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February 1, 2011

What Makes Omniscient POV Different from Head-Hopping?

God's Eye View

Last time, we talked about how head-hopping is something to avoid, and not just because there’s a rule against it.  Any change in point-of-view (POV), whether using an “allowed” technique or not, risks weakening the connection between the reader and the story.

Head-hopping authors sometimes say they’re writing in omniscient POV to cover their tracks.  Um, no.

Thanks to author Janice Hardy, I now have an easy way to describe the difference between head-hopping and omniscient.  In a fantastic blog post last week, she described voice—that ethereal thing all writers strive for in their work—in a way I hadn’t heard before:

[V]oice is that sense there’s a person behind the words.

Yes.  We’ve often heard that voice can be enough to overcome many writing sins.  Why?  Because if we have a sense of someone sharing this story, we’re more likely to pay attention.

It’s the difference between a friend telling us about the movie they saw this past weekend and hearing a robot read the generic synopsis of the movie.  We’re more likely to listen to our friend’s version, aren’t we?

How POV Affects Voice

Now Janice was referring more to the overall story voice, but I think the same definition can help us understand POV.  Let’s take a look at the most common POV approaches.

  • First person:  The main character shares the story directly, so the story should be told in that character’s voice.
  • Close third person:  A character shares the story less directly, but the story should be told in that character’s voice.
  • Omniscient:  Like close third person, the third person pronouns are used, but for omniscient, the story is told in the author/non-character narrator/eye-of-God’s voice.

In other words, an omniscient POV story would be able to share different characters’ thoughts and feelings, but would not word them in the characters’ voices.  Head-hopping occurs when the narrative jumps from one character’s voice to another without a signal or break in-between.

Examples of POV and Voice

I typically write in close third person, so omniscient is not one of my strengths, but I’ll attempt it here to demonstrate my point.  A much better example exists here.  (Note that the name of the post is “Why head hopping is good” but then goes on to clarify they’re actually talking about omniscient. *sigh*  That doesn’t help the confusion.)

  • First person:  I didn’t know what to say.  How the heck was I supposed to react when my ex called out of the blue to tell me he’s dying?  His hacking cough after the announcement wasn’t a good sign either.
  • Close third person:  She didn’t know what to say.  How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying?  His hacking cough after the announcement wasn’t a good sign either.
  • Omniscient:  She didn’t know what to say.  The unexpected call from her ex with the news that he was dying left her uncertain how to react.  A cough interrupted his next sentence, and he prolonged it for effect.
  • Head-hopping:  She didn’t know what to say.  How the heck was she supposed to react when her ex called out of the blue to tell her he’s dying?  He coughed a couple times and then a couple more, just to stretch out the interruption and make her squirm.

Notice that the examples for first and close third person are very similar.  A common test to see if close third person is deep enough is to check if the sentences can be changed to first person with just a switch of pronouns.

Now look at that last example for head-hopping.  The second line places us firmly in her POV, and it’s clearly in her voice—deep third person.  Then the next line puts us in his head, as she wouldn’t know that he’d purposely coughed repeatedly to make her squirm.  A true omniscient POV wouldn’t use her voice for any of the lines.

This isn’t to say that close third person stories can use only one character’s POV.  In multiple close third person stories, one character’s voice can be used for one scene and another character’s voice can be used for a different scene, but a transition of some kind is needed between them.  As we discussed last time, chapter breaks, scene breaks, and line breaks can all be used to successfully switch POVs.

Each character’s voice should sound and feel different to the reader.  It’s this difference that makes head-hopping difficult to ignore and even the most well-done mid-scene POV transitions uncomfortable.  Mixing character voices in narrative or internal thoughts and feelings jar the reader out of the story.

Transitions between POVs act as a reset button for the reader, letting them know a change is coming.  Missing, unclear, or too frequent transitions keep the reader from getting into each character’s perspective.  This issue then prevents the reader from bonding to and caring about the characters or the story.

