Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Amélie is a lonely waitress and lets her imagination roam freely, finding contentment in simple pleasures like dipping her hand into grain sacks, cracking crème brûlée with a spoon, and skipping stones along the canal. She finds an old metal box that contains childhood memorabilia hidden by a boy who lived in her apartment decades earlier. Amélie resolves to track down the boy and promises herself that if it makes him happy, she will devote her life to bringing happiness to others. After asking several people in the building about the boy's identity, Amélie meets her neighbor, an artist, and he recalls the boy's name. With this information, she finds the man, who is moved to tears and resolves to reconcile with his estranged daughter and the grandson he has never met.
She embarks on her new mission and secretly executes a series of complex schemes that positively affect the lives of those around her, including but not limited to persuading her father to follow his dream of touring the world by stealing his beloved garden gnome and having a flight attendant friend mail pictures of it posing with landmarks from all over the world; helping her hypochondriac co-worker find romance with a patron of the café; and mentally exhausting her nasty greengrocer so he will no longer abuse his meek, good-natured assistant, and as a result the assistant takes charge makes it pleasant for all their customers
Meanwhile, she also grows closer to her artist neighbor, who recognizes Amelie's loneliness and pushes her to examine her attraction to a quirky young man, Nino, who collects the discarded photographs of strangers from passport photo booths. When Amélie bumps into Nino a second time, she realizes she is falling in love with him. He accidentally drops a photo album in the street, and she retrieves it. She plays a cat-and-mouse game with him around Paris before returning his album anonymously then arranges a meeting but panics and tries to deny her identity. But her neighbor's insight gives her the courage to pursue Nino, resulting in a romantic night together and the beginning of a relationship. The film ends as Amélie experiences a moment of happiness she has found for herself.
Carly: So I couldn’t remember if I’d ever actually seen this movie or if I just remember hearing about it a lot. And it was the latter. I hadn’t seen it and it was adorable and I loved it so much. It was playing with a lot of quintessentially French tropes, but it handled them very well. And Amélie was just a delight at every turn. Was I annoyed that she set her friend up with an obsessive stalker? Yes. But at least she used the milk steamer to cover the loud noises of their sexy times. It’s a happy movie with complex characters and cute moments. I also love that with the romance, they barely even speak to each other. Usually that would irritate me, but somehow this movie makes me love it.
Jeni: I love this movie so so much. It has such a whimsical, feel-good coziness to it. It’s not magical realism, but it almost feels like it is? I just don’t know how you can watch this movie and not feel happy from it. I think what I really like is that it doesn’t feel moralistic. Like, it’s not trying to say anything about life necessarily. There’s no message here about how viewers should or shouldn’t live. It’s just a good story, told well, with characters in situations that really resonate and leave the viewer feeling something. It sounds so simple, and yet anyone listening to this podcast knows how hard that actually is. I can see why people have stayed so obsessed with this over the years. So, what’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?
Carly: So this movie has an omniscient narrator and we haven’t discussed that yet. That may be surprising, but omniscient narrators have fallen out of vogue a little bit. And that’s because they are hard to do well and because it can (if not done well) cause distance between the reader and the characters. Sometimes that distance is a good thing, but other times it makes the book feel less engaging. But this movie, does omniscient narration really well, and it seems like the perfect opportunity to get into this perspective. What this movie does so well in the narration, is it gives the narrator a bit of a personality. He has judgments and opinions, and while they aren’t always overt you can see them in what he chooses to share with the audience, the way he presents the information, and especially the timing of when he shares the information. Omniscient narrators work best for a modern audience when you can feel who the narrator is, even if they are never named or explained. You want to give them a distinct voice and this movie does that so well. It feels like a narrator that is watching the events, telling you this story, and having opinions on what is happening. They have a personality, even if they are a non-existent third party. The narrator takes up space in this story, and by taking up space he adds to it. He comes in and gives us details about the characters by starting with what they don’t like before telling us what they do like. This is such an interesting choice that shows you so much of who he is even though he’s talking about other people. He pops in to give us pertinent information or tidbits that the characters don’t know or don’t want to admit. And he is a little sassy the whole time, which is just great. I’m a sucker for a snarky omniscient narrator.
