If a writing fairy popped out of an old typewriter and granted me the ability to fix one craft problem in all the unpublished manuscripts across the realm I would probably terrify it by how quickly I’d shout, “PERSPECTIVES! For the love of Melville fix the broken perspectives!!”
You probably know there are three main perspectives to choose from in a novel: first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient.
(We’ll pretend second person doesn’t exist, as it probably shouldn’t. Unless you’re Ocean Vuong).
Here’s the thing: If you’ve chosen one of the third person perspectives, you may not realize that you’re going about it all wrong.
That’s because people often confuse an omniscient perspective with the very common and extremely wicked gremlin of writing craft: awkward head jumping.
In this post I’m going to show you how to spot the difference between third person omniscient, third person limited, and head jumping, and give you tips on writing with a cohesive perspective instead of completely disorienting the reader.
First, let’s start with some definitions.
What is third person omniscient?
A third person omniscient perspective is often compared to a god’s-eye view because the narrative voice is able to show anything it wants the reader to see. An omniscient voice knows what’s happening in all places and can divine what every single character is thinking.
There are no limits to what can be shown by an omniscient narrator. We can zoom around to various locales and we can dip into characters’ heads as needed.
But while an omniscient perspective can see all thoughts, it is typically a consistent, unified voice, almost as if there’s an unnamed character (or sometimes even a named one) who is narrating the action and guiding the reader through the scene.
What is third person limited?
As the name implies, third person limited is more, well, limited. It’s typically tied to one character at a time. Even though it’s written in third person, there’s an anchoring character and we only see the events through their perspective.
This means that we only know what the anchoring character is thinking and only see what the anchoring character is seeing. Any other character’s thoughts have to be inferred through actions, gestures, or dialogue.
There can be multiple third person limited perspectives in a novel, but typically these are wholly contained within a chapter or section before the perspective shifts in a new chapter or section.
What is head jumping in a novel?
Here’s where the problems start. Sometimes people try to create an omniscient perspective through an assemblage of third person limited perspectives.
We see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking, then we see what this character is thinking. The reader is bopped around the scene willy-nilly as we bounce from character to character.
Often writers will even shift the perspective within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. There isn’t a unified single voice, but rather more like a cacaphony of voices.
Third person pop quiz
Okay class, it’s time to sharpen those #2 pencils. I’m going to write a scene using each of the above perspectives. See if you can spot which one is which.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn on a bright Monday morning. The Manhattan skyline sparkles in the distance. Two hawks swoop around a radio antenna perched atop an old brick high school.
He hits “publish” on his latest blog post and sits back and says to no one in particular, “No typos this time! No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee. “Nailed it,” he whsipers.
In a small town in California, Nathan’s mother Diane sits on a patio chair near a pair of green hummingbirds flitting around a feeder. She hears a notification from her cell phone and begins reading Nathan’s latest post.
“Oops!” she shouts to the hummingbirds. “Two typos this time.”
Diane texts Nathan, “I think there are two typos in this one, check the subject line and first paragraph.”
Nathan lounges on his couch. He reads Diane’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn on a bright Monday morning. The Manhattan skyline sparkles in the distance and he watches two hawks swoop around a radio antenna perched atop an old brick high school.
He hits “publish” on his latest blog post and believes this time he’s finally published one without a typo. “No typos this time!” he says. “No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee. Its richness is a fine reward for another perfect blog post in the bank. “Nailed it,” he whispers.
Nathan lounges on the couch and reflects on how good he’s gotten at spotting typos. His cell phone flickers and he opens a text message. His mom has spotted two typos.
He cringes and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
Nathan sits at his apartment in Brooklyn looking at the Manhattan skyline while Diane sits on a patio in rural California. Her son sees two hawks just as his mother sees two hummingbirds.
Nathan hits “publish” on his latest blog post and believes this time he’s finally published one without a typo. “No typos this time!” Diane’s son says. “No siree.”
He takes a sip of coffee and thinks it’s delicious. “Nailed it,” he whispers.
Nathan’s mother hears a notification on her cell phone and begins reading her son’s latest post and wonders if there’s a typo in this one. There is, oops! Diane texts him, “I think there are two typos in this one, check the subject line and first paragraph.”
Diane’s son cringes when he reads his mother’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again. “Just…how,” he says.
The answers, of course, are:
- Entry A: Third person omniscient
- Entry B: Third person limited
- Entry C: Head jumping
You hopefully already knew that. But what’s more useful is to think about why Entry C reads so awkwardly so you can avoid the head jumping trap in more subtle ways.