What do you think of my take on how omniscient POV and head-hopping are different?  Do you agree or disagree?  Does this concept of voice and POV help explain why head-hopping is jarring?

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What do you think?

39 Comments on "What Makes Omniscient POV Different from Head-Hopping?"

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Marc Vun Kannon

What do you think of my take on how omniscient POV and head-hopping are different? Perfectly clear.
Do you agree or disagree? Completely.
Does this concept of voice and POV help explain why head-hopping is jarring? Not really. I tend to shift POV with every character anyway, so I wouldn’t notice. I only noticed it here because you pointed it out, and you left the two sentences in the same paragraph. If the sentence
“He coughed a couple times and then a couple more…” had been moved into another paragraph I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

Juliette Wade

This is a good post, Jami! I would remark one thing, though. It’s quite common for there to be a distinct voice for an omniscient narrator. That voice can be the grandfather telling a story, or the storyteller at the campfire, or it can be a voice internal to a created world, like an epic storyteller telling one of the legends of his people. The key of course being that the voice of the omniscient narrator is never the same voice as one of the characters. Just as Janice says, voice is the sense of person behind the narrative, and it’s always good to have a clear sense of who that person is. It’s so nice to see people trying to disambiguate the whole “head-hopping” discussion!

Murphy

Hi Jami!

You nailed it when you said in comments: I hope this post helps writers understand that if a story is using the voices of the characters for introspection, then it’s close third person and not omniscient. And if it’s close third person, we need transitions between POVs to avoid head-hopping.

Exactly! That’s where the confusion comes in. I tend to stick to close – and by close – I mean hugging distance to third person. I think this is so I can delve into the male mind and plant stuff I’d like to think they’re thinking about. 🙂

Great insight!
Murphy

Regina Linton

Well I think that the information is very useful and I am very appreciative for the post. Thanks Jami.

Laura Pauling

You did a good job. Omniscient is in the voice of the author, who tells us what characters are thinking or how they are reacting. Though, I still find that even in omniscient, the author tends to stay in the pov of one character per scene. It’s hard to do well. I know that.

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

Head hopping, omniscient, etc. makes my head spin sometimes!

I have some minor brain damage from epileptic seizures, and I nearly died 2 months ago from a very serious illness, so it’s no wonder I find some of this very confusing.
Any tips about good sources for more POV lessons?

I’m stubborn and I’m not going to quit writing my WIP just because I have to struggle with learning the rules!

BTW Jami this post has already boosted my understanding a great deal. Thank you very much!

Darcy Peal
Darcy Peal

Thanks Jami,

You are the most helpful person I have run across in quite a while on the Internet, and I spend about 80 hours per week on it!

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[…] trying to take this blogger’s advice about the difference between omniscience and head-hopping, and I think I understand the concept of […]

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[…] we have to understand what makes something sound voice-y.  In my post about head-hopping vs. omniscient point of view, I shared a great quote from Janice Hardy about […]

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[…] in Writing Stuff We’ve learned that head-hopping should be avoided if we want to maintain a strong connection between the reader and the characters, and we’ve learned that just calling something omniscient doesn’t solve the head-hopping problem. […]

Mark

Found this post via another blog post about head hopping.

Your head hopping example doesn’t bother me. I’m not a picky reader though. If the head hopping is so bad that I have to reread everything twice to make sense, sure it’s annoying. But most of the time I don’t have a problem knowing who’s doing what and so forth. It’s all in how you word it.

I think this is one of those “rules” that can be broken depending on style and reader. I lump it in with “show vs. telling,” “Said-isms,” and the like, none of which bother me as long as the story is enjoyable.

The only ones I’ve seen to make a fuss about it are writers and book reviewers. Every casual reader I’ve come in contact with doesn’t have a problem with all of these no-no’s as long as they aren’t over done.

Michael Segedy
Michael Segedy

I think it is a mistake to assume that omnicient narration precludes the use of third person multi-character point of view. Look at any Thomas Hardy novel (and many other classics) and you’ll see that you have an omniscinet voice as well as personalized voices that filter a particular characters experiences.

If the shift is jarring, that’s one thing. But when it is in the narrative and it works smoothly and it takes some anal editor to find it and make a big deal of it, then it’s not worth consideration. Also, writers have more important things to occupy their minds. Head-hopping is omnispresent in great works and best sellers. It’s a given. Unless you’re blind, you’ll see it. I’m rereading Absolute Power, a best seller, and it’s all over the place. Does it bother me? Not at all.

What I’m seeing in this discussion is the awful tendency to treat fiction like something a staid professor writes.

Kaykay Obi

Great post. I tend to show a scene through one character POV. If I want to switch to another character, then I end the chapter or use a scene breaker.

Head hopping definitely distracts a reader and makes one detached from the characters. But I think John Grisham does. it well.

Thanks for sharing.

Felipe Adan Lerma

was reviewing google search articles re head hopping vs 3rd person pov and came across your post, saw it was an older post, and so wasn’t going to comment, but then saw people commenting even up to a few months ago, shows the strength of your article

esp liked,

“With omni, we can still get internalizations in the character’s voice, but they’re usually going to be tagged, like “she thought” or “he wondered.” Those tags are what make it different from the deep 3rd person POV possible without omniscient.”

i’d only add that, if an extended session in a character’s head develops in the story at that point, vs just a line or two, an occasional ‘”she thought’ or ‘he wondered’” reminder works well too

i do think your point about staying in the story is crucial also

interesting post, thanks so much 🙂

Carol Baldwin

Great post; came across it when I searched for head-hopping vs. omniscient point of view. WIll like to this for my writing students.

vivienneraper
vivienneraper
For me, omniscient POV is narrative non-fiction, but about a fictional world. You’re acting as a journalist reporting on a fictional event – just like someone might write a rollicking account of the Kennedy assassination. You can’t attribute motives to characters because you don’t know and, if they existed, they might sue you for libel. My first attempts at omniscient POV read like police reports. I wanted to stay objective about the events, and not introduce my opinions. After all, I’m not a character. People found that boring so I’ve had to try a gonzo style – inserting my own voice into the narration – to create passion and engagement. With close third person, you’re in one person’s head, but maintaining a sense of detachment. You’re like their biographer, if they were interviewed under the influence of a truth drug, and had Google Glass set to record 100% of the time. You can’t write what everyone else in the room was thinking because you didn’t interview them… First person is an autobiographical account. And, yes, it includes lies and distortions of the truth, and writing quirks. I struggled with close third person. I kept pretending to interview my POV character… And she lied to me. I’d write something, read it back, and realise it didn’t ring true. In one case, I wrote ‘she was drunk’ and she argued with me. Eventually – in grand journalistic tradition – I quoted her in the text, in her voice, but without attributing it.… Read more »
vivienneraper
vivienneraper

Book recommendation taken 🙂 Thank you.

trackback

[…] possibly been making such a mistake and once I got home I went straight to the recommended website (http://jamigold.com/2011/02/what-makes-omniscient-pov-different-from-head-hopping/) to learn what this “head-hopping” was and how I could keep from doing it in the […]

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[…] years ago, I wrote about the different POV styles and head-hopping, but I’ve learned a lot since then, so I figured it was time to revisit the subject. […]

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[…] distinct voices of her characters and do without the botched, random dips into the omniscient POV. Here’s a helpful, quick article that explains more about head hopping and […]

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[…] Example comparing first person, limited [also called close], omniscient and head hopping: What Makes Omniscient POV Different from Head-Hopping? […]

Josephine-Anne Griffiths

Brilliant article! Thank you Jami 🙂
That’s the clearest this has ever been explained to me. Cheers 😀

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