Third Person Omniscient and Head Hopping

Third person omniscient is a point of view that allows the author to provide a window into the thoughts and feelings of any character at any time, which can be an exceedingly powerful tool. Many writers, however, struggle to pull off these moves from one character’s head into another.

In third person limited, every time an author “hops” into another character’s head, it’s a violation of the point of view, so many third person limited writers with limited knowledge outside their area identify any such switch as a point of view violation when reading omniscient. And writers who have yet to master the art of writing in omniscient are often inclined to think the omniscient point of view gives them an unlimited license to “hop” however and whenever they want. Both are wrong. Head hopping can be a negative thing in both points of view, leading to reader confusion and a jumbled narrative, but the solution for omniscient isn’t to stick with a single character. The solution is to use the proper techniques.

The Importance of Narrative Voice

I spoke in my last post about the voice of the omniscient narrator, the presence of which is essential to novels written in the subjective form of third person omniscient. I also wrote in that post about the importance of telling in the voice of the narrator as opposed to revealing the characters’ thoughts in their voices in the narration. This is also one of the most essential keys for writers who want to avoid head hopping.

Here’s a quick refresher on that topic, quoted from Point of View: How to Use the Different POV Types, Avoid Head-Hopping, and Choose the Best Point of View for your Book: “If you’re writing from an omniscient point of view, the story is told in the voice of the narrator, who is neither a character nor the author. That voice should stay the same throughout the entire novel. The vocabulary and syntax should not change, even when you’re describing thoughts and feelings of different characters.”

And here, the same book affirms the connection to our current topic: “If you are just dipping into the minds of several characters without that strong voice [of the narrator], you aren’t using omniscient POV; you’re head-hopping”.

Harsh words here, but important ones for a writer to hear if they’ve been attempting to use a third person limited style of narration that simply skips from character to character without a care. That style of narration creates an expectation in the reader’s mind that they will be told only what that character knows, thinks, and feels. It creates an impression of being inside that character’s mind, and being abruptly flung into another is unexpected and jarring.

Think about it: the omniscient narrator is meant to be the storyteller, the one who knows all and sees all. If the narrator is not present on the page, the reader is likely to forget they’re telling the story at all. If you spend the entire page narrating in the voice of a character instead, a character who knows only what they know and sees only what they see, it seems that character is the one telling the story. When you jump to another character and begin again in the same way, then, you create an effect like a third person limited story that rotates perspectives, but without the scene or chapter break to give the reader proper warning. You can’t write omniscient as if it’s third person limited where you’re allowed to break the rules.

Techniques for Switching Focus

Alright, then, it should be clear by now that one essential way to avoid head-hopping in third person omniscient is to ensure that the narrator is always present and the story is being told in their voice. Even then, however, making the switch from one character to another can be jarring for the reader if not handled correctly. Changing who and what the narrator is focused on must be done skillfully.

Here’s one recommendation from Point of View: “Instead of taking us from deep inside one character’s mind to another’s in a big leap, make the shift more gradual and less jarring by narrating character thoughts only from a distance—reporting them instead of showing them.”

This advice gets at the idea of narrative distance. A story can be told from very close to a character or very far away. At the closest, the reader feels as though they’re inside the mind of a character in the most intimate way. At the farthest, the reader may feel as though they’re looking down on the character from high above. There are also points in between, and a narrator can move closer in or farther out depending on what techniques are used.

The technique of reporting character thoughts instead of showing them creates narrative distance. The reader feels more separated from the character, which makes it easier to transition away from that character. Or, as in this example, reporting on the thoughts of a second character instead of showing them can make it easier to transition to their thoughts.

Ponyets felt himself botching it. His usual sales talk was smooth, facile and plausible; but this limped like a shot-up space wagon. But it was the content, not the form, that interested the Grand Master.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This paragraph starts us in the head of one character, with a bit of telling (“felt himself botching it”). The next sentence reflects his thoughts, but using the voice of the narrator. Ponyets, being a space-faring trader, might believably use a phrase such as “limped like a shot-up space wagon”, and because he knows he’s botching his sales pitch, this may be exactly what he’s thinking. Still, the narrator is telling us in the style the reader has grown accustomed to reading in. This makes it easy to continue using the voice of the narrator in the next sentence, as the reader is directly told how another character is responding to this. It isn’t revealed to the reader exactly what the Grand Master is thinking, but it is revealed that he is interested in the content of the pitch, even if the form is lacking. Ponyets has no way of knowing this. The shift has been accomplished.

Imagine if the passage had been written from deep in Ponyet’s perspective instead, ending with an attempt to transition within the same paragraph.

He was botching it. His heart pounded as the councilors stared at him. His thoughts skittered like frightened rats as he considered Gorov, still held hostage, his ship, unreachable. His usual sales talk was smooth and practiced, but this device he’d flung together out of desperation, and the worry that it would fall to pieces during the first attempt at a demonstration prevented him from focusing. Galaxy! This pitch was limping like a shot-up space wagon. But the Grand Master was fascinated by the idea that this fantastical device might be capable of transmuting unsightly iron into precious, beautiful gold.

Is this shift to the Grand Master not unexpected? We go from hearing one of Ponyet’s own thoughts, clearly in his voice as it uses an exclamation commonly used in his culture, right into talking about the Grand Master and reflecting his opinions about iron being “unsightly” and gold being “precious” and “beautiful”. Staying in the voice of the narrator was definitely to the advantage of the original passage.

But there are other techniques that can be used as well. Consider this one from the same book: “After you reveal one character’s thoughts or feelings, pan out to show us an external action or a line of dialogue. Then show us an action or a response of the next character before going inside of his head.”