Why head jumping is bad
In order to understand what makes head jumping so bad, we need to first talk for a second about what perspective in a novel is in the first place.
Perspective is the frame an author uses to situate a reader’s consciousness within a novel.
This means that in third person limited narratives, the reader settles in by seeing the events filtered through the perspective of a single character framing the events for us. In third person omniscient narratives, the reader sees everything through an omniscient narrator’s “eyes” as the voice guides us through a scene.
This frame is crucial because it helps us contextualize everything that’s being described. We imagine where we are in a scene and whose head we’re in. When the reader refers to someone with a pronoun, it’s far easier for us to understand who the writer is referring to.
Head jumping means that the writer forces the reader to constantly re-evaluate their “place” within a scene. We settle into one head and when we are jarred out of that head we have to figure out where we are again and how to contextualize the perspective and relationships.
Even though my scene above only has two characters with a very straightforward relationship, I’m guessing at some point in Entry C you were disoriented and were like, “Wait.. who?”
That’s because I was jerking you between Diane’s and Nathan’s perspectives, even in the same sentence: “Her son sees two hawks just as his mother sees two hummingbirds.”
- “Her son” = Diane’s perspective.
- “His mother” = Nathan’s perspective.
If this were an omniscient perspective, they would probably be largely referred to as “Diane” and “Nathan” and their relationship would be separately noted, as in Entry A. Even in an action involving Nathan in A, she’s still “Diane” rather than “his mother.” For instance: “Nathan lounges on his couch. He reads Diane’s text message and resolves to never make New Years Resolutions ever again.”
Bet you didn’t even notice that she’s “Diane” in that sentence, but it’s clearer, right? That’s because the omniscient voice thinks of Diane as “Diane,” so that’s how she’s referred to, even if it’s technically true she’s “his mother.”
If this were a third person limited narrative, the characters would be referred to from the anchoring character’s perspective as in Entry B.
Head jumping splits the difference and it’s confusing because the reader has to constantly reevaluate their place in a scene.
Now, a big caveat and note of caution here: Old novels head jump a ton. Crack open a fantasy novel written before 1990 and it’s probably a disorienting mishmash of a perspective. And you might well love those novels! But the current vogue is very tight, clear, crisp storytelling. Readers now expect it.
Tips for avoiding head jumping
If you’re writing third person limited, avoiding head jumping is relatively simple and straightforward: just be vigilant about only showing one character’s thoughts and always refer to other characters from the anchoring character’s perspective.
If you’re writing omniscient, head jumping can be a bit trickier and the edges between a seamless perspective and head jumping are a tad blurry.
Here are some tips:
- Cohesive, cohesive, cohesive. The most important thing to get right is that the voice should be consistent and cohesive. It might even help to brainstorm the “character” who is omnisciently narrating, even if they’re never named. Think about this narrator’s relationship with the characters and tell the story through their eyes, even if they have the ability to read everyone’s thoughts.
- Refer to characters as consistently as possible. If you’re constantly referring to characters in different ways, it’s likely a sign that you’re head jumping because you’re probably re-framing characters from another character’s POV. Like “Diane’s son” instead of just “Nathan.” Don’t worry about repeating character names and pronouns!
- It helps to “reset” the scene before you delve into a new character’s thoughts. If you look closely at Entry A, I actually delve into both Nathan’s and Diane’s thoughts/perspective. But rather than sticking to a strictly linear second-by-second timeline I start with objective scene-setting in Nathan’s apartment, then delve a bit into Nathan’s head. Then I “reset” the scene by moving to Diane’s physical location. Before I get back to Nathan’s thoughts I “reset” again by showing Nathan on the couch. If you re-establish the physical setting with the character whose head you’re about to jump into it feels more seamless. And don’t be beholden to a strictly orderly “tick tock” of time unfolding.
- Be judicious about whose head you jump into and why. Just because you can jump into everyone’s head with an omniscient perspective doesn’t mean that you have to or that you necessarily should. Typically a third person omniscient voice is a bit more objective, meaning we see more facts and observations rather than thoughts, and third person limited is a bit more subjective, meaning we see more thoughts. (Compare Entry A to Entry B here). If you’re going to dive into a head in third person omniscient perspective there should be a clear story objective you’re trying to accomplish rather than just trying to account for everyone in the room.
- Remember: the third person voice is telling a story. Above all, the third person omniscient voice is a storyteller who guides the reader through a scene. Think of an omniscient voice as someone who grabs the reader’s hand and gently guides through around a scene, helping them understand and contextualize what they’re seeing and providing judicious exposition as needed.
