“Show, Don’t Tell”… in Third Person Omniscient?

One of the most difficult things to grasp for writers used to writing in third person limited is how to make effective use of the narrator when writing in third person omniscient. This isn’t helped by the fact that many of the “rules” I’ve heard or have had repeated to me seem to have been designed for first person or third person limited, and it seems the people repeating them often have little understanding of how applying them would improve a book written in third person omniscient. Except, perhaps, to make it more closely resemble third person limited, which seems to be what many of them want anyway. But if you, like me, are trying to write in this perspective, I hope this post will tell you some helpful advice and show you some quality examples.

And if you guessed that the first topic I want to cover is the old writing rule of “show, don’t tell”, you would be right! Show, don’t tell is, I think, a writing rule that’s often misunderstood and misapplied, but I find this especially true for someone writing in third person omniscient.

“Show, don’t tell” is a rule that’s intended to say you should evoke feelings in the reader and allow them to visualize rather than stating bland facts. If you want your reader to understand the relationship between two characters, for example, you’ll probably accomplish that better by showing those two characters talking or doing something together than by saying, “Jack and Jill were best friends” and being done with it. Many people, however, take this rule to mean that a writer should never directly tell the reader anything at all, and that creates a problem in third person omniscient when one is trying to use a subjective narrator.

Writing in Omniscient

The cornerstone of this point of view is that there is a narrator telling the story. If there is no telling, how do the readers even know there is someone telling the story? They probably don’t, as I found out the hard way after trying to follow this advice.

You see, when writing in third person limited, removing instances of “telling” can usually be done without serious negative effects and often to the advantage of the narrative. The whole story (unless in third person rotating) focuses on one character and reveals only that character’s thoughts. Let’s look at this passage from the first chapter of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn for an example:

“Vin watched the downy flakes drift through the air. Leisurely. Careless. Free. The puffs of soot fell like black snowflakes, descending upon the dark city of Luthadel. They drifted in corners, blowing in the breeze and curling in tiny whirlwinds over the cobblestones. They seemed so uncaring. What would that be like?”

When I read that paragraph, I get the sense that Vin, our point of view character, is anything but “leisurely”, “careless” and “free”, although she wishes she could be. I get the sense that she can’t even remember a time when she felt like that, and I also begin to form a picture of the dark, soot-covered city she lives in. All of this is far better than if Sanderson had written, “Vin watched the soot falling and wished that she could be so free.”, and especially better than “Vin lived in the city of Luthadel, but she didn’t like her life there.”

The method of “showing” here involves showing us Vin’s thoughts through the narration. We know that we are seeing the soot through her eyes, and it is being described according to the way she thinks about it. This is a very common and effective technique in third person limited, but it can’t be used in third person omniscient.

According to Point of View: How to Use the Different POV Types, Avoid Head-Hopping, and Choose the Best Point of View for your Book, “The narrator occasionally tells readers what some of the characters are thinking or feeling, but those thoughts and emotions are told, not shown. Readers never hear the direct thoughts of the characters; what they get are indirect thoughts and filters.”

This probably sounds quite awful to those who dogmatically believe in “show don’t tell” and quest through their manuscripts to remove every possible instance of filtering. They’re probably also the type to track down and kill every adverb. And why? Because there’s a rule saying they should.

Rules, Rules, Rules

But why is there a rule about avoiding filters in the first place? And wasn’t there a filter right up there in the example I gave? Yes, in fact, there was. “Vin watched” would be considered a filter because the reader is told who is doing the watching. Those who avoid filters at all costs would probably propose the sentence be rewritten into something like “Downy flakes drifted through the air”. “We don’t need to be told that Vin watched them,” they would say, if they have any understanding of the meaning behind the rule. “We know she must have because of the point of view.” Except that the example I gave came from the chapter opening in a novel that rotates between characters. That means the reader didn’t know whose eyes they were looking through. Not until the author explicitly introduced Vin.

And that gives us an insight into why third person omniscient must use filters. If the narrator is able to give us the thoughts of any character at any time, how is the reader to know which character’s thought is being given unless the narrator begins by telling us?

“Show don’t tell” zealots, if they accept this, might then attempt to say, “Fine, you can tell me who sees what and who is thinking what, but why do you want to do more telling?”. Well, again it traces back to the fact that the narrator is completely different. In the example above, the narration was following Vin’s thoughts and feelings, but in third person omniscient that uses a subjective narrator, someone outside the characters is telling the story. That narrator typically knows all and sees all and can therefore reveal anything about any of the characters, but that technique of showing the reader how Vin feels about her life through the way she describes things? No. Any passage about Vin would be written in the voice of the narrator.

That, of course, is not a change I would recommend for this book, as I believe third person limited is the right choice of point of view in its case, but let’s look at an example written in third person omniscient that shows off a strong narrative voice. Like this passage from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, in which a robotic monk has begun believing wild things because of a hardware failure:

“The problem with the valley was this. The Monk currently believed that the valley and everything in the valley and around it, including the Monk itself and the Monk’s horse, was a uniform shade of pale pink. This made for a certain difficulty in distinguishing any one thing from any other thing, and therefore made doing anything or going anywhere impossible, or at least difficult and dangerous. Hence the immobility of the Monk and the boredom of the horse, which had had to put up with a lot of silly things in its time but was secretly of the opinion that this was one of the silliest.

