Omniscient Narrator: How to Work with an Old-Fashioned Storytelling Voice

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

The omniscient narrator stands above the story, has a view of everything and everybody, can go anywhere, move around, enter any character’s mind, travel vast distances and cover long periods of time. The writer knows everything and can comment and summarize and shift from character to character and place to place. The voice of the omniscient narrator can tell us what any of the characters are thinking and feeling. The voice can even express opinions about what is occurring.

Omniscient Narrator old fashioned storytelling illustration

Omniscient narrators may sound a little old-fashioned, but there’s a reason why this form of narration is making a comeback. An omniscient narrator allows authors to dip inside characters’ heads and swoop through time and space. It’s more intimate than Direct Observer and more wide-ranging than Limited Third. Image from Pixabay via Prawny

Most 18th and 19th century writers were omniscient narrators: Fielding, Trollope, Dickens, Eliot, and others. Often these writers butt into the story and comment directly on what’s happening. When they want to, they give us access to the character’s thoughts and feelings.

An Omniscient Narrator Orients Us

Here’s the beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. This passage sets the stage for the action to come. Dickens paints the backdrop, but the backdrop isn’t visual. It’s philosophical. He’s capturing the mood of the times.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all