- If it works it works. There are no hard and fast rules here. Some successful authors head jump. But if you know the above principles you can be more judicious about how and why you do it.
I seriously can’t emphasize enough how crucial this skill is to your success as a writer. If you feel like you need individualized help getting it right, reach out to me for editing or book a consultation!
Do you have any tips for avoiding head jumping? Any novels you think handle this especially well? Take to the comments!
Now if I can just find a fairy in an old typewriter…
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Art: Hércules lucha con la hidra de Lerna by Francisco de Zurbarán
Ken Hughes says
Another solid analysis.
I think one key difference between omniscient and “head jumping” is that omniscient makes it clear early on that the whole point is to be larger than one perspective, and it always keeps the reader aware of that. (It’s an unnatural view anyway, so a modern writer should only use if they’re certain they’ll embrace it.) Head hopping looks like laziness, never intention.
Vickie Weaver says
I have seen you, years ago, at conferences, and always learned something. Now, reading your posts, I find I can still learn. Thank you. Vickie Weaver
Great explanation! And I totally agree about 2nd person POV. I tried to read a book written that way by an otherwise good writer, but I couldn’t finish. It was just too annoying. I don’t understand why someone would write in 2nd person unless it’s about trying to see if they can do something different. I think it’s weird.
Carol Newman Cronin says
First of all, I’m not your mother but I still spotted a TYPO! 🙂 (whsipers)
Second and much more importantly, thanks for writing this just when I was thinking about head-jumping. I recently finished Harry’s Trees by Jon Cohen, a great example of how this usually quite annoying trick *can* work, even in a modern book—as long as it’s completely intentional, and not just the result of editing laziness. (I definitely recommend the book, and it might even have enough fantasy in it for you.)
With my own books, I tend to stick to alternating limited 3rd, because it’s just plain easier to keep track of whose brain I’m inhabiting.
(Any typos? 🙂
I’m trying to write my story from omniscient and inside the mc’s head, but seeing only what mc’s body cam could see, when the main character is in the scene. When I’m revealing things happening that he’s not aware of, I want create a new chapter and to switch to observing, only, like watching a movie, revealing only what a reader can learn from watching or listening to dialogue. (no echo-y voice telling anyone’s thoughts, haha.)
Is this a thing? I have no training in writing; high school was abysmal in that respect. I only know what I can pick up online. So please tell me it’s okay to write that way, and what do we call that?
Nathan Bransford says
That sounds complicated! The body cam chapters would be wholly objective third person limited, meaning since presumably the body cam isn’t sentient, you’re only getting objective “facts” and aren’t delving into people’s thoughts from a limited POV. But *someone* is transcribing what the body cam is capturing. So whose voice is that?
And I guess my question is… do you really need to tell it this way? One of the reasons novels are so effective is that we can dive into people’s heads in a way that’s not possible in other media. So I’m struggling to imagine something that’s gained by this constraint that exceeds what you lose by limiting the narrative voice to this degree.
Don’t get me wrong, anything is possible and can be made to work, but I’d do a gut check on whether this is really necessary or if you’re setting up needless hurdles for yourself.
Maybe I said that wrong. I mean, we can know his thoughts and can learn a lot from his speech and memories, but in the scenes where mc is present, we can see only what he can see and know only what he can know. We cannot see the curtain shift as he walks away from the house, for instance, because he cannot see it.
But in the other scenes where he is not present, we can see and know things he cannot see or know–such as someone was watching him from behind that curtain–but we cannot know anyone else’s thoughts in the whole book, except what they divulge through facial expression or dialogue, etc.
The work is actually almost a creative non-fiction, except that he is an obscure guy whom I cannot research, but did live and die and I want to tell his story and to assume I know his thoughts. Okay. Yes, complicated. I have written quite a bit of it, and keep thinking I’m going to get into some trouble, eventually, but so far the rules I’ve made for it are working… 😀
Alana K. Asby says
Katharine, it sounds like you were switching between third-person subjective limited (in the “body cam” chapters) and third person objective omniscient (in the other chapters.)
So in the MC chapters, it’s intensely personal. We almost become the MC. We know his thoughts and feelings and perspectives. That’s “subjective.”
We are told what those thoughts and feelings are by a third-person narrative voice. That’s “third-person.”
We only see and think what he does. That’s “limited.”
Then in the other chapters, we can see everything happening. That’s “omniscient.”