This also is a way of creating narrative distance. We go from being inside a character’s head to hearing what they say or seeing something they are doing. This moves us at least from their head to their body, and following it up by showing the reaction of a character nearby moves us to their body before moving into their head.

Let’s look at this example in which two characters are having a conversation:

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” said Jules, who had never understood those lyrics, in particular how a single wind could carry two people apart. “I know this sounds picky, but wouldn’t the wind carry them together?” she asked. “It’s one breeze. It just blows one way, not two.”

“Huh. Let me think about it.” He thought briefly. “You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. But still, it’s very melancholy.” He was somber, watching her, seeing if the melancholy mood could make her respond to him again.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Our second character doesn’t know that Jules had never understood the lyrics being discussed. Jules doesn’t know he’s wondering if the melancholy mood might make her respond to him. We’re dipping into the heads of both in quick succession, but the dialogue helps make the transition and both times their thoughts are told rather than shown.

Transitions

I find it helps to think of transitioning from one character to another in the same way I think of transitioning from one idea to another. When you have two conflicting ideas, you might join them with “but” or “however” or you might go on a little longer by way of providing an explanation of how they relate to each other. When you’re describing a character, you don’t want to start with their face, jump down to their shoes, and then jump back to the shirt they’re wearing. Not unless the description is happening through the eyes of a character whose attention is called to the shoes and then to the shirt in a way that can be clearly understood. Otherwise, it makes more sense to follow a logical pattern, such as going from the top down, describing how each new detail relates to the one that came before, if only because it is below it.

Similarly, I think a transition is needed in omniscient to carry the reader along smoothly from one focus to the next, no matter how that is accomplished. Look at this example from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has a transition so smooth I didn’t realized I’d changed from having an insight into the thoughts of the prehistoric man-ape to the leopard pursuing him until I reached the next paragraph and went back wondering how the author had done it.

What he saw left him so paralyzed with fright that for long seconds he was unable to move. Only twenty feet below, two gleaming golden eyes were staring straight up at him; they held him so hypnotized with fear that he was scarcely aware of the lithe, streaked body behind them, flowing smoothly and silently from rock to rock. Never before had the leopard climbed so high. It had ignored the lower caves, though it must have been well aware of their inhabitants. Now it was after other game; it was following the spoor of blood, up the moon-washed face of the cliff. Seconds later, the night was made hideous by the shrieks of alarm from the man-apes in the cave above. The leopard gave a snarl of fury, as it realized that it had lost the element of surprise. But it did not check its advance, for it knew that it had nothing to fear.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Do you see the sentence where the author transitions from the man-ape’s paralyzing fear to a depiction of what is causing it? “…he was scarcely aware of the lithe, streaked body behind him”, the narrator tells us. He is aware, then, but surely not so aware as to be seeing the leopard with such detail as is being given to the readers. We go, then, from the man-ape’s small awareness to the narrator’s greater awareness of the same subject, and from there into the narrator revealing a fact that surely only the leopard itself can know: “Never before had [it] climbed so high”. From there, it’s an easy matter to transition into the leopard’s thoughts.

A writer can also reveal the thoughts of many characters in quick succession if it is in the context of the narrator explaining something about all of them, as in this example from How to be Eaten:

He does seem attentive, the women think as Will scans the circle, stopping to acknowledge each group member, tiny personal check-ins punctuated with encouraging smiles. His teeth are a tabula rasa of whiteness. When the women look at them, they each see something different. Bernice recalls the bone-white inlay of a bright blue dresser. Ashlee sees the glint of her own engagement ring. Gretel sees hard candy winking in sun. Raina sees her husband’s smile, all veneer.

How to be Eaten by Maria Adelmann

Here, the narrator opens by speaking about the women as a group before focusing in on their separate but related thoughts about a common subject. We don’t need to zoom out in this case because we’re already zoomed in on all of them at once. A neat trick!

This can also be accomplished simply by maintaining a firm grip on the narrative voice while a common subject is discussed:

The Commdor referred to his dwelling place as a house. The populace undoubtedly would call it a palace. To Mallow’s straightforward eyes, it looked uncommonly like a fortress.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Do you see the subtle transition from the Commdor to Mallow, with a stop in between to tell us how the populace “undoubtedly” sees the same structure? The narrator doesn’t zoom in on the mind of the populace here, not fully. The reflection about the populace is in the form of an educated guess, creating just a hint more distance before we zoom in again upon reaching Mallow.

Conclusion

In the end, I think the best way for writers to learn these techniques is to do exactly as I did. Read examples written in third person omniscient and take note of how the transitions are accomplished. There are so many more examples I could give that this post would stretch on forever, but truly, I believe you’re better off allowing your mind to become truly absorbed in a book that uses this form of narrative storytelling. If you’re anything like me, you’ll begin to develop a feel for it, which will grow stronger the more of it you read and the more you pay attention.

Go out and find your own examples! Apply the ones you need specific to the book you’re writing. Just remember the basic principles, consider the effect of your choices in the mind of the reader, and you’ll do fine.

2 thoughts on “Third Person Omniscient and Head Hopping

  1. Continuing to appreciate your study of the omniscient viewpoint and the great examples you include.
    There’s a passage in The Lord of the Rings where Tolkien describes the scene from the perspective of a fox that happens to be passing by, just dipping into that viewpoint for a moment before returning to the main narrative. We never see the fox again, it has no other role in the story, but it makes for beautiful writing, and the transition manages to be seamless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s another great example. I find the technique of doing that sort of thing seamlessly to be one of the most difficult to learn, so I’m very thankful that Tolkien and others showed us how it can be done!

      Like

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