A lot of confusion exists among new writers regarding omniscient POV (called “omni-POV” hereafter). If you research the topic on the Internet, you’ll find a lot of agreement as to what it is, but you’ll also find differences of opinion, mainly from those who don’t truly understand it. You’ll also discover why it’s generally NOT the preferred point of view (POV) to write in today.
We also have the issue of head-hopping that creeps into discussion of omni-POV. Some (mostly those who have no clue) will claim that head-hopping is omni-POV. Others will say head-hopping is fine as long as you do it smoothly. My intent is to bring clarity to these differing opinions.
To demonstrate the controversy, here’s an article by Randy Ingermanson, whose opinions I generally respect. Read the article then come back for my comments and thoughts.
As Randy points out, the overriding factor of writing good fiction is giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. He uses that to justify head-hopping in certain cases (even though he doesn’t do it himself). He further says that most readers don’t care whether the writer hops heads as long as the story works. Unfortunately that’s often true. Many readers simply are not that critical of the writing, as long as it isn’t really bad.
I can’t disagree with that, but here’s my issue with head-hopping: Seasoned writers who head-hop are aware that they’re doing it (I hope) and are doing it with the purpose of creating a good reader experience. Plus, they know how to do it without jarring the reader.
However, I find that new writers who do head-hopping fall into one or more categories:
(1) They don’t know or don’t understand what POV means in the first place. They will mix POVs together and likely commit other writing sins along the way.
(2) They understand POV (sort of) but don’t recognize that they’re head-hopping. It may just be unconscious POV slips.
NOTE: A POV slip means that the POV character is observing something he or she can’t see or hear (such as seeing the character’s hair out of place or eyes sparkling or hearing the whispered words across the room or knowing what someone else is thinking).
(3) They think they’re writing in omni-POV.
(4) They’re simply copying techniques they’ve seen other writers do without know whether these are good or bad techniques. And when they see “professional” writers do it, they figure it’s fine. (The truth is that some publishers today often don’t care if the writing is “proper” or not as long as it sells books.)
I’m not going to tell you that head-hopping is wrong. What I will say is that—in my opinion—it’s RARELY necessary for providing that Powerful Emotional Experience. Any competent writer should be able to write an equally powerful story without head-hopping. Writers have being doing so for centuries without the need to head-hop.
Now, that said, I’ve seen some scenes where carefully done head-hopping works to good effect and enhances the story. In a few cases, writing the scene without head-hopping would result in awkward writing or a confusing or less-powerful scene. (But I’ll give examples in the next installment.)
The alternative to head-hopping is to write the scene in omni-POV, and we’ll see the pros and cons of that approach along the way.
Before we go further, let’s define omni-POV, or as it’s more properly called third-person omniscient POV. We define “POV” as the perspective of the character through whose eyes the story is being told. This can be first person or third person, or less commonly, second person. The POV character can be a character in the story or an external narrator.
You’ll hear it said that in third person, the storyteller/narrator is not a character in the story. What that means is that the author is telling the story through the character rather than the character telling the story directly (as we have in first or second person). I find that point debatable because the character is still telling the story, just indirectly. I may discuss this argument in a future post.
Third-person POV has two basic forms: limited and omniscient. “Limited” means that the POV character knows only what he or she can observe or experience through the senses, and the story is related to the reader as such. In this regard, both first-person POV and second-person POV are also limited POVs. To be clear, in limited third person, we cannot know what the other characters are thinking or feeling unless they tell the POV character. Even if the POV character can read minds, we would still consider this a limited POV. When the writer of the scene DOES reveal what the other characters are thinking or feeling, that’s head-hopping because we’ve jumped out of the POV character’s head. More on this later.
“Omniscient,” on the other hand, means that the POV narrator does know what’s going on outside the perspective of the character. Third-person omniscient POV also means that we’re definitely not dealing with a character in the story but rather a narrator who is outside the story (but that narrator can still make himself or herself known to the reader). This narrator is privy to information unknown to a limited-third-person character. The narrator is telling from the perspective of someone who pretty much knows everything about the story, things that no one character in the story knows.
To add further confusion, there are two types of omniscient narrators: objective and subjective. “What?” you say. “There’s more than one form of omniscient POV?”
There sure is. It’s not often talked about because omni-POV is not used all that much today. I hope you’re beginning to understand why we tell you that omni-POV is so difficult to write properly. Some new writers think that omni-POV allows you to do pretty much anything you want. Well, it sort of does, but if you don’t understand fully what it can and can’t do, then your writing is likely going to be a mess.
Here’s a great article that I hope will help clear some of this up.
And here’s a follow-up article that elaborates on the differences between omni-POV and head-hopping. I suggest that you also read the comments after the article (especially comment 3 and the author’s response). These help illuminate the strong debates that ensue with when it comes to discussions about head-hopping. Pay attention to what the comments say about modern popular fiction versus literary fiction and older fiction.
Note the author’s statement at the end of the article (prior to the comments): “But head hopping does not evoke the God-like, all-knowing feel of an omniscient narrator, it reads like we’re simply jumping between the brains of ordinary characters.”
In the second part of this series, I’ll continue this discussion with some examples of omniscient POV and how head-hopping, done properly, can be useful in some scenes.
But to summarize so far: Most of the time head-hopping is simply bad writing by writers who don’t know any better because they don’t understand POV and who may have seen other writers do it and think it’s what they’re supposed to do. (I did that long sentence intentionally to emphasize the point.) A lot of bad writing happens when writers copy others’ bad habits. This is the primary reason that we say head-hopping is bad technique—because too many writers do it badly. There are rarely good reasons to head-hop. If there were, then nearly every good writer would be doing it.
The fact that most GOOD writers don’t should tell you something. No matter how the head-hooping proponents try to justify it, there is rarely a need for it, and it should be the exception, not the rule. If you can’t write without head-hopping, then maybe you’re not as a good a writer as you think you are.
If you truly believe that your story NEEDS head-hopping in order to work, then I challenge you to try writing the story or scene without it. Accomplish that, and I promise you’ll be a better writer for it because you’ll learn how to focus on your main characters rather than using the “divide and conquer” approach to show it through many perspectives. Figure out which POV would best serve the scene. Then write the scene in first person, where you can’t possibly head-hop. After that exercise, maybe then you’ll be convinced that head-hopping probably is not the way to go. Ever.