Wednesday, I introduced the validity of the omniscient point of view as the perspective of choice for authors who are “after the kind of insight that comes from contemplating events rather than participating in them” (Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoint, Nancy Kress, p. 207). Billy Coffey used the POV in his newest release, In the Heart of the Dark Wood, and it took me a bit to get used to it.
Omniscient fell out of favor years ago, particularly in genre fiction. Authors today cater to the readers’ wish to engage in the story from under the character’s skin. But that doesn’t mean omniscient is “wrong” or a “bad choice,” particularly for literary fiction, which Billy’s novel is, and particularly when done well–which is the point of this post. Did Billy do it well?
I can’t find a list of points that make a good omniscient piece, so I’m going to use Nancy Kress’s list of common errors, found on page 210 of her Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, though not in the order she presented. I’m going to start with this:
1. Not setting up omniscient POV early enough.
The first sign that Billy had utilized the omniscient was on page 3–but it was so subtle, I wasn’t sure. Up to this point, he’d been exclusively in the child Allie’s POV; then, he wrote this:
Zach wasn’t swayed. He’d seen Allie’s fake smile enough times in the last year and a half; he wasn’t fooled now. He raised his ornament and mouthed, Kindergarten stuff. Allie nodded and realized the longer she stared at him, the quicker her lie would crumble.
It’s possible to still read this in Allie’s POV. She knew he’d seen her “fake smile” and could tell the difference, and she could probably tell–by his expression, perhaps–that he wasn’t fooled. I gave Billy the benefit of the doubt on this. To do otherwise would be to admit that a talented author had his first “POV slip” and that his professional editor (with Thomas Nelson) let it slide.
Then, on page 11, while still in Allie’s POV, I read this piece that included her father:
Marshall looked outside and crunched down on his Life Savers, letting the juice wash over his gums. He still tasted beer.
That is a distinct POV slip. No way could Allie know what he tasted unless he told her.
Eventually, as paragraphs like this accumulated, I had to come to the decision that either Billy and/or his editor had allowed a first draft to be published, or this novel was written in the omniscient POV. The farther I read, the more I realized that was exactly what Billy had done.
So, to Kress’s first statement of error–not presenting the POV early enough (and she means within the first few paragraphs)–it would appear on the surface that Billy goofed.
But I got to thinking about this. These days, deep third POV is the rage, and authors obsess about it, about getting it right. The bulk of genre fiction is written in a deep point of view, so it’s safe to assume that the bulk of the readers are expecting it. Had Billy started his novel with the head-hopping permitted in omniscient, would I have kept reading? (Well, I would’ve because he is, after all, Billy Coffey–one of my favorite new authors on the planet.) Or did it serve him better to hook me as a reader first, before gradually presenting POV slips? Did it serve him better to present the omniscient as he needed it instead of when it “should” begin, and assume the reader would be smart enough to catch on after a while?
Did it bother me? Did it pull me out of the story? Yes. I’m an author and an editor. I notice things like this. Would another reader notice it? Yes, because that’s the point of omniscient. Would it bother another reader? . . . I don’t know, but I doubt it. People who read literary or experimental fiction are accustomed to having these little surprises jump up from the pages. And since omniscient is most often used in literary, maybe the way Billy presented it wasn’t such a bad thing.
2. Using the POV too sparsely. “Once you’ve committed to omniscient POV, you must use it fully for the entire length of the story.”
Billy did exactly that. And the more often he used it, the more blatant it became. From page 12:
The doorbell rang. Marshall patted Allie’s leg as he rose and left the door open. She thought maybe that was her daddy’s way of asking her to please come out and give Grace a chance. Really, closing the door had been the furthest thing from Marshall’s mind. He’d been too busy trying to figure out how many Life Savers it would take to bury the smell of beer.
Billy hopped into two heads in the space of a single paragraph. This was my “aha!” moment, when I realized he’d employed the omniscient POV.
One more thought about this paragraph: Billy presented an event (Marshall patting his daughter’s leg) and introduced the thoughts of both characters. The action isn’t as important as the reaction and internalization. If he’d maintained this paragraph in Allie’s POV, we readers wouldn’t be able to contrast what she thought from what was reality; we’d be limited to Allie’s interpretation of her father’s actions. This is the kind of guidance Billy will continue throughout the book because he wants his reader to understand his characters’ frame of mind over all and at any given point in time. As I said last time, this story is a psychological/spiritual study of the effects of a singular traumatic event on everyone involved. At this point, the primary event hasn’t been disclosed, but by the time it is, we readers are adjusted to this POV.
Of course, this paragraph is a great example to lead us back to Kress’s list.
3. Dipping into characters’ minds at will without also offering a strong authorial presence.
According to Kress, omniscient involves “freely editorializing on the action, in effect interpreting the story for the reader, as well as POV hopping at will.” Directing the reader’s thoughts is a “definite authorial presence” (pages 207-208). So, for this point, Billy aced it. He maintains a strong authorial presence throughout the novel.
4. Not having anything interesting for the authorial voice to add to what the narrative already conveys.
Billy’s story involves both adults and children, males and females of all ages. The point of his story is to illustrate how one major event affected each character. In a deep POV–even using multiple POV characters–this wouldn’t carry the weight and wouldn’t be remotely as dramatic. As illustrated in the above paragraph, the child’s thoughts are far removed from her father’s. Relying on her interpretation of his actions wouldn’t provide the reader with the truth.
Because Billy wants us to know how the actions affect the characters, he presents the contrasts as each event triggered by the primary event occurs. His voice is vital for this purpose. Also, only he knows what’s happening in one location while the main characters, Allie and her friend Zach, are in another location. Using the omniscient POV, Billy is allowed to reveal all activities, all emotions, all internal thoughts by employing a simple segue.
There are so many other things I’d love to say about this book and the way it was written, but this post is already extremely long. I’ll save the rest for my review next Friday. But for now, I’ll say this: Billy did an excellent job of utilizing the omniscient POV. I’m excited to find a modern example of its use. It’s a difficult, challenging POV to employ, and I applaud him for taking a stab at it.
A Study in Omniscient POV, Part 1
Review of In the Heart of the Dark Wood
Interview with Author Billy Coffey
Review of “What I Learned Today,” the Billy Coffey Blog
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Continuing with Linda Yezak’s A Study in Omniscient POV
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