On writing

Common writing mistakes 1: Omniscient first paragraph

The first in an occasional series on common writing mistakes by unpublished writers.

I’m no ‘expert’, but I do write, and I am a reader. (I am also unpublished.)

I know that we, as writers, say there is a lot of garbage out there in published book land, but that writing has been generally been polished and many of the story flaws removed. And yes, I am sure you can pick out five published books right now and show me truly bad writing, but I’m talking in general here. In general, published books aren’t bad.

There are some brilliant unpublished books out there too. I can point to three novels that I know personally that are better than many published books (and no, I don’t mean ours), and another dozen that are nearly there. But in general (again), you do find more writing problems in unpublished novels.

I read a lot of unpublished novels, and the same mistakes come up again and again.

One of these is the ‘omniscient narrator that segues into a protagonist point-of-view’ start.

It starts of something like this:

The man stood at the top of the hill. Below him the port town sparkled with the last rays of the setting sun—the fabled Port of Kings, gateway to the world of the others. Of course, the man didn’t believe it.

Jed sighed, fixed the pack tighter on his back and started the steep descent. If he was lucky he would reach the port before the gates closed.

Okay, it’s bad, but you get the gist. Jed was the man at the top of the hill. The rest of the chapter is solely from his point-of-view, and probably the whole book too.

It’s particularly common in prologues, although I notice some writers start each chapter with it.

Some writers switch between omniscient narrator and third- (or first, or second) person point-of-view and it works. So why is this so bad?

The problem here is that the omniscient point-of-view is very short, usually one or two paragraphs at most, and the point-of-view switch is totally unexpected.

It also makes for a weaker start to the story.

You don’t have long to hook the reader. The sooner you can get them into your protagonist’s head the more likely they are to stay with the story.

And it doesn’t even take much to change.

Jed crested the hill and stopped. The fabled Port of Kings below spread out below him. It sparkled in the last rays of the setting sun.

Gateway to the worlds of the Others, or so they said. Jed didn’t believe it. He sighed, and fixed the pack tighter on his back and started the steep descent. If he was lucky he would reach the port before the gates closed.

It has another advantage too. Even as a writer I almost added extra detail about how he felt (gateway, pah—he was here to buy a rare coin; the descent—he was tired and cold and hungry), because I, too, was already more inside Jed’s head.

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