Yesterday I had a long Twitter conversation with Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. This was a privilege in and of itself, and I am amazed she took so much time out of her day to have such a discussion. The discussion was on omniscient narration, both the pitfalls and the perks of the construct.
In this discussion we touched on the aspect of tension in fiction, and more importantly, in F&SF. I mention that I thought a lot of tension comes from the concealment of knowledge from the writer. Leckie, on the other hand shot this idea down. She said that tension comes from caring.
@AlexClarkMcG nah. Tension hinges on caring about the outcome. Concealed info is only a small part of that–you can do it entirely without.
— Ann Leckie ☕ (@ann_leckie) April 24, 2016
But then–that brings up how caring about a desired outcome works at all. If you’re told the story is a happy story from the very beginning and that everything ends up alright–how can you care about the actions in between the beginning and the end of the story.
This is the difficulty in writing with an omni narrator. It is more difficult to discern the information that the reader needs, from what they want, to the effect it has. I’m not saying writer’s shouldn’t use it, I’m saying it needs to be done with extreme care.
I think this is especially true for F&SF genres, that the “what happens next?” question is so important that if it’s given away by, lets say, an omniscient narrator, it dispels all tension. I can only relate it to watching a soccer game I already know the results of. It’s a total snoozefest and I’ll turn it off, or put down the book.
Of course, this is omniscient narration at its worst. There are ways to preserve tension with it. It’s just difficult to do.
Of course omniscient narrators don’t always ruin the plot for readers. Tolkien wrote LoTR with an omniscient narrator and it works great. But the largest issue I find in omni narration is the distance it builds between the characters and the reader. As soon as the narrator describes something that the protagonist(s) don’t know or couldn’t see–it removes me, as a reader, from the experience, and instead I feel like an observer, not so much within the story. And this can remind me that I’m sitting on my couch instead of actually living through the adventure. Like Leckie I think tension comes from an investment in characters, and if I don’t feel intrinsically connected to those characters because I’m being taken on a journey away from them to see events unfold that they can’t know about it’s easy for me to feel as though the actions of those characters are stupid because, with the information I have, I’d do something else. But since the characters don’t have that information we can’t experience the same thing, and so I’m not as connected as I want to be or should be. And this is why omni narration is so, so difficult to pull off.