There’s some filtering again: “The Monk currently believed”, the horse “was secretly of the opinion”. This allows the reader to set apart the thoughts of the characters from those of the narrator, and, as you might notice, there is that third set of thoughts present. The Monk is seeing everything in pink and worrying about the danger of continuing. The horse is bored and thinks this very silly. And the narrator? The narrator looks down on it all and invites the reader to laugh at the situation! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Douglas Adams often uses the omniscient narrator to comedic effect. We probably wouldn’t be laughing if we were deep inside the Monk’s head during this passage. An outside view is required for the type of poking fun that occurs all throughout the novel. We need a narrator who stays lighthearted and describes the characters and the world around them through that lens of comedy.

But would we see much of that narrator if we removed all instances of “telling” from this passage and the book as a whole? If we reduced the narrator to simply “showing” us the Monk and the horse motionless in the valley? If we inserted another character just so someone can ask the Monk what it’s doing and therefore provide a vehicle for “showing” how broken the Monk’s hardware is and in what ways? No. In fact, if we removed all instances of “telling”, we would end up with a novel written in the objective form of third person omniscient, which is a valid point of view, but it’s not the one this book should be written in. The beauty comes from the use of the subjective narrator, and the narrator’s thoughts and opinions and personality are revealed precisely through the telling.

The Power of Telling

Not all telling is bad, especially when done with skill. Where third person limited can gain strength by reflecting the thoughts of the main character in narration, third person omniscient can gain strength by showcasing the voice of the narrator.

Let’s look at another example from Dirk Gently, which goes on about the horse:

So what of this horse, then, that actually held opinions, and was skeptical about things? Unusual behavior for a horse, wasn’t it? An unusual horse perhaps? No. Although it was certainly a handsome and well-built example of its species, it was none the less a perfectly ordinary horse, such as convergent evolution has produced in many of the places that life is to be found. They have always understood a great deal more than they let on. It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.

This, many people would call an egregious example of telling. “Don’t tell us that the horse is an ordinary horse rather than a type of horse specific to this fantastical world where electric Monks and time travel are real,” they would say. “Show the reader it’s an ordinary horse. Describe it in an ordinary way or show an example of ordinary behavior or stick the fact of it being ordinary in some dialog somewhere as long as it’s not obviously an info dump. Or, you know, just let the reader decide for themselves whether the horse is ordinary or fantastical.”

But if we did that, we would lose the joke. And what would this book become if it was bogged down by having to find ways to “show” about the horse, as well as any other thing that enters the story and might either be fantastical or not? What if the electric Monk had to be introduced differently, with a whole scene in which the reader is shown it doing what it’s meant to be doing, just to avoid telling the reader what these electric Monks usually do, followed by a whole scene of the Monk breaking down so the reader can see why it’s in its current state, followed by a whole scene in which it gets sent off on its horse so we can see why it’s currently in this valley? Expand, expand, expand to pave the way for what is meant to be just one small part of the greater novel. The electric Monk is a side character!

Look at the way it is actually introduced, in one brief paragraph that “tells” the reader everything they need to understand what it is:

The Electric Monk was a labor-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.

Is that not an entertaining read? Do you really want to skip it? I don’t, and that’s the beauty of skillful telling.

One Last Example

All of our examples so far have shown one particular omniscient narrator, one who uses humor. Is that the only way to do it? Certainly not. Let’s look at this example from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

He sighed noisily, and realized finally that he was on Trantor at last; on the planet which was the center of all the Galaxy and the kernel of the human race. He saw none of its weaknesses. He saw no ships of food landing. He was not aware of a jugular vein delicately connecting the forty billion of Trantor with the rest of the Galaxy.

Here the narrator tells us what the character isn’t seeing, and it’s incredibly important because what this character doesn’t see relates to the plot the entire novel revolves around. The empire of which Trantor is the capital is fated to crumble, and it’s because of weaknesses like the fact that Trantor grows none of its own food. It relies on other planets to provide what it needs for survival.

A third person limited novel might call this backstory, and a zealous show-don’t-teller might call for cutting it. They probably think this chapter should be focused on the “he” mentioned in that first sentence and what he’s doing and thinking. But this character is only going to be here for a few chapters. His story doesn’t matter to the narrative except for the one small part he plays in the decline of the empire and the start of a new civilization whose growth is the entire point. Instead of rotating through the perspectives of several characters as time passes, people die, and important events happen in different places and different planets, the voice of the narrator gives one cohesive narrative for the reader to follow.

And is this a boring bit of telling? I’d say not. Just think back to that image of a “jugular vein delicately connecting”. Is it not vivid and compelling? Telling doesn’t have to be straightforward and plain when it’s not being used for comedic effect. In this case, it’s being used to evoke a sense of vulnerability, without saying “Trantor was vulnerable”. And that, if you remember from way back in the beginning of this post, is exactly the sort of effect “show, don’t tell” is meant to achieve.

Weird how that works out, isn’t it? It’s almost as if blind obedience to a particular “rule”, without truly understanding it, can actually worsen writing. Don’t cut all instances of “telling” from your omniscient novel. Just make sure the “telling” is done skillfully and in its proper proportion. Evoke feelings, paint an image in the reader’s mind, and do it through “telling” in the voice of the narrator if it makes sense to do so. Best of luck out there.

7 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell”… in Third Person Omniscient?

      1. It combines aspects omniscient in first person (bulk) and third (some), making it hard for me to pin down. When you get to it, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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    1. Yes, that’s definitely true, and a large part of the reason I’ve had to go a bit out of my way to study it! I hope posts like these will be helpful for other writers who want to use it

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