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

        • APT says:

          It starts with ” Mr Leopoldo Bloom ate with relish ….” ,which is omniscient.
          Then in the same page one of the paragraph states ” They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than….”. This is head hopping into Bloom’s mind.

          • Ellen_Brock says:

            It sounds like what you are describing is a direct thought (since first person is used), which isn’t head hopping. I will look into the book in more depth if I have time, but either way Ulysses was written nearly a hundred years ago and expectations are nowhere near the same.

    • Wilson Ortiz says:

      Hey Ellen my name is Will. I came across on of your Videos on YouTube. I just wanted to say thanks for the tips of what to aviod when as a beginner. I wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two on how to be a better writer.

  1. Jason says:

    Hi Ellen,
    I’m having trouble understanding the difference is there a way that you could provide an example? Thanks!

  2. Jule says:

    With the perspective of a university student of literature, I have to say you are presenting “head hopping” in a false light. Many of the things you say about omniscient narrators are true, and you are also right about the danger of presenting different character’s thoughts in a sloppy way, however, it _is_ the case that an omniscient narrator can look into different characters’ minds as well as combine them into one bigger picture or comment on them etc. Of course, an omniscient narrator can plunge into a character’s head and present an internal view from time to time. You are right about your claim that omniscient narrators are strategic, but you are portraying it as if a novel was bad or sloppy if it didn’t have a clear-cut narrative situation. In fact, a lot of great pieces of world literature don’t have a clear-cut omniscient narrator or not even clear-cut narrative situations to begin with.
    What you dismiss as “head hopping” is actually the entire technique of changing focalization. Omniscient narrator, figural narrator and first-person narrator are the three basic concepts by Franz Stanzel, but there is a more basic concept by Gérard Genette. In his theory, there are two important questions: Who sees and who speaks? This is meant to denote the two concepts of narrator and point of view. The narrator is either intradiegetic or homodiegetic (in the story or outside of the story, which, sometimes, influences his knowledge and thus point of view), but he can tell the story from various points of views which is called focalization (the question is always: what does the narrator know or rather, what does he choose to convey? If the narrator presents the story from just one character’s point of view, he doesn’t know more than the character for example, or at least: he chooses not to present more). There is internal focalization (the story is told from one character’s point of view), external focalization (the story is told from an “outside” point of view – some newer theories have actually further enhanced this theory by speaking of narrator-focalization and thus taking into account the specific epistemological status of the narrator itself) and zero focalization (the views of various different characters can be presented and thus the view is not just limited to one specific character like it is the case with internal focalization). As you can see, Stanzel’s concepts are actually just special cases of Genette’s more basic concepts. A heterodiegetic narrator and zero focalization would be about the equivalent of Stanzel’s omniscient narrator. While a homodiegetic narrator with internal focalization could be a first person narrator, but it could also be a secondary character within the story telling the story about another character in that story (for example a relative of said character). You have to understand that an omniscient narrator is in fact just a heterodiegetic narrator who most of the time presents the story through narrator-focalization (his point of view, as you wrote at the beginning of your article) or external focalization, but from time to time, there is also zero focalization which means various different viewpoints from different characters are presented.
    Focalization can be used in many different stategic ways in story-telling. What you call “head hopping” is actually changing internal focalization and it is ESSENTIAL to many novels. One example would be Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, where in each chapter (or not even chapter, but also sometimes paragraph) the story is told from a different character’s point of view to present the story from different perspectives. It’s not that the story lacks an overarching narrator that binds all its pieces together. With choosing changing internal focalization Ian McEwan meant to explore the questions of truth, point of view, relationship between fiction and reality as well as create tension in his story telling (for that I recommend reading the book if you haven’t done so already). However, stories that make use of this technique can even be much more fragmental and thus portray a certain view of the world – see James Joyce’s Ulysses which was written in a time when old models of how we understood the world collapsed and our way of seeing the world as a unified whole was challenged. A novel that’s not unified by one single omniscient view and instead shattered into various different voices parallels this mindset.
    And what you say about changing voice when focussing on a character needs revising too. Of course, you have to keep the voice of the omniscient narrator consistent if you plan to make the narrator really visible (but not all narrators are in fact visible), but that does not mean that when the omniscient narrator chooses to focus on a specific character, he cannot chose to adopt the voice of the character to make it more authentic. So even though a story may have an omniscient narrator seen as a whole, this narrator can “transform” into a more figural narrator in certain places. Point of view and narrative situations are in no way as clear-cut as you would have people believe. And they don’t need to be. This highly contributes to the dynamics of storytelling. Adopting a character’s voice is even ESSENTIAL and one of the most common techniques used with changing internal focalization. There are various techniques to do this, for example free indirect speech or even free direct speech inserted into the narration. In those cases, the one who tells (see Genette) is still the narrator, but he or she adopts the voice of the character while presenting the story from that character’s point of view.

    You might want to think about these aspects once more and maybe integrate them into your article, as well as maybe look into some representative books that use the technique of changing focalization.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      I’m not exactly sure what you disagree about. It seems to me that much of what you refer to in your comment is actually third-person limited point of view rather than omniscient, though I could be confused about what you’re trying to explain.

      I don’t think you are truly disagreeing with my opinion, but rather I think you are confused about my meaning because you are using literary school terms rather than the terms used by the actual publishing industry.

      Adopting a character’s voice and changing perspectives at a break (chapter, section, or possibly paragraph in rare circumstances) is third limited, not omniscient POV.

      Analyzing literary novels and classics will not give you a good picture of the actual publishing environment. I work primarily with genre and mainstream writers (not literary fiction) and have worked with a number of publishing companies. You won’t see this complexity of POV outside literary fiction. In mainstream fiction (which is the vast majority of fiction), the standards are much more rigid and that is what this article is about.

