I may be misinterpreting--or talking about something completely different--but imo head hopping is still head hopping, regardless of POV chosen. IOW, even if you're writing in omniscient, you still have to have real reasons for dipping into a specific character's head, it can't be to shovel info at the reader, and it can still come off as jarring and wait, who said this? why? where am I? lol.

For me the beauty of omniscient isn't the ability to go into many characters' thoughts, it's to have that narrator's POV and voice. It allows the camera (for lack of a better word) to pull out and offer a breadth you can't get otherwise, deepening tone and voice of the mss overall.
 

Lakey

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Slightly rambling post on interesting topic below. By the way, I really like that LeGuin book. It’s one of my three favorite books on technique.

I second the shout-out to Trollope for an omniscient, outside-the-story narrator with a strong presence and voice. Trollope talks directly to the reader, really giving you that feeling of being told a story. He acknowledges frequently that he is a novelist constructing a story; the quotation from him in my signature is from one of those moments, in Barchester Towers, where he laments the difficulty of adequately describing a character on the page. He often engages with a sense of humor, or apology; there’s a whole section in Doctor Thorne (not his best book in my opinion) where he imagines that he and the reader will have a different opinion about who the hero of the story is.

For a more modern—not exactly contemporary, but at least 20th century—example of narrative omniscience that is as much of an editorial presence as Trollope’s without being quite as overt about it, I strongly recommend Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It is short enough that one can read it in an afternoon, and one really should. Spark not only plays with omniscience by zooming in and out, giving the broader picture as ap123 describes as well as what’s going on in various characters’ heads; she also plays with time, zooming in a paragraph from a character’s young adulthood, to her death, back to her childhood, and so on. Talk about the broad picture! And it is absolutely masterful in that as a reader one never loses track of where/when/who despite all of these rapid shifts. Spark is in complete control. If you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they say omniscience requires control, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will drive it home.

I have not tried to write this way myself. The book that made an aspiring fiction writer out of me is in a very intimate limited third, with only one POV through the entire novel, and I’ve been consequently a little obsessed with that POV. Most of my short stories are written that way (with a handful in first person); the novel I’m working on has two POVs but each chapter is closely limited to one or the other. I have not yet conceived a story that demands the broader view, I guess; maybe I will some day.

One trick that I see in such stories that I absolutely hate is language like “Later, she would...” There may be no construction that pulls me out of a story faster than that one (“golden liquid” syndrome is a close second). I’m not sure I can articulate why it rubs me so violently the wrong way but it does. Maybe because I see it used in stories that are otherwise limited third, where it feels brutally jarring and out of place, like cheating. I would watch myself very carefully for this kind of device, if I ever decide to write from this broader perspective. Muriel Spark, in Miss Jean Brodie, certainly conveys the “later, she would...” idea frequently, but somehow without making it feel like it doesn’t belong. As I said, her transitions in time and perspective are rapid but thoroughly masterful.

:e2coffee:
 

Woollybear

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Back in high school one of the gals on the speech team (which I was also a part of) interpreted an excerpt from Prime of Miss Jean Brodie one year. I'll look it up.

Definitely this exercise has me doing things that I'd never do in limited third. From Chapter Seven, LeGuin cites Stowe's narrator as addressing the audience "Well, how fast could you run?" or something like this. I'm trying that device out in the exercise, because it's such a clear signal of the narrator's presence, but it strikes me as potentially jarring. Later, she would feels like a definite cheat, but I might play with it in the interest of seeing what it can do.

Some months back I decided that omniscience should be telegraphed early to the reader. It seemed this was often accomplished in the examples I saw at the time by panning around to things no single character could possibly know, in the opening lines.
 
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Horrorschach

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This thread is setting off alarms of recognition.
The most recent examples of this writing viewpoint are Giaman's Sandman audiobook and (dont laugh, please) The Muppets Christmas Carol.
Gonzo even goes into a brief explanation and uses the "omniscient" phrase too!
 
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SapereAude

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Now I'll have to grab a couple of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider books off the shelf. I've read all of them -- multiple times. I think they used what would be called the "omniscient narrator" point of view.
 
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RLBeers

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I used this mode in my Milward Chronicles series. The editor hated it, called it "head-hopping". The series sells, so I guess it worked.