The Difference Between Omniscient POV and Head Hopping

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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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47 thoughts on “The Difference Between Omniscient POV and Head Hopping

  1. Cathy says:

    Does this only pertain to a story written in third person POV? Seems obvious but I just wanted to make sure I fully understand. Thanks!

  2. nikkiharvey says:

    I love writing but missed a lot of schooling and English lessons. I’m currently trying to improve my writing, and find your blog a valuable resource. My preferred point of view to write in is omniscient third person. You say about putting italics when it is a direct thought. How would I do this in terms of sentence structure, punctuation etc?
    Until now, for direct thoughts I have used the same structure and punctuation as speech, with the differences being that I use ‘ instead of ” and write he thought rather than he said. I’m thinking that what I do isn’t the correct way, but as I rarely use direct thoughts, I have focused on other things.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Hi Nikki, I’m really glad my blog has helped you!

      With direct thoughts, you can write it as you would dialogue except the sentences are italicized instead of in quotes.

      So it would look like this:

      (italics) What a strange boy (end italics), Abby thought.

      There’s no need to use italics if you write it like this:

      Abby thought he was a strange boy.

      Italicized thoughts should always be in first person present tense with the same punctuation you would use for dialogue (just no quotation marks).

      I hope this helps!

  3. westfalen45 says:

    I just came across your site and just had to say, “Awesome.” And for an old fart like me who normally never uses the word that’s saying a lot. Your thoughts on Omniscient POV are helpful. I’m up to my third chapter of my first historical novel, which I always thought had to have multiple POVs. I’m now wondering if using the omniscient view makes that a non-issue. Can you comment on that, as well as your take on using this particular POV in the 21st century? I’ve done quite a lot of checking online and it seems to me that many people consider an omniscient narrator a bit dated, and maybe too quaint for today’s tastes.
    Thanks!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m really glad my site has helped you!

      Yes, omniscient would eliminate the need for multiple POVs.

      Some people consider omniscient outdated, but I disagree. There are lots of writers using omniscient and many bestsellers. When done well, readers tend to not notice a novel is omniscient, which contributes to the common belief that it’s not used anymore.

      It is less common than it used to be as it was once the predominant POV, but it’s still around and publishers don’t dislike it (despite what some people/websites might say).

      A strong POV is always more important than which POV you choose, so if omniscient suits you, go for it!

  4. matthew says:

    What if my omniscient narrator is schizophrenic?

    Would his/her voice not then, by way of their psyche, alter with each passing mood?

    As an aside: though I find tips on the ‘correct’ way to write a limiting ordeal, your manner of presenting information in a thoughtful, non-arrogant tone is sincerely appreciated.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Well, a schizophrenic omniscient narrator is not a situation I’ve ever seen before. But different moods would not change the voice entirely, it would still be identifiable as the voice of the narrator (rather than that of the characters).

      If you mean multiple personalities, then that would create a particularly unique situation that would have to be addressed accordingly.

      “Correct” POV is generally required by traditional publishers so I just tried to present the facts of publishers’ expectations. I’m glad you appreciated the article!

  5. Robert M. Anthony (@RobertMAnthony) says:

    First, I admire your command of the craft. It is easy to tell that you know what you are talking about. With that said, I am wondering about the following issues related to the above post:

    1. You define the omniscient POV very well, but I could not find a clear conceptualization of “head hopping” outside your critique of its misuses. Am I safe to assume from what was implied that head hopping refers to taking on a third-person POV while using the narrative voice of a specific character ?

    2. If the above it correct, is there a) an accepted way to use head hopping or is it just a “lazy and sloppy” attempt at omniscient, or b) is consistency across the manuscript the issue (i.e. using either is OK as long as it is JUST one)?

    3. Finally, if head hopping is OK to use (if consistent), is it best to use it for an entire Chapter/Scene (i.e. only be in one character’s head for an entire chapter), or can one head hop as the subject changes within the same chapter/scene (i.e. assume to narrative voice of the character who is acting/thinking?

    I hope my questions make sense and I really appreciate your time!

  6. Cristian says:

    What if, say the main character is narrating at a 1st person POV? But he also has an omnicient POV. Would that work or not? Say he is an omnicient person like Jesus or God or any other type of diety, but he is in the story.
    What if say the God is in his physical form and he is narrating a scene that he is not present?

  7. ReKu says:

    I want to ascertain something. Let’s say you have an Omniscient POV, so that the narrator knows everything what happens, had happened and is going to happen, and is aware of the thoughts and feelings of all characters. However, by means of strategy, as stated in the article, he reveals the thoughts of the characters when needed. This omniscient narrator does this with all characters but, let’s say, one or two individuals, which he decides to describe only through their actions, for example. And that’s because they know something the other characters are oblivious of, and this something shouldn’t be revealed at that point of the story. So my questions is – is that also part of the strategy of the Omniscient POV, or it’s a different type of POV, instead? Are there any literary examples of this?

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