      • Jule says:

        Yes, third person limited point of view (internal focalization). But a narration as a whole can switch between different narrative situations.
        And it’s not entirely third person limited point of view what I am talking about. Third person limited would actually be strictly limited to just one character. What I was talking about was changing focalization so the point of view switching between different characters (what you dismiss as head hopping while in fact, this is a common literary technique). I just think a reader might easily confuse head hopping with changing internal focalization and that way think it is wrong while it’s actually not.
        An omniscient narrator is in fact able to give insight into various different characters and can relate their perspectives to a bigger picture if he or she wants to. That does not, however mean that he cannot “splunge” into people’s heads. So that was my main issue.
        And yes, it’s a break, that’s why I said an omniscient narrator can “transform” into a third person limited narrator in certain passages from time to time, yet, within the bigger picture of a novel as a whole for example, he would still be considered an omniscient narrator.

        And yes, I understand where you are coming from. Actually, we don’t only read classics but also contemporary or modern fiction all of which is oviously getting published as well or at least was published not so long ago. 😉 (In fact, Ian McEwan’s Atonement which I listed as an example is a work of contemporary English fiction.) So I guess maybe we are just talking about two different spectrums here. Which is okay too. I just meant to point out that storytelling is more complex, and in my opinion, you could make that a bit more apparent in your articles and/or specify that you are specifically trying to provide help for people who want to publish “mainstream” fiction because to me, it feels a bit limiting. But maybe that’s also my fault because I am totally new to your blog and more or less stumbled across this article – so in that case, I’d have to excuse myself for not being aware of your actual field of work.

        • Ellen_Brock says:

          I’m sorry if you find the article confusing or misleading. I don’t think we actually disagree on any point.

          I was not implying that you do not read modern books. Sorry if it came across that way. I mentioned literary and classics as not representative of the bulk of the industry based on the two example books you gave, which were a classic and a work of literary fiction. As examples, they don’t apply to most writers.

  3. jen storer says:

    This is fascinating debate. Jule, I love what you have to say. And Ellen, I understand entirely where you’re coming from, too. Most people do not see unsolicited mss and therefore have no idea about how muddled aspiring authors can become when experimenting with voice, POV and narration. Ellen, I think your head-hopping rule is an attempt to contain a complex problem by applying a simple, one-size fits all solution. These rules are perhaps necessary for beginners and a helpful benchmark for tired editors sifting through ‘slush piles’. But in my experience, ‘simple’ rules such as this don’t apply in the larger world of lit theory, or, indeed, as our skills as a authors and storytellers develop. Good on you all for having this feisty, erudite discussion. Very enjoyable. It’s fun getting inside everyone’s heads!

  4. Adam says:

    Hi Ellen, I quite like the idea of being somewhat fluid with perspectives, but doing so in a purposeful way. How would you feel about, for example, starting a passage in omniscient as you set the scene, then smoothly transitioning to 3rd limited as the focus shifts to the character. Would you require a paragraph break or some other means of making the transition explicit, would it be ok to keep it subtle, or would it even be acceptable at all?

    I see it as being analogous to camera-work, in that you could start with an establishing shot – perhaps showing a birds-eye-view of a city – then swoop down to follow a character in 3rd person – or in a conversation you could cut between shots of the participants so you can see what they each see. Obviously you need to be more careful with perspectives in writing because the movements are less clear to the audience, but I’d think one could have more freedom with it than you seem to be suggesting.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      What you’re describing is an established POV style that can be used well if you know what you’re doing. Setting the scene broadly then narrowing in on one character is much different from switching willy-nilly between POVs. You can have more freedom if you know what you’re doing. Just make sure what you are doing is clear. Hope this helps!

  5. Anna says:

    Hi, Helen! I’ve read your article, and I think that aspiring artists would find it extremely helpful. However, as some of the previous readers commented, I also feel that calling the authors who use “head hopping” lazy and sloppy might only discourage some authors who could have used this methdo (which is really just a method with its own areas of use and limitations) quite sucessfully. Also, I don’t think it’s true that using severeal limited 3d person POV’s is sloppy and lazy, it’s actually hard work as you have to invent the inner world of several charcters throughout the story. However, this isn’t something that can’t be taught how to use, so successful use of “head hopping” doesn’t have to be adressed as something elitarian, that only few writers are capapble of showing. I am a writer, and for most of my concepts I require multiple limited 3d person POV’s, and it really sounds unfair when someone calls the instrument which you use elaborately and strategically “sloppy and lazy” and discourages authors from using it.
    Stephen King uses head hopping a lot, and I don’t think his fiction can be described as sloppy. Also, most of his methods are quite easy to study and grasp.

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Thanks for leaving a comment! I don’t mention anything about third-person limited being sloppy or lazy in this article. I’m only referring to head hopping which is not the same thing as third-person limited.

  6. J. H. Hayes says:

    Hi Ellen. Thanks for the article. Very informative. I’m having trouble figuring out if my novel is head-hopping, OmPOV, or just plain bad. I often switch (like sometimes after only one paragraph) to describing what a different character is doing and thinking, written in the narrator’s point-of-God view. I don’t switch mid-paragraph. The few times I do use a character’s voice, I use italics.

    One of my readers is telling me their having trouble knowing which character to pay attention to, so I’m trying to straighten things out before I continue on with my WIP.

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Doug Roberts says:

    I looked for your thoughts on this because I am currently reading The 40 rules of Love. Most of the narrator POV seems consistent, and Rumi centered, except for the Ella chapters, which I find jarring.

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