Jeni: Okay, so before we get into all the nitty gritty of omniscient, I just want to do a quick POV overview. First person POV uses the pronouns I, me, and my, and the reader feels like they are experiencing the story as the narrator. This POV is used a lot, especially in YA but really in all age categories. Third person uses he, she, and they, and and sometimes even neopronouns like ze and zir. Third person is also super common, still the most common POV. Then second uses you and your, and this one is probably the least common because it’s really limiting and hard to write well. First and second person POV are almost always limited, meaning the reader can only see inside the thoughts and emotions of one character--the narrator--at any given time. Third person, though, can be limited or omniscient. Most books with multiple main characters opt for limited multiple POV narration. But then there’s omniscient, where the narrator can know all and see all at all times. In general, it’s less popular than it once was, but it’s still used in a lot of books. What isn’t talked about as much is that there can still be a lot of variety even within omniscient narrators. For example, the classic idea of omniscient is like Little Women. Or a more modern example is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. But in the Series of Unfortunate Events books (one of my favorite examples of omniscient narration) the narrator knows what everyone is thinking and feeling, and yet it’s technically first person. The narrator isn’t exactly reliable and so offers a lot of their own opinions in the narrative.
Carly: The biggest advantage of an omniscient narrator is that you aren’t limited in a lot of ways. I mean, that’s kind of obvious when the other big option in 3rd person is literally called a limited POV. But still, it bears repeating. The biggest thing is that you aren't limited to one perspective or even one setting. It lets you see into the heads of multiple characters. We aren’t stuck in this movie with Amélie’s POV. Now, a lot of movies aren’t limited to one POV. As a medium they can jump around much more easily because they have visual cues to ease that transition. But what this movie does is what you can do in a book, and it uses an omniscient narrator to ease that transition and to make the jumping around feel seamless and consistent. We learn what Amélie is thinking, we know what Nino is thinking, we know what is going on in the lives of all the characters outside of Amélie’s knowledge. We know that her neighbor watches her even though she doesn’t know it. Which leads me into the next best part of omniscient narration: readers can know things that the characters don’t. And this is huge. Often readers are limited to what the character knows and experiences. There are slight ways around this with a multi-POV story because one character may know something that another character doesn’t. But in omniscient narration, the reader can know something that no one else does. It’s that old adage of two people talking to each other on a train. It’s boring until the reader knows that there is a bomb under the table, even though neither character knows. It lets readers see the bigger picture and understand elements behind the scenes that characters don't know about. It can even show aspects of characters they may not see themselves. This is done really well with Amelie because the narrator at times seems to be chastising her for not understanding what she’s doing. He points to her denial and fear. She sits in her bed and tries to hide from the truth, but the narrator is judging her. That interplay of character refusing to see something or acknowledge something only for the narrator to basically turn to the reader and cast judgment on it, is wonderful. It really sets the tone for the piece.
Jeni: Right, so, lots of good reasons to use omniscient narrators. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why you might not want to use it. A lot of readers don’t like omniscient and/or think it feels old-fashioned. In some ways this makes a lot of sense, considering how many readers have now grown up with young adult books that often have a limited POV. Part of what readers really like about limited POVs is that they get the reader more engaged with the characters’ experience of the story, so in comparison, omniscient generally carries more narrative distance and so feels more emotionally detached. Essentially, it often comes across as too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” Those are the two top complaints I see from readers about omniscient. From the writer’s standpoint, omniscient can be hard to write. When your narrator knows everything, it often follows that the reader knows everything, and that can diminish tension if you’re not careful. Omniscient can often be confusing to readers too, so it’s really important to make sure it’s clear when the narrator is “switching characters” so to speak, as well as using those switches with intention. I also think it can be harder to determine how to frame some scenes when you have so many options. Sometimes knowing you have to use a certain character’s POV can actually help you figure out how the scene works, and having to decide that from a completely objective standpoint can be overwhelming. Just to be clear: I’m not trying to discourage anyone from using omniscient if your story calls for it! But knowing the pitfalls can help you avoid them and/or climb out if you find yourself in one.
Carly: Now that we know the advantages and pitfalls, let’s get into the differences between omniscient vs close third vs multiple POV. The difference between omniscient, limited, and multi-POV is at times subtle, but very important. So as we know, a limited perspective, or a close third person perspective is letting us experience a story from one character. We don’t get to see into anyone else’s head. Now a multi-POV story takes this and extends it a step by giving us multiple POVs that are limited. But the crucial thing here is that we are limited to one character’s perspective at a time. You can use scene breaks, chapter breaks, etc. to transition between the different perspectives. There is always a transition and then a solid bit of time spent with each character. The next step is then omniscient, where we can potentially hear into everyone’s heads. But here is where it gets tricky. I’m going to bring out the phrase that terrifies writers all over the world: head-hopping. A mistake I see writers making ALL the time is confusing head-hopping for an omniscient narrator. I’ve been asked things like “I love writing omniscient stories, but now everyone hates head-hopping, what do I do?!” And the answer is: they aren’t the same thing. Now here is where we really get into the true difference in all of these different POVs, and it is a fun answer: voice. That’s really it. The key to the difference between omniscient and head-hopping, the difference between omniscient and a close third, is voice. We talk about voice in another podcast episode– we should maybe do it again because it is such a rich topic. Anyway, voice is the key because it defines the connection to the story. It is the “person” that is telling the story to the reader. In a limited perspective it is the main character that is telling us the story, so we are hearing it through their voice. In a multi-POV it is successful when each different perspective has a distinct voice. Because in those instances we’re hearing the story from multiple people, but all with their own spin on things. Think of it like your two friends are in a fight and they both go to you separately to explain what happened. Now an omniscient perspective is telling us the story from the POV of the narrator, who is either the author, a non-character narrator, or an all-knowing being/god. So while they aren’t the main characters, they have a distinctive voice. Which is why I keep coming back to them having opinions. Now here is where we get into head-hopping. Head-hopping is when we’re in a limited close perspective of one character and then suddenly we’re in the limited close perspective of another character, and each time they are using their own voices. That sounded confusing, so let’s say we’re in Character A’s POV, they are telling us everything in their voice, but then suddenly we see into Character B’s head and we are hearing it in the voice of Character B. That is head-hopping. Whereas an omniscient narrator isn’t telling us the story in Character A or B’s voice, they are telling it from the narrator’s voice, who happens to be all knowing. I get why it is confusing, I’ve been talking for a while and I’m not even sure I conveyed it clearly. But voice!
Jeni: Yes! Strong voice is really key to making omniscient POV engaging for modern readers, and honestly, sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a good omniscient POV and a limited multiple POV. There are some other ways that you can make sure your omniscient POV will be appealing to readers. Use narrative distance with intent. Step back some from your main character in places where the reader doesn’t need to feel the character’s experience so intimately, and then when you really want the main character’s emotions to impact your reader, pull the narrative in closer. Do this with your word choice and deciding which characters the narrative is focusing on. For example, filtering words like saw, heard, felt, etc., can add to that narrative distance and make the writing feel more “telly.” But when used with intent, it can help create that distance intentionally. Another tool to consider is the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and body reactions. In any POV, these are some of your best tools for conveying a character’s experience. So, when you want the reader to feel the impact of what a character is going through, focus on that one character, give details about their interiority, and limit the use of filter words. But then in portions like transitions into and out of scenes, you can relax that some to focus more on the broader perspective an omniscient narrator can offer. As a general rule, you also want to limit how often you jump between characters, as this still feels like head hopping to readers and can be confusing or make it harder to stay engaged. A lot of omniscient narrators also do fun things like breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader. But be careful with these kinds of techniques because it’s a fine line between quirky and gimmicky. That only works with certain voices and certain stories. Remember, I said omniscient can be hard to write!
Carly: It totally is! So here is the big word that we say a lot, it’s time. Intention. Do it but do it with intention. Omniscient narration can be an amazing tool, but it can have so many easy pitfalls to fall into. I’m just going to repeat myself here, but the key really is voice. Make sure that whoever your omniscient narrator is, be it the author (you), a no-name character, a god, some sort of all-seeing entity, etc. that they have a distinct voice. They need a personality and voice that is not any of your characters. My favorites, like Jeni, are snarky and judgmental. And honestly, that’s because they are the easiest voices to pull off because they are easily distinct from the character. Also maybe because I’m snarky and judgmental. But when done well, and when you play with the distance like Jeni said, you’ll have a really successful story. Ask yourself, how is my story best served? And who could tell it the best? Someone that knows all? One of the characters? A few of the characters? And how will their voice alter the way in which it is told?