Writing the (Quiet) Omniscient Narrator

by Celeste Ng

(This post first appeared in Glimmer Train and is reposted with the author’s permission.)

Partway through writing my first novel, I had a terrifying realization: I needed an omniscient narrator.

My novel was about a family paralyzed by secrets, where every member was hiding something. These characters — for different reasons — had never been able to say what they most needed to. So I’d written in the close third person, moving from character to character: the point-of-view equivalent of sitting in a cozy corner with each and letting them spill their secrets.

 Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

What I ended up with was a very fractured narrative: five point-of-view characters, three timelines, innumerable flashbacks. Important information got buried in the barrage of confession. You didn’t know one of the main characters had died until the end of Chapter 3, and you didn’t know that her mother had also disappeared from the family, years before, until two-thirds through the book. You didn’t know why the daughter was telling you about a spider she once killed, or why the father kept thinking back to his school days. You had to piece the story together from a cacophony of voices talking at once. That can work in some novels, but it wasn’t working here. No one was telling the story; five people were telling five different stories.

I’d given each of the characters a voice, but the voice that was missing from the novel was mine: the author’s. This novel needed someone to tell the story purposefully, framing it for the reader, weaving these different stories — which took place over more than a decade — into one. In short, what this novel needed was (gulp) an omniscient narrator.

The idea made me incredibly uncomfortable. To me, omniscient narrator called to mind the Dickens model: a Big Booming Voice who bossed the characters around, a know-it-all who judged everything. Someone very unlike me. As a shy person, I’d always rather listen than talk, and I seldom feel comfortable making definitive pronouncements.

Then it occurred to me: the omniscient narrator’s role is a lot like my role as a writing teacher. In a workshop I have plenty of opinions, and occasionally I do make pronouncements — “This part isn’t working yet” — but my main job isn’t to dispense judgment. Instead, I try to do two things. I act as traffic cop, so that everyone has a chance to speak and respond to each other. And I provide context so that students can interpret what they hear: I remind them of things they may have forgotten (“What about that scene on p. 2? Does it help explain why this character steals the watch?”) and I provide outside information as needed (“Let’s look at some other stories and see how other authors handle epiphanies”). My job isn’t to boss students around and tell them what to think; it’s to provide a framework and crucial context so that they can make sense of things themselves.

When I thought about it this way, writing an omniscient narrator seemed much more doable. And as I began yet another draft of my novel — which to my relief, fell into place quickly, and turned out to be the last — I came to love the flexibility that an omniscient point of view can provide. When there are many voices, the narrator can order them just as a teacher moderates a discussion, letting one have a say, calling on another to respond, pointing out the connections between what they’ve said. When characters disagree, the narrator can give context so we know who’s telling the truth — or so we can see how much (or little) of the truth each is telling. When events from the past reverberate into the present, the narrator can guide us from one time to the other and show us how they link. And throughout, the narrator can remind us of things the characters have forgotten, or never knew, so we can understand what’s happening — and why.

There are certainly bossy omniscient narrators, just as there are bossy teachers, and they’re often the ones who make the strongest impressions: those bossy, god-like figures with strong opinions on everything. But omniscient narrators can be quiet, too, and like quieter teachers, they can be just as powerful: Helping you understand without telling you what to think. Putting characters and time periods and events in conversation with each other, instead of letting them talk past each other. Giving you the context and perspective you need so that you can interpret the story.

Celeste Ng is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Everything I Never Told You. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesOne StoryFive ChaptersGulf CoastThe Millions, and elsewhere, and has been awarded the Pushcart Prize.  She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan and teaches writing at GrubStreet in Boston. To learn more about her, visit celesteng.com or follow her on Twitter (@pronounced_ing). Photo credit: Kevin Day Photography.