The difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping is something that stumps a lot of writers. But there are big differences between the two, in this article, I outline the basics.
To be clear, this article is about head hopping in omniscient POV. It is not about third limited POV (changing perspectives at chapter or section breaks). I recommend reading this article first if you aren’t familiar with third limited POV.
Omniscient POV is Only One Viewpoint
One of the biggest misconceptions about omniscient point of view is that it allows you to go into the viewpoint of any character in your story at any time. This is not true. Omniscient point of view only has one viewpoint – the viewpoint of the narrator. This narrator stays the same throughout the entire novel.
The narrator does not “go into” the viewpoints of the other characters, because it doesn’t have to. The narrator already knows everything about all of the characters. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s a very important distinction: The narrator does not go into different viewpoint, it simply chooses which information to convey about which characters at which moments.
Omniscient POV Only Has One Voice
Probably the most glaring error in omniscient point of view is when the voice changes when describing the thoughts and feelings of each different character. This is a blatant giveaway that the work is head hopping rather than omniscient. Since omniscient sticks to only one viewpoint – one narrator – it must always stick to one voice.
This means that the vocabulary, sentence structure, and word choices should not change when different characters are explored. Margo may speak like a stuffy old woman while Tom swears like a sailor, but when their emotions and thoughts are described in omniscient, the narrative should read with the exact same voice unless it is italicized as a direct thought.
There are some cases where it can be very clearly implied that the narrator is describing the thoughts of a character and some writers will choose to add a bit of the character’s own “flavor” to the writing in this circumstance without using italicized text. If done well and sparingly, this is okay. The important thing is that it be clear 100% of the time whether an opinion is the narrator’s or the character’s.
Omniscient POV is Strategic
The omniscient narrator is a storyteller who chooses when to reveal emotions and thoughts of characters as it is important and relevant. There is a strategy there. A strategy to build suspense, to engage the reader, and to focus the story. It does not delve into the thoughts and emotions of characters on a whim. There is a logical and important reason for switching the focus to different characters.
Head hopping, on the other hand, often has switches that are erratic, that serve no purpose, and are put there simply because it’s easier to switch perspectives all the time than it is to convey things without going into the heads of different characters. While omniscient POV feels strategic, head hopping often feels lazy, sloppy, or accidental.
*ETA: As a few commenters have pointed out, there are writers who use head hopping strategically (rather than sloppily) and are able to “hide” the head hopping by switching at key moments in a scene. If you are fully aware of what you are doing and have a strong grasp of POV and feel that this is necessary in your novel, you might be able to get away with this. But since it’s difficult to pull off well, a section break is generally clearer, and publishers tend to view it as a sign the writer is not knowledgeable about POVs, I personally would not advise taking the risk.
Omniscient POV is Omniscient
Omniscient means “all knowing.” It does not mean “jumping into the heads of different people.” The omniscient narrator knows everything – not just the thoughts and feelings of the character it’s currently delved into – it knows the thoughts and feelings of everyone, at all times, including before the story started and after the story ends. The omniscient narrator knows what’s happening halfway across the world. It knows the temperature outside, the exact time of day, and how many buttons are on the mailman’s jacket. It knows everything.
Well…most of the time. It is possible to have an omniscient narrator with limited knowledge, but this is typically only in cases of first-person omniscient narrators who are characters that gained the information through supernatural means or after the fact.
Knowing everything does not mean the omniscient narrator does or should reveal everything (again, it must be strategic). The narrator may choose to omit things to make the story more interesting or exciting. In many cases, omniscient narrators seem “God-like.” But head hopping does not evoke the God-like, all-knowing feel of the omniscient narrator, it reads like we’re simply jumping between the brains of ordinary characters. In other words, in head hopping there is no sense that there is one consistent voice “behind the camera” directing the novel and pulling the reader through the story.
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