It’s still told by a third-person narrative voice. That’s “third-person.”
But we don’t get inside anyone’s heads, we aren’t privy to their unexpressed thoughts and feelings. That’s “objective.”
I think it’s doable as long as you are consistent, and as long as you develop different narrative voices for the different chapters. Really convince us that the switch is providing us with a great reader experience.
Did you finish the story in this vein? If so, how did it work out? I hope you’ve gained more confidence as an autodidact. We self-propelled learners aren’t uneducated. We just learn primarily outside the classroom.
PETER SACKS says
Thank you for your insights on POV.
I have three pov characters and a few secondary characters essential to moving the plot forward. Occasionally the secondary characters interact together without the POV characters in the scene. I’ve received feedback that the secondary characters take readers’ focus and energy off the main characters. How much character building is necessary to give the secondary characters their heads (in a way necessary for the plot), while assuring readers that the minor characters remain secondary to the main characters? In other words, some characters are necessary for the plot but secondary to the heart of the novel, if that makes sense.
Nathan Bransford says
If you’re writing third person limited the narrative voice shouldn’t be dipping into the other characters’ heads. And even in third person omniscient it’s rare that the narrative voice would dip into secondary characters’ heads. Instead, let the reader infer what the other characters are thinking through good physical description (especially gestures and actions), and through dialogue. Just don’t head jump.
For instance, think about how vivid Hermione and Ron are in the “Harry Potter” novels and how well you think you know what they were thinking in various scenes, and yet Rowling accomplishes that by never actually dipping into their heads to show their thoughts.
Danielle de Valera says
Worse case of head jumping I’ve ever seen is Book 1 of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Whether he continues in that vein I don’t know, I haven’t read any others.
Which just goes to show that if you have a really great plot you can get away with just about anything.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Indeed Herbert hops through the heads of half a dozen characters on one page of a dinner scene, for example. But it worked for me as a reader. Not something I would attempt as a writer though.
Diane Bransford says
I must admit I laughed out loud with the scenario of this post because it is completely true! I also must admit I thought I found a typo but after reading the line 3 times I decided Nathan’s wording was correct. I’m in awe with each post especially if the material is complicated as with this one! Great job as usual, Nathan! Love, Nathan’s mom
I’m also relatively untrained in creative writing, and I was amazed when a reviewer pointed out to me how often I do the head-jumping thing. I think we do this (or at least my tapeworm and I do this) because we are so ‘into’ our scenes and playing that God-role, and sometimes we just want to share all the interesting stuff we know is going on. But you’re absolutely correct – this is very disorienting to anyone less in the know. What I do now is just write the scene however I see it, then go back and note all the head-jumps. From there, I decide which perspective is most useful and rework it from that view. Sometimes, I really want the reader to see two sides, and in that case, I split the scene with each half from one perspective. I think this is working for me, and as I’ve become more keyed into this, I’m getting better at limiting the head-jumps in the first attempt. Very appreciative of whoever pointed this out to me in the first place, and also to Nathan for such a clear explanation of this complex topic.
Ekta Garg says
It made me smile when you said to ignore second person. Normally I agree with you, but _The Reluctant Fundamentalist_ by Mohsin Hamid was amazing. Given the subject matter and the narrator addressing the reader directly…it made me fidget at the end in the way I knew was meant to happen.
If a writer’s brilliant that way, I wouldn’t mind second person. Otherwise, no.
M.F. Justice says
I’m one-third of the way into book number three of a 300,000-word trilogy, written in third-person omniscient. Now I’m fretting like a cat with its tail on fire, scared as hell to go back and reread every last little word, knowing, sure as @%$!, my last two years of work is one big brain-jumping, head-banging catastrophe.
Good grief. Somebody pass me the bottle.
Nathan Bransford says
It’s okay! Nothing is lost. It’s much, much easier to re-frame a chapter from a cohesive POV than it is to write it from scratch. You’ll get into the swing of it and be done in no time.
Georgia Martin says
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I’m working on a story that I thought was third person limited and is told as a long flashback. A beta-reader said some parts of the story felt omniscient and should be told as omniscient. What are your thoughts?
Nathan Bransford says
If it works it works, and it’s okay to weave in different points of view. But whatever you do, I’d make sure the perspective breaks are self-contained and that you put a great deal of care into easing the reader into the new perspective so it feels as seamless a transition as possible.
Great advice. I immediately changed my subtle mistakes in a 3rd person omniscient chapter. “Her mother, their daughter” – it goes so unnoticed!!