What Makes Omniscient POV Different from Head-Hopping?

by Jami Gold on February 1, 2011

in Writing Stuff

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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37 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Marc Vun Kannon February 1, 2011 at 7:20 am

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.

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Jami Gold February 1, 2011 at 7:31 am

Hi Marc,

I’m glad you checked out the post. It might be the stronger the different voices are, the more jarring the change.

Then again, other people might not notice the difference. Just like some people don’t pay attention to accents, while others would think a conversation between someone with a Deep South “y’all” accent and someone with a prim British accent would sound jarring. 🙂

You choose to head-hop in your work and accept that as your style. I wrote this post more to address those who deny they do it. Plenty of writers head-hop and claim they’re writing in omniscient, but they’re not the same thing.

Thanks for your comment!

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Juliette Wade February 1, 2011 at 7:35 am

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!

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Jami Gold February 1, 2011 at 7:52 am

Hi Juliette,

Yes, there are different styles of omniscient, but this post was already getting long. 🙂

I lumped classical omniscient (narrator – like Lemmony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events) with contemporary omniscient (no narrator – just a glass window into everyone’s lives) because as you mention, the main point here—omniscient doesn’t use character voices—stays the same for both approaches. 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.

Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy February 1, 2011 at 1:58 pm

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

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Jami Gold February 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi Murphy,

Yeah, leave it to me to be more succinct in the comments than in the post. LOL! Oh well. 🙂

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Regina Linton February 2, 2011 at 10:13 am

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

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Jami Gold February 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Hi Regina,

Great, I’m glad it’s helpful to you!

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Laura Pauling February 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm

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.

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Jami Gold February 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Hi Laura,

Yes, I certainly can’t do omniscient well. I could see opening a scene that way and then going deeper (I’ll talk about that in the next post), but I could never do a whole book that way. Thanks for the comment!

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Darcy Peal May 29, 2011 at 10:13 pm

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!

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Jami Gold May 29, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Hi Darcy,

I understand. I’m currently doing an edit on my story for an out-of-POV issue I just learned about this past week from Janice Hardy’s blog. (I was guilty of using the word “to” while referring to non-POV characters, which implies motive: He released me to turn away – vs. – He released me and turned away.) So the learning never ends. 🙂

A book by Alicia Rasley, The Power of Point of View, is a good reference to the different levels of POV if you’re looking for an overview. If you’re just looking for more blog posts or articles, try Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Writer’s Knowledge Base, a searchable database of writing references.

Hope that helps! 🙂

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Darcy Peal May 29, 2011 at 10:55 pm

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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Jami Gold May 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Aww, you’re welcome. I’m happy to help. 🙂

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Mark November 17, 2012 at 12:43 am

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.

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Jami Gold November 17, 2012 at 9:32 am

Hi Mark,

Good point! Some readers are definitely more forgiving than others. Interestingly, this might also be driven by genre, as romance readers (for example) read a lot, and I’ve seen romance reader blogs (as you mentioned, online book reviewers) complain about head-hopping. So is it that those readers have read widely enough that they were exposed to some egregious head-hopping and are now sensitive to the issue? Or were those bloggers themselves naturally sensitive to it, even as “just a reader”?

I don’t know, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that all reader-only types would dismiss head-hopping issues. Again, the point isn’t whether or not they could point to the incident and name the problem (which I doubt most of them could do), but whether or not they’d be briefly pulled out of the story as they reoriented themselves (which I bet does happen). So if our goal is not to pull readers out of the story, we should strive to be very careful with our use or abuse of head-hopping, whether a reader knows the official terminology or not. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Michael Segedy May 28, 2013 at 6:22 pm

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.

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Jami Gold May 28, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Hi Michael,

I agree that omni can use multi-character POV. The issue is more one of voice, in that omni uses the author or narrator voice to explore those multiple POVs. We’re less likely to see deep 3rd person internalizations in the voice of the character. 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’m not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s work, so I can’t comment on how he handles POV. We’ll certainly find different usages among bestselling authors and varying genres.

I don’t disagree with you about wanting fiction to be free to explore different ways of expressing ideas. My goal–as a genre author–is to not kick the reader out of the story, and in my experience, head-hopping kicks readers out of the story. That’s the reason I’m against it–not anything to do with what literary professors say. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kaykay Obi August 10, 2013 at 3:15 am

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.

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Jami Gold August 10, 2013 at 10:30 am

Hi Kaykay,

I haven’t analyzed how John Grisham handles POV. Maybe I should. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Felipe Adan Lerma October 17, 2013 at 3:00 am

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 🙂

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Jami Gold October 17, 2013 at 8:14 am

Hi Felipe,

Yes, comments show up in my blog administration panel the same, no matter the age of the post, and sometimes the older posts get the best comments because people are able to bring together ideas from several related posts for their insights. So I see no reason to turn off comments for older posts. 🙂

You’re absolutely right that those thought tags aren’t exclusive to omniscient. It’s more that if we’re writing in deep 3rd POV, we try to eliminate those words because they’re distancing. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’d eliminate every single one–especially if we think one works well–but as a general goal, we try to get rid of all types of filter words: thought, wondered, saw, heard, etc.

In other words, just as we’d change “She saw a car veer onto the sidewalk” to “A car veered onto the sidewalk” in close 3rd person, we’d change “She wondered if it would hurt” to “Would it hurt?” in close 3rd person. So it’s not so much that not having those thought tags is a “rule” we have to follow all the time. More, it’s that in close 3rd person, we try to eliminate those distancing filter words (filtering the story through the character instead of being in them) of all types, thought or sensory.

I think you allude to a bigger issue in that longer passages of introspection can feel disconnected, like the internalization version of “talking heads” with no sense of the setting. While a thought tag could help ground the internalization at that point, I prefer keeping the two-paragraph guideline in mind. That guideline means that I’d mix in a bit of action after two or so paragraphs to re-ground the reader in the setting. But again, that’s a guideline and not a rule. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Carol Baldwin March 15, 2014 at 4:37 pm

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

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Jami Gold March 15, 2014 at 9:25 pm

Hi Carol,

Thanks for sharing! I hope it helps. 🙂

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vivienneraper November 6, 2014 at 2:31 am

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. It was pointed out that my narration kept changing voice. I’ve now given her a first-person POV. Then she can lie to her heart’s content…

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Jami Gold November 6, 2014 at 8:37 am

Hi Vivienne,

I’ve often found that POV within each category can be thought of as a spectrum. Omniscient can be an objective God’s eye, or it could be a subjective narrator, like the Lemony Snicket books. Close third could be Limited 3rd POV (only one character’s POV) or it could be deep into their voice. First person doesn’t have too much of a spectrum though. 🙂

The book that most helped me understand that spectrum aspect and all the possibilities was The Power of Point of View, by Alicia Rasley. But if first person works for you and the story, that’s good too. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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vivienneraper November 7, 2014 at 3:30 am

Book recommendation taken 🙂 Thank you.

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Jami Gold November 7, 2014 at 8:57 am

Hi Vivienne,

You’re welcome. 🙂 I hope you find it helpful!

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