Friday, October 1, 2010

The Revenge of Omni Rampant?

Over the last few decades, the style of writing preferred by publishers has changed. When I was a child, books were usually written from the viewpoint of the omniscient author, who was free to step in to describe the setting - and often did, at considerable length, before introducing any characters. In extreme cases, such an author would shift the point-of-view from one character to another, even within the same scene, and would also comment on the action from a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, sometimes even presaging future thoughts or actions of the characters.

My belief is that this style of writing dates back to a time when reading aloud was a common after-dinner entertainment. The person doing the reading was rather like the bards of old, telling the story and commenting on it: a character in his or her own right. But with the advent of radio, reading aloud lost its appeal as a social activity, and as a result, the acceptable style of writing started to change. By the turn of the new century, the "tight third" (also "close third" or "deep third") point-of-view, which sticks to one viewpoint per scene - even the narrative passages are told through the eyes of the POV character - had become almost compulsory. "Head-hopping" - changing POV within a scene - was virtually outlawed.

This newer style of writing has been taught in genre writing classes and insisted on by members of many critique groups for at least a decade. A few established writers continued to write from an intrusive omniscient viewpoint, but new writers didn't dare, because, it was said, no publisher would be interested in such work.

Something else that appeared to have gone out of fashion is the intrusive dialogue tag, with or without a modifying adverb. So "grumbled", "opined" and "shouted angrily" were taboo. Stephen King's noteworthy treatise "On Writing", in which he insists that "said" is the only acceptable dialogue tag, had a lot to do with this. After all, we'd all love to be able to write like Mr King, or at least have a chance at earning his kind of income! So we all stopped using tags where we could get away with it, and used only an unadorned "said", or very occasionally "asked" when we could not.

Furthermore, we were exhorted to start the story "in media res" - right in the thick of the action. A leisurely description of the scenery or the weather was no longer allowed: the reader, we were assured, wanted action on page one, and would not read any further if no action was forthcoming.

The new style seemed entrenched. I ignored the occasional relapse, seeing it as the last stand of an outmoded writing technique. But there have been signs of the old style making a comeback. One of this country's biggest publishing houses recently released, within a few weeks of each other, two fantasy books written in unashamedly omniscient style. And there is not only head hopping, dear friends. In both books we find intrusive dialogue tags, often with attached adverbs. On a single page of one of them, I found three POV changes and five different dialogue tabs. Only one of these was "said" and it came trailing an adverb. And neither of the books started with an action scene.

Is this extreme form of the omniscient point-of-view the new black in fantasy writing? Only time will tell, but I, for one, certainly hope not. The tight third allows the reader to forget that he or she is reading. In the hands of a master such as Joe Abercrombie or Margo Lanagan, the author, the reader and the book all disappear, leaving only the experience of the characters, fed straight into the reader's mind. You simply can't have this kind of sensory immersion experience with omni rampant.

I'm sure I'm not alone in preferring the tight third, but I'd like to hear what others think. Should we start an Association for the Defence of the Tight Third POV, the Non-intrusive Dialogue Tag and the Full-on Action Start? Or is it already a Lost Cause?


  1. I heard the other day that half the short listed books for the current Booker are written in the first person. I think most fantasy is written in tight third, so having grown up reading it, this is what many fantasy writers prefer, and might account for some of their strange hatred of first person. Personally, I don't really care what pov is used. I write in both third person and first, using which one I deem suits the story I am writing.

    With dialogue tags, I only seem to notice them when they jar, like ejaculated etc, which I saw used recently. I've read On Writing, but before that I used said 99% of the time.

    I deem full on action starts important to rip a reader into a short story. Not so much a novel. I have been reading the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature and find I become impatient with the description starts of many of the stories written over a century ago. Unless the description implies the problem or question to be answered, like describing a murder scene, I think the author should scrap it and quickly get to the action. They can then fill in the description a sentence at a time.

  2. I don't mind what pov a novel is written in, so long as it's written well and takes full advantage of the perspective chosen. Like you Satima, I'm not fond of head hopping but I have found that a tight third omniscient can work for me as a reader, especially when the narrator shows parts of the world in a widescreen shot much like a camera zoomed out. The pov character can't see their world that way, but as a reader, I get a much better view of the big picture. Must admit, I can't stand too many paragraphs of the widescreen shot, because it starts to feel too much like static description, but when it appears at the right time and place, it's a joy to read. Glenda Larke does it well in the first two paragraphs of Chapter 6 in The Last Stormlord, I think, but her description is full of movement making the setting feel like a character and not just backdrop.

  3. Hooray! This lines up exactly with what I am being taught...

    My novel is written in Third person limited, and it shifts p.o.v. in each section... it's sort of a hybrid. But you know what, I'll just do as I please until something sticks. I'd rather enjoy writing and suck at it than be successful and miserable. If I wanted to be miserable, I would be studying law.

  4. Hi Emily, Sifting pov in different sections is a great way to do it, unlike head hopping which does it from paragraph to paragraph within sections with no warning. I reckon you should write the way you enjoy too. As for me, if I'm not enjoying myself, it shows in my writing.