Omniscient POV versus Head-Hopping

Omniscient

Today, I’m going a little techie for all the writers out there. This is another one of my “learn by failure” posts.

When we write, we strive for stories that will grip our readers. We want an emotional investment, and the best way to do that is to immerse our readers inside our character’s head, heart, and skin, the deeper the better. The reader sees, hears, smells, and experiences what the character does, up close and personal.

When I started writing, I was a point-of-view “head-hopper.” I wanted to share every character’s thoughts and feelings in every scene. My writer’s group rolled their eyes and eventually critiqued it out of me. I learned the hard way – by rewriting my entire book!

Head-hopping is a common glitch in early writing as authors learn the ropes. It’s often confused with a Third Person Omniscient Point of View. So, what’s the difference?

There are 3 types of point of view:

FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
In first person, the main character is narrating the story in his or her “voice” and will use I, me, we, and us. The reader experiences the story through this character’s senses, thoughts, and feelings. A few considerations:

  • The character doesn’t know anything about the people, places, or events that he or she hasn’t personally experienced.
  • Other characters’ thoughts and feelings have to be communicated verbally or interpreted through the POV character’s observations.
  • The POV character has to be in every scene.

SECOND PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
In second person, the story is told from the perspective of you. This POV is tough to master and is used most frequently in instructional writing.

THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
In third person, the narrator is not one of the characters. Third person uses he/she, they, them and is the most common POV in writing. There are 3 main types of Third Person POV:

Third Person Limited: This POV is limited to only one character and the narrator sits “inside” the character’s skin, sharing the story in the character’s distinctive “voice.”

Similar to first person, this means that the narrator only knows what that POV character knows, only has access to that character’s thoughts and feelings, and the character must be present in every scene.

Third Person Multiple: This POV is the same as Third person Limited, but the narrator is “inside” more than one character in the story. Switching POV from one character to another usually occurs at a chapter or scene break.

Third Person Omniscient: This point of view still uses the “he/she/they” perspective but now the narrator does not sit “inside” a character but hovers overhead. Instead of using the character’s voice, the narrator uses the author’s or storyteller’s voice (the “God” voice). The narrator is telling the story from the “outside,” can make comments about what’s occurring, knows things that the characters don’t, and can see the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters. Think of the narrator as having his/her own personality separate from the characters.

Because the narrator’s voice is “outside” the story, the greatest challenge of this point-of-view is eliciting an emotional investment in the characters. Unless a writer is highly skilled, the distance can result in a “telling” style of writing and fail to grip the reader.

So what is Head Hopping?:  It comes down to “voice.” Head-hopping acts like an omniscient POV in that the narrator has access to all the character’s thoughts and feelings in a scene.

But instead of sharing them in the outside narrator’s voice, in head-hopping, the story hops from one character’s distinctive inner “voice” to another. The result can be disorienting, jarring, or confusing.

Here are a few POV “Rules” that will prevent head-hopping:

  • Don’t switch points of view in the middle of a scene.
  • When writing a scene from Mary’s perspective, don’t include information that only John knows.
  • When writing a scene in John’s POV, don’t relate Mary’s thoughts or feelings. Mary can express her thoughts or feelings verbally or John can infer them from Mary’s behavior.

And, naturally, every rule has exceptions:

  • If for some reason a scene break just won’t work and you need to shift a POV, prep for it carefully so the reader isn’t confused or jarred by the switch. A love scene is an example where a well-prepared head-hop may be appropriate. The writer may want to describe both characters’ internal thoughts and feelings, but can’t stop in the middle of sex for a scene break!
  • As you might imagine, romance novels tend to have more head-hopping than other genres. This is partly due to the genre’s focus on the characters’ relationship and how both participants respond to it. Romance readers are more used to the style, though writers should still limit head-hopping to those scenes where it can’t be avoided.

Writing without head-hopping requires a writer to “show” everyone’s state of mind through one character’s perspective. It isn’t always easy, but your reader will appreciate the clarity and the deeper immersion in one point of view.

Hope this is helpful. Happy Writing!

161 thoughts on “Omniscient POV versus Head-Hopping

  1. Vashti Q says:

    Hello Diana! This is a great article. I’m glad you decided to go techie today. 😉 I’m saving it to my writing board on Pinterest so that I can check it from time to time. Thank you! 😀 xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is 2 years old, and as such am not expecting an answer unless you have notifications. However, this article seems to contradict itself.

    You state TP:Omniscient and I quote “knows things that the characters don’t, and can see the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters.”

    But then state avoiding head hopping tips are, and I quote “When writing a scene from Mary’s perspective, don’t include information that only John knows.
    When writing a scene in John’s POV, don’t relate Mary’s thoughts or feelings. Mary can express her thoughts or feelings verbally or John can infer them from Mary’s behavior.”

    You state TP Omniscient is an all knowing mind reader, but then state never to write another characters thoughts. Contradictory no?

    Expressing Mary’s feelings verbally or through Johns interpretation of her actions is TP:Limited. You are using Johns view to state what Mary is thinking – not the all knowing narrator to state what Mary is actually thinking

    So long as you use the narrators outside voice as you claim, why can you not state what Mary is actually thinking when writing from Johns POV?

    You claim TP:Omniscient is an outside narrator that knows all and can interpret all characters thoughts and a few paragraphs later state this is head hopping – but the two are different as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the careful read and comment. So, yes, omniscient is pretty wide open. As an omniscient narrator I would know Mary’s thoughts, John’s thoughts, things that neither of them know (like the monster waiting around the corner) or things that will happen in the future (“little did they know, but they had just eaten their last meal”).

      In 3rd person limited, Mary’s pov, she will know how she feels, what she thinks, and what she can observe. She can interpret John’s curt remarks and frowns as anger. And she can guess what he’s thinking based on their conversation or the fact that he’s holding a knife at her throat, but she doesn’t actually “know it” unless he tells her outright.

      The difference between omniscient and head hopping is another matter and related to voice. Omniscient will have an overall narrator’s voice (like the grandfather in Neverending Story who is telling the story to his grandson). The grandfather’s voice overlays the story, it’s told from the grandfather’s point of view.

      In head hopping, the voice flips from one character’s distinct voice to another character’s distinct voice and back again.

      Here’s my brief attempt at head-hopping between a ditzy blood and a serial killer.

      Mary’s heel caught on the carpet, and she nearly swan dived across the dessert buffet. That wasn’t the perfect ten she’d had in mind. Nah-uh. That perfect steamy ten was giving her bedroom eyes enough to make her mascara melt.

      The darkness roiling in John’s chest gathered into a hard knot as he watched the stupid woman flirt. The desire for death tingled in his fingers, and the urge would need to be sated before the night was out.

      Mary bobbed her eyebrows and popped a cherry in her mouth, lips pursed in her most luscious pout. She sucked it in and when she choked, Sheila May grabbed her around the ribs, squeezed her like a pimple and shot the cherry out of her mouth like a rocket.

      John glowered at the coarse spectacle, disgusted by the woman despite her initial appeal. She reminded him of his mother, insipid and uneducated, relying on a brainless sexuality to ring a man. He’d teach her about despair.

      Back to the commentary. See how the narration in the above example hops from inside one character’s personality and voice to another. This would drive a reader crazy after a while. I hope that helps explain the difference.
      Happy Writing!

      Like

  3. First… I love the photo. I got a kick out of the cross-eyed girl. That got the point across before I even started reading.
    Diana this is a great instructional post. Beautifully done and made better by having a personal touch. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m currently in the process of editing my debut novel ….. No surprise to find, not only have I committed the rookie error of head-hopping, but I’m also struggling with omniscient pov (where I’m finding myself straying into head hopping!)
    Can anyone suggest / provide an example online of a text that clearly shows the difference. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this a challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so hard to do well, that it’s rarely done, or should rarely be done. The best examples that I can think of where omniscient pov works are those that start with a storyteller looking back over his life and “narrating.” The storyteller is a separate voice in the story who has a bird’s eye view of the events – full of hindsight and foresight. He might say things like, “Little did he know how this would change his life when he went to war.” A character “living” the story won’t know this. Only an omniscient storyteller would.

      “The Neverending Story” is an example of this where the narrator/storyteller is the grandfather reading the story to his grandson. He can give insight into each characters’ emotions and thoughts because he is separate “voice” telling the story.

      I hope this is a little bit helpful. In omniscient, think of the “outside-the-story character” who is telling the story and stick to that “voice.” It may be obvious or subtle, but it is not any of the real character’s voices. You can see, I’m sure, how difficult the omniscient voice is and why it is wise to avoid it. Good luck with your novel. I hope this was helpful. Feel free to ask for clarification 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read quite a few articles on the subject as I had a hard time understanding it, but this article has, by far, made it clearer for me. Thanks a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. dunelight says:

    Head Hopping…what a great phrase!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Diana, thank you, this is very valuable information. 🙂 Have a great day further. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. schillingklaus says:

    Authorial omniscient narration is my one true way to go, and therefrom I will not be deterred by any amount of criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Another writer mentioned that she prefers omnicient as well, and I’ve read her work – she does it well. It’s a perfectly legimate pov, though takes quite a bit of skill. Kudos to you for finding what works for you and your stories 😀 Thanks for the visit and adding your comment!

      Like

  9. Thank you for this post, it’s really intereseting and useful. I’ll be re-reading again. I wrote my first book and I found myself in the same “noob” mistake, so now when I get back to when my friend was reading it telling me these same words I understand now why eheheh
    To the next post. Have a great day!
    lp

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s amazing how we just don’t see the problem as “noobs” while reading our own work. *Sigh* But that’s part of the process and the only way is upward and onward. Happy Writing, Luca. Thanks for the visit 🙂

      Like

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