In praise of the epic register

Third person omniscient gets a bad rap these days from the blogosphere, and it’s obvious to see the culprit. Those well meaning critique groups full of platitudes and half truths.  It gets even worse when we use the epic register- when third person omniscient is zoomed back, is taken from a distance, is full of tell and not much show.

Poppycock and balderdash, I say! The epic register has some great benefits- it can be sweeping and epic in short few words, and unlike other forms of novelling narratives, lends itself to poetic descriptions very nicely. It also has the great benefit of eleusion- what I mean by this, is that it works best when it’s obscuring instead of revealing.

Using the epic register gives you distance, and with that distance you can choose what to bring out, what to show. You can’t focus on all bits and pieces, and in doing this the stuff you leave out is bound to be more interesting than the stuff you leave in. It creates mysteries, and gives a work a sense of larger scope, of being an iceberg in the mist, full of eldritch mysteries trapped in the ice beneath the waves.

It creates questions in the mind of the reader, creates more abstractions. The less detailed in epic scope, the more it can work for you. Distance is your friend, and the epic scope allows you to chose what things you mention and what you leave out. It’s less cinematic, that is for certain, but what it looses in immersion it gains in scope. The trade off can be very well worth it, and, as added bonus- the epic register cannot be used to any effect in film. This narrative style can only be used in prose to great effect, in any other format (especially any visual format) it falls flat and becomes twee. It becomes, in essence, an voice over narrative for a video game.

2 thoughts on “In praise of the epic register

  1. I completely agree that the omniscient POV is unfairly maligned these days, even though omniscient narration is difficult to do well, probably because we are so rarely exposed to it outside 18th and 19th century literature.

    Though IMO omniscient narration does not just work for pieces with an epic scope. It also works great for satire and irony because it creates the necessary distance and allows the narrator to poke fun at something that the characters themselves probably won’t consider funny. Finally, omniscient narration can also be used for experimental purposes. I once wrote a story with a sort of investigative omniscient narrator who tries to piece together something that happened (the plot for all intents and purposes) via the reports of various people who witnessed it. And of course, the witness reports all contradict each other.

  2. Pingback: Point of view, the T-V distinction and the Ingeborg Bachmann prize | Cora Buhlert

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