Streams of consciousness vs. omniscience

Before you can write a story, you’ll need to decide what point(s) of view you’re going to use to tell it. You may need to do some freewriting to settle on what feels most comfortable for the story.

Character points of view slide on a continuum between streams of consciousness and omniscience. You can mix the viewpoints, but you’ll need to take care to ensure that the transitions aren’t so jarring to the reader that they lose track of the narrative. “Head-hopping” works best when it occurs across a break, such as a chapter break.

I conceptualize four major stops on the stream of consciousness to omniscience continuum: introspection, escapism, empathy, and authority.

Introspection

These stories are highly stylized. Their primary purpose is to capture a character’s voice and understand the world through the character’s perspective.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is a classic example. The characters appear to be speaking without any filter and jump from thought to thought. At times, those thoughts may seem to race with little logic to them; at other times, the characters are cogent as they describe what’s happening around them. This duality reflects the fact that none of us, as humans, are logical all the time.

My stories “Where There Are Cities, These Dissolve Too” and “Llena del alma mía” feature dream sequences as a stream-of-consciousness tool to articulate character growth.

Escapism

These are often termed “door” or “portal” stories. Their intent isn’t necessarily to teach you about an experience, though many do. Adventure fiction is perhaps the most paradigmatic version of escapist fiction, but so are romance stories and, in some cases, erotica.

Usually, escapist stories end in “happily ever after” (HEA) or “happily for now” (HFN). But, given that what someone wants to escape from varies between people, escapist stories don’t have an inherent structure, even if their plots have similar narrative beats and sequences of events.

A popular contemporary example of escapist fiction is the Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire.

Empathy

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” —Edith Wharton

Empathy stories are often termed “window” or “reflection” stories, depending on how they’re executed. An empathetic story told from a lived experience that the author and/or reader doesn’t share is a window story, and an empathetic story told from a lived experience that the author and/or reader share is a mirror story. Both show a deep understanding of interiority, or the way we talk about ourselves and the world in our heads.

In empathy stories, the reader and/or the writer—depending on the purpose of the narrative—temporarily lets go of their own interiority (subjectivity) to experience a story from someone else’s point of view.

The drive to represent more subjectivities in media production, including publishing and Hollywood, is what has been powering a lot of movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Those in the margins are now beginning to find places in the center of the page, a trend that I support, in the hopes that we’ll have a richer, ever-expanding diversity of stories.

Authority

A story told from the perspective of an authority simultaneously sees all perspectives. The term “third-person omniscient” attempts to capture this concept, but I find it limiting—I’m sure someone out there has written first-person or second-person omniscient stories.

Ultimately, I define “authority” not by the viewpoint character’s role in the story (i.e., if they’re an omniscient narrator), but by the author’s relationship with the text as they tell it.

For example, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is told through various characters, but the stories are all told with the author’s omniscient understanding of what Area X is, even if characters are only chipping away at the truth. There are very experimental authoritative narratives as well, such as the dadaist techniques used in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. And, of course, there are the more classic examples of third-person omniscient narratives, such as the œuvre of Charles Dickens.

Reading comprehension exercises

  1. Explain why streams of consciousness and omniscience are two opposing ends of the narrative point of view continuum.
  2. Name four categories of narrative points of view.
  3. Give an example of a story for each point of view.
  4. Freewrite 250 words of narrative for